The last full day of our Nile cruise was spent in and around the city of Aswan, in the deep south of Egypt.
Our first visit was to the Aswan High Dam. This was an interesting contrast to all of the ancient monuments we’ve seen the last few days and just as impressive. The first dam was built at Aswan at the turn of the 20th century. Prior to that, for millennia, Egypt’s economy was at the mercy of the Nile’s annual flood. When there was too much rain up river, Egyptian crops were drowned; when there was too little rain, crops died of thirst. With the dams, the amount of water released into the Nile Valley and Nile Delta can be controlled. Continue reading
The capital of the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt (approximately 1550-1070 BCE) was Thebes (modern-day Luxor) in Upper Egypt, about 300 miles south of Cairo. Southern Egypt is called Upper Egypt because it’s upriver from northern (Lower) Egypt. The Nile is one of the rare rivers that flows northward, from central Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. The 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties ruled during the New Kingdom.
It was the golden age of ancient Egypt, with expanded territory and increased political stability, wealth and power. The pharaohs of the New Kingdom used the resources they might otherwise spend on warring to build massive temples, colossal statues and obelisks. They also began to hide their tombs rather than advertise them with pyramids.
A valley deep within the mountains on the west bank of the Nile across from Thebes was chosen as the burial grounds of New Kingdom pharaohs, their families and members of the nobility. In general, burial places were located on the west bank of the Nile, where the sun “died” each day and temples on the east bank, where the sun rose. To date, 62 tombs have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings, ranging in size from a single chamber to sprawling networks of passageways with over 100 chambers.
Ancient Egyptians believed they would live on after death in an idealized version of the life they had known. They were buried with all the furnishings and fixtures of their life because they would need them. (That is, if they made it through the rigorous tests of character that led from death to the afterlife, but that’s a subject for another post.) Tomb robbing was quite an industry in those days. In the New Kingdom period, even common people took their worldly goods to the grave but, of course, the pharaoh had the best goods of all and royal tombs were hunted with singular focus by smart and daring thieves. The remoteness of the Valley of Kings was part of its security system. As a further precaution, the tombs were cut deep into the mountains and then constructed in complicated layouts, with the valuables stashed in the deepest, most out-of-the-way crevice. Despite all that, very few tombs survived unmolested into the modern age and most were pillaged within a few years of being sealed.
The tomb of Tutankhamun is the most famous intact tomb discovered. King Tut’s tomb can be visited in the Valley of the Kings and the tomb treasures can be seen at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.
Not all tombs in the Valley of the Kings are open to visitors and those that are open rotate to protect them from the impact of the thousands of tourists that come through every day. Admission tickets include three tombs. The admission to King Tut’s tomb is not included in the general admission to the Valley of the Kings.
What you’ll find in the tombs are intricately painted corridors and rooms. Walls and ceilings are covered in scenes from the life of the pharaoh, happy experiences that he would like to carry with him into the afterlife, as well as prayers and spells to help ensure that he reached his destination. The way to the afterlife was treacherous and tomb paintings envisioned a successful passage, with the help of various gods.
Click here to see tours to Egypt that include a visit to the Valley of the Kings.
This little fellow is called Anubis. In the ancient religion of our mystery country, he was a sort of guide dog (jackal really, dog-adjacent) and protector of the dead. Death and the afterlife was of paramount concern in this religion, with heavy emphasis on the afterlife.
Death was seen as a series of tests and trials leading, if all went well, to a peaceful, eternal afterlife. The dead would be armed with prayers and spells to ease the passage. At the final hurdle, the dead would be judged on the life they lead by weighing their heart against the feather of justice. Anubis presided over this ultimate test. If the scales balanced, the soul of the dead was accepted into eternal paradise. If the heart was heavier than the feather, it was instantly devoured by a hideous beast known as, well, the Devourer, and that was that.
Can you name that country?
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Beautiful boxes inlaid with mother of pearl are a popular souvenir from our mystery country, and just one of countless items to be browsed in the streets of Khan el Khalili Bazaar. We recommend visiting with a guide and exploring beyond the touristy areas (where many products are made in China). A guide will help navigate the maze of small streets for a more authentic experience in this historical market and make sure you get what you pay for.
Can you name that country?
See below for answers.
About 25 miles south of Cairo, Dahshur is a necropolis of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom and site of some of the very first pyramids in Egypt. The so-called Bent Pyramid was the first try at a smooth-sided pyramid in the evolution from the Step Pyramid to the true pyramid form that we are familiar with. For reasons not entirely clear, construction of the Bent Pyramid began at a 52-degree angle of inclination but changed partway up to a more gradual 43-degree incline. Structural and foundation issues were most likely the reason for that. Whatever the reason, the Bent Pyramid preserves evidence of the development of architecture and engineering in ancient Egypt.
Despite the angle miscalculation, builders of the Bent Pyramid successfully encased the monument in polished limestone, a major step forward in pyramid construction and a standard element in later pyramids. More than four thousand years later, it is the only pyramid in Egypt with most of its outer limestone casing intact.
The Bent Pyramid was built for the pharaoh Sneferu, but it is doubtful he was buried there. He was reportedly not pleased with the imperfection and ordered another pyramid nearby. Now known as the Red Pyramid, it is the first known true pyramid.
Between the two pyramids, it’s more likely he was buried in the latter, but there’s no conclusive evidence either way. The chambers of both pyramids are empty, surely looted by grave robbers thousands of years ago. Sneferu was the first pharaoh of the 4th Dynasty and father of Khufu, for whom the Great Pyramid at Giza was built.