Deir el-Medina, Egypt

Deir el-Medina - Valley of the Kings workers village on the west bank of the Nile, near Luxor

Deir el-Medina – Valley of the Kings workers village on the west bank of the Nile, near Luxor

Deir el-Medina (also known as Valley of the Artisans) is the remains of a village near the Valley of the Kings, where the workers lived – architects, craftsmen and laborers – who designed and built the tombs that would usher their pharaohs to the world beyond.

This was extremely important work; a proper tomb helped ensure the pharaoh’s passage to the afterlife, as important for the people he left behind, his subjects, as it was for him. Although pharaohs were understood to be mortal men (and a very few women), they were believed to be a channel for divine power. Their actions directly affected whether Egypt was blessed or cursed by the gods. If pharaohs successfully entered the afterlife, they became fully divine and continued to represent their people as the sun god Ra and/or the god of the dead, Osiris.

Tomb builders and craftsmen worked in the oven-like insides of mountains by the light of small oil lamps. They carved long corridors and rooms out of solid rock with copper chisels. Rock walls were covered in plaster to make a smooth surface for the tomb paintings. Paints were made mostly from minerals. Blues and greens signified status because they were more expensive to produce.

The Egyptian Royal Cubit was the measurement used by the architects and engineers. It was approximately 52 centimeters, based on the length of the forearm from the elbow to the end of the middle finger. The cubit was subdivided into 7 palms, which were further subdivided into 4 fingers.

Egyptian Royal Cubit rod from the Louvre in Paris

Egyptian Royal Cubit rod from the Louvre in Paris

We know a lot about the architect and foreman of Deir el-Medina during the reigns of Amenhotep II, Tutmose IV and Amenhotep II in the 14th century BCE. His name was Kha and his wife was Meryt. Their exquisite little funerary chapel in the village is beautifully painted with scenes of their everyday life as a kind of prayer for what they hoped to carry into the afterlife. Even better, in 1906 their tomb was discovered in the nearby hills, INTACT. It’s one of the very few Ancient Egyptian tombs discovered that was not robbed of its contents many centuries ago. Kha and Meryt were quite well to do, probably noble, and they packed beautifully crafted objects to serve them in eternity. The contents of the tomb are in the Egyptian Museum in Turin Italy.

small statue of Kha from his tomb, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

small statue of Kha from his tomb, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

Deir el-Medina makes a good contrast to the grandeur of the Valley of the Kings. Clear footprints of the homes and the very human scale of the place, as well as the scenes of everyday life in tomb paintings give a good sense of how average Egyptians lived 3,500 years ago. A number of jewel-like little tombs have been discovered and are open to visitors. Admission tickets generally allow entrance to 3 tombs, which ones will rotate. Extra admission may be required for some tombs and chapels.

wall painting from the tomb of Inerkhau, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Inerkhau, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Pashedu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Pashedu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Sennedjeu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Sennedjeu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

Temple of Hathor from the Ptolemaic period, more than 1,000 years after Kha and Meryt lived in Deir el-Medina

Temple of Hathor from the Ptolemaic period, more than 1,000 years after Kha and Meryt lived in Deir el-Medina

The path used by the workers to travel to work each day is still very usable and takes roughly an hour to walk.

Click here to see our tours to Egypt. Deir el-Medina can be added to fully private programs. Touring from Nile cruises may not include the site.

Valley of the Kings, Egypt

Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt

Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt

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.

See the Pyramids Along the Nile, sort of

the Giza Pyramids, Egypt

the Giza Pyramids, Egypt

They’re not exactly along the Nile; not to be nitpicky, but if you’re looking for them, you should know. The Giza pyramids, by far the most famous of some 120 pyramids discovered to date in Egypt, are about 5 miles from the Nile and about 15 miles from the center of Cairo. The pyramids are part of the Giza Necropolis, the burial grounds of 3 4th Dynasty pharaohs, among others.

CLICK TO SEE TOURS TO THE GIZA PYRAMIDS

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Foto Friday – Egypt

a worker at Abu Simbel

a worker at Abu Simbel

tower of Montaza Palace, Alexandria

tower of Montaza Palace, Alexandria

Mediterranean waterfront, Alexandria

Mediterranean waterfront, Alexandria

A Ya'lla Tours colleague took this picture years ago and it's still a company favorite. We call him Moses. Little boys paddling the mighty Nile in tiny homemade boats is a common site.

A Ya’lla Tours colleague took this picture years ago and it’s still a company favorite. We call him Moses. Little boys paddling the mighty Nile in tiny homemade boats is a common site.

Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo

Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo

Tel el-Amarna, lost city of Egypt

Aten Temple, Tel el-Amarna, Egypt

Aten Temple, Tel el-Amarna, Egypt

In the middle 14th-century BCE, the 18th-Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep IV broke with many centuries of tradition, when he proclaimed the sun disk Aten to be the god of gods. (This is sometimes referred to as the first instance of monotheism, but it’s more likely that lesser deities continued to be worshipped.) The pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaten to reflect his devotion and moved his capital from Thebes (modern Luxor) to a previously unsettled site 250 miles to the north.This social-cultural-political blip in the timeline of ancient Egypt is known as the Amarna period (named for a later regional tribe).

The city, named Akhetaten, was built and abandoned in little more than a decade.
After Akhenaten’s death around 1334 BCE, his son Tutankhamen moved the royal court back to Thebes and reinstated the traditional religion. Subsequent pharaohs did their best to destroy the memory of Akhenaten and his reforms by defacing royal tombs and scrubbing records of his reign. He was lost to history until the late 19th century, when archaeologists discovered the city at Tel el-Amarna.

The distinctive art of the Amarna period is a tantalizing window on the time but may raise more questions than it answers. In general, it’s more naturalistic than the formal conventions of earlier and later Egyptian art. However, portraits of the royal family, with elongated, pronounced features have caused a lot of speculation. Were they actually deformed or were their figures symbolically stylized? DNA testing on Akhenaten’s remains did not find evidence of any genetic disorder.

Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum

Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum

stele of the royal family touched by the rays of the Aten (Egyptian Museum in Berlin)

stele of the royal family touched by the rays of the Aten (Egyptian Museum in Berlin)

famous bust of Nefertiti, queen of Akhenaten (Egyptian Museum in Berlin)

famous bust of Nefertiti, queen of Akhenaten (Egyptian Museum in Berlin)

Tel el-Amarna is way off the standard tourist track (about 200 miles south of Cairo and 250 north of Luxor) and is really for those with a strong interest in Egyptology. Much of the city was carted off and recycled as building materials in other places, leaving foundations and some mud brick walls. Despite vandalization, the most vivid remains are royal and noble tombs in the cliffs at the north and south ends of the city. The site is quite spread out, about 6 miles from one end to the other, and not particularly well-marked. A licensed guide is recommended.