Hidden treasure awaits in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings

(Last Updated On: November 26, 2020)

At the height of Egypt’s power more than 3,000 years ago, the pharaohs built ornate burial chambers in a desolate valley across the Nile from Luxor. Today a few of their elaborately decorated tombs are open to visitors.

Interior of a tomb with walkway and decorated surfaces

What is the Valley of the Kings?

Ancient Egyptians believed that the physical body was essential for eternal life. Thus, preservation of the body was vital. And, once preserved, both the body and all other things required for daily life (or representations of them) needed to be securely stored for eternity.

For about 500 years, the desolate hills near the ancient capital of Thebes (modern Luxor) served as the (not always so safe) storage area for Egypt’s pharaohs and other elites.

Ancient Egyptians called this site “The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes.” We know it as the Valley of the Kings.

paved paths and walls in a valley below a cliff and mountains

The area was likely selected for reasons both practical and symbolic.

  • Although near the capital in Thebes, the dry valleys (wadis) between the hills were unsettled and access could be limited.
  • The area offered plenty of flat land between the river and the desert hills for building temples, palaces, and administrative centers.
  • The afterworld was located in the west where the sun set, making the site rich in symbolism and a king buried there that much closer to the afterlife.

The west side of the Nile here has many, many tombs besides those in the Valley of the Kings. They were created to preserve the remains of royal families, priests, and other elite members of society, as well as the workers who built them. A variety of other burials were also located here, many of them well after Egypt’s center of power moved north.

Who built the tombs?

The workers who built tombs for the pharaohs were as skilled as any craftsmen in Egypt.

Like a modern construction site, each tomb was built by a crew that included manual laborers, engineers, stonemasons, carpenters, artists, and a few supervisors. The work crews, in turn, were supported by those who produced necessary supplies and the teams that brought those supplies to the work site.


Tomb layout and decoration

Royal tombs were constructed in the Valley of the Kings during the New Kingdom Period, from about 1540 – 1075 BCE. The first royal tomb here is probably that of Thutmose I and the last is that of Ramses X or maybe Ramses XI. This includes most rulers of the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties.

While the very earliest tombs didn’t follow a specific plan, over time royal tombs came to share some basic features:

  • A descending corridor – while early tombs have stairs, later tombs have a simple downward sloping corridor
  • A deep shaft (or two), usually described as a well room that may have been used to trap rainwater or foil thieves – its purpose is not clear
  • At least one hall with pillars
  • A burial chamber

Although the number and placement of rooms varied, these features remained consistent.

Likewise, the decoration within the tombs changed very little over time, although there are variations in both style and substance. Early tombs had little decoration, but those that followed are often heavily decorated.

Religious texts in tomb art

Along with artwork that identified the ruler, the interiors of royal tombs were decorated with religious texts and art. These decorations seem to have had the dual purpose of documenting why this pharaoh should be rewarded in the afterlife and guiding him there.


After the last royal burial

The New Kingdom came to an end as Egypt’s economy, political power, and social order collapsed in 11th century BCE. As Egypt descended into chaos, Thebes lost its role as the political center of Egypt. However, it remained an important religious center controlled by priests for years as Egypt’s pharaohs ruled from the north.


Visiting the Valley of the Kings

The Valley of the Kings is actually two interconnected wadis (dry valleys) hidden in the rocky hills at the edge of the Western Desert. Most royal tombs, along with a variety of tombs for family members and other elites, are located in the East Valley. (Most tours only visit the East Valley.)

overview of valley of the kings with tourists

The West Valley has very few tombs, although two of those were for pharaohs. Only one is usually open.

Inside the tombs

To date, at least 64 separate “tombs” have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings. Of these, 26 seem to have been carved for kings. The others were created for a variety of royal family members and important advisors and officials. Some are very basic and may have been built for storage or other uses.

All tombs are identified by number, with the prefix KV (“Kings Valley”) for tombs found in the East Valley. Tombs in the West Valley are identified by the prefix WKV, but included in the KV numbering sequence. That sequence begins with the 25 open tombs known to explorers early in the 19th century. Since that time, tombs are assigned a number as they are discovered.

All tombs were once hidden from view, but today signs direct visitors to the fully-exposed tomb entrances.

signage

The following is a sample of the tombs open in 2019.

Tomb of Ramses III (KV 11)

Ramses III (also spelled Ramesses or Rameses) ruled when Egypt was still powerful, but while political and economic troubles were taking root. The last strong leader of Egypt, he defeated various invaders and completed the temple of Medinet Habu and other monuments. But his reign ended with his murder in a plot to put the son of a secondary wife on the throne.

(The king’s designated heir, Ramses IV, took his place on the throne. And the plotters, including the intended beneficiary of the plot, were found guilty and killed.)

The tomb of Ramses III was begun for his father, Setnakhte, but abandoned when workers broke into another tomb. A shift in the main corridor and a patch in the wall allowed the tomb to expand. At over 400 feet long, it became one of the largest tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It is also vividly decorated.

tourists descend into the lower level of a large tomb

The sarcophagus and lid are in Europe.

Tomb of Ramses IV (KV 2)

Ramses IV was probably in his 40s when he ended up on the throne after the failure of the plot to murder his father and make another son king. Given this, it seems a bit surprising that he waited a few years to begin his tomb, investing instead in monuments and expeditions to distant parts of the kingdom to obtain valuable materials to use in those monuments.

Since he only lived 6 ½ years after taking the throne, he died before the tomb was complete. To provide for his burial, the unfinished tomb was modified to create a burial chamber.

While this tomb is smaller and simpler in design than many, it retains brilliant colors and the huge sarcophagus that once protected the pharaoh’s mummy.

close-up of a huge stone sarcophagus in a colorful tomb

Tomb of Ramses V-VI (KV 9)

This is one of the largest tombs in the valley and one of the most beautifully decorated. It was built for Ramses V, who only ruled for four years and who may or may not have been entombed here. What’s certain is that his uncle, Ramses VI, expanded the tomb, modified the decoration, and had his body placed here after his own short rule.

people iside a colorful tomb

(This tomb has only recently been opened to the public and is not included in the regular Valley of the Kings ticket. However, it’s absolutely worth the small extra cost to see it.)

The tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62)

Of course, of all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the most famous is that of the boy king Tutankhamun (KV62).

Not discovered until 1922, the tomb yielded treasures of almost unimaginable value and beauty. Those are now in the Egyptian Museum, but visitors to the Valley of the Kings can still see Tut’s gilded sarcophagus and the tomb’s painted walls.

This is a very simple tomb, with painting only in the burial chamber, but there is an additional charge to see it and photos are prohibited.

Plan your visit of the Valley of the Kings

Technically, the Valley of the Kings only refers to two valleys in one section of the ancient West Bank necropolis. However, the name is often used to refer to a much larger portion of the West Bank, including the Valley of the Queens, Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, and more. (The UNESCO World Heritage site includes ancient Thebes and the entire ancient West Bank necropolis.) Most tours, including Nile Cruise tours, will include most of the West Bank highlights. However, it’s always good to check and see exactly what a particular tour includes.


Resources

Practical information for visitors

The Egyptian government seems to be creating an attractive,modern tourism website with great information on Egypt’s cultural sites and ticket prices and rules for visitors.  Unfortunately, at the moment, that website is a beta version and still missing a lot of information. It does, however, have what seems to be current ticket prices for the Valley of the Kings. As of now, there is no information on hours, photo passes, or rules, but that’s likely coming. It does include a lot of images in the gallery.

This seems to replace the old Egypt Travel website, which was not particularly informative to begin with, is now mostly nonfunctional, and hasn’t been updated since 2017.

The other place to look for current information is the TripAdvisor forum. There will be wrong and out-of-date information, but recent visitors are usually extremely generous with their knowledge and experience. This is an especially useful forum if you are looking for up-to-the-minute how-to information.

The EarthTrekkers blog has 2020 information on visiting the Valley of the Kings, including recommendations on which ones to visit. Just bear in mind that pricing, photography rules, and which tombs are open can change at any given time.

decorated interior of a tomb with text "Valley of the Kings"

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woman on a camel at the pyramids with text "Egypt is awesome tour"

6 thoughts on “Hidden treasure awaits in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings”

  1. Thanks for all this info! I am going to Luxor soon- who was your guide or what company did you use when you toured Valley of the Kings? There’s so many to choose from- would love to know who you went with, thanks!

  2. Kenz – All arrangements for both of my trips to Egypt have been handled by Romani Romani Gaballa who runs Egyptian Educational Travel http://egyptianedutravel.com/

    Romani is an Egyptologist, tour guide, and businessman who has specialized in educational travel for school groups for years, while also doing a few other groups and private tours. These days he has a full line of tours for both general tourists and those with more specialized interests. While he still guides tours himself, he also has a few really excellent guides that work with him.

    I’ve known Romani for more than a decade now and am still really impressed with him and everyone he has working with him. On our last trip we had different guides for Cairo/Alexandria and Luxor/Aswan. Both were excellent.

    Right now his website is a bit of mess – but the tour info seems to still be up to date. Contact him directly. He can handle as little or much of your arrangements as you need.

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