Friday, 7 October 2011

Why Explore The Valley of the Queens?

Do you long to visit Luxor and explore the many monuments of the Ancient Egyptians?  Luxor offers many spectacular monuments such as the great temples of Karnak, Luxor and Deir el-Bahri, the magnificent pharaoh’s tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina.  However, one of the ancient sites that you should not miss is the Valley of the Queens. The Valley of the Queens is a small wadi on the West Bank of the Nile that contains between 75-80 tombs of queens, princes, princesses and high officials from the early 18th dynasty until the 20th dynasty of Ancient Egypt.  In Arabic the valley is known as the ‘Biban al-Harim’ and in ancient times it was called ‘Ta-Set-Neferu’ or ‘The Place of Beauty’.  During the time when the Valley of the Queens was being used as a necropolis, it would have been a busy place with teams of tomb builders working and mortuary priests performing daily rituals and giving offerings and prayers for the deceased.

Many of the tombs were simple, undecorated affairs and the owners have not been identified as there are no inscriptions on the walls and no funerary equipment with the owner’s name on it has been found.  All of the tombs in the Valley of the Queens are numbered, like all Theban tombs, and are prefixed QV for Queen’s Valley.  There may also be tombs that have not yet been discovered in the Valley, as there are also remnants of funerary equipment from other interments that have been found during excavation, which give an indication that their owners may have been buried in the Valley of the Queens.

Valley of the Queens - Own Image

So who we know was buried in the Valley of the Queens?  There are several tombs of the family of Ramesses the Great to be found in the valley and the most famous is the tomb that he carved out for his beloved wife Queen Nefertari (1290-1224 BC).  This jewel-bright tomb was excavated by Ernesto Schiaparelli and the Italian Archaeological Mission in 1904 and is thought to be one of the most beautifully decorated tombs in all of Egypt.  The walls are decorated with brightly coloured painted scenes, many which depict Nefertari accompanied by various Egyptian deities.  She is also often shown on the painted walls wearing a golden vulture headdress.  This dazzling tomb also boasts an arresting astronomical ceiling painted dark blue and studded with painted golden stars.  The tomb was extensively robbed in antiquity, and most of the rich funerary equipment, including the coffins and royal mummy, were ransacked.  The only fragments of Nefertari’s mummy that remain are pieces of her knees that are now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Turin.

The origins of Nefertari are unknown, but she may have been related to the Amarna royal family from the late 18th dynasty as a cartouche of the Pharaoh Ay was found on a fragment of furniture or the pommel of a cane in her tomb. Her name means ‘beautiful companion’ and she was married to Ramesses II when she was a young teenager and was his most prominent and favourite wife until her death in her early forties in around year 25 of her husband’s reign. Unlike most Egyptian queens, Nefertari was featured prominently on Ramesses II’s statues and monuments and he even built her a temple next to his own at Abu Simbel.  There is every indication that there was real affection between this royal couple and Ramesses II had a love poem inscribed on the walls of her tomb and she was referred to in an inscription at Abu Simbel as ‘she for whom the sun doth shine’.

The limestone of in the Valley of the Queens is not of the highest quality, so Nefertari’s tomb was plastered several times before the painted funerary scenes could be executed by the ancient artists.  The area is also subject to earthquakes and the precious wall paintings developed cracks and damage, which led to the tomb to being closed to the public in the 1950s for conservation.  In 1986 serious works were undertaken by the Getty Conservation Institute, and further work was done in 1988.  It was discovered that one of the main offenders was salt.  Both the local Theban limestone and the plaster that the ancient Egyptian tomb builders used contained large amounts of salt which crystallised and forced parts of the plaster away from the walls and peeled off areas of the painted scenes.  The earlier restoration project had actually further damaged the irreplaceable painted images, so the whole of QV66 had to be cleaned and the wall paintings stabilised.  This restoration was an immense project and was not completed until 1992.  The tomb of Nefertari was reopened to the public again in 1995, but the number of tickets sold was severely restricted.  However, even the small amounts of tourists that were allowed to enter the tomb caused further damage to the painted images on the wall and it was closed again in 2003.  These days only a very few lucky tourists on certain private tours or with special permission can view this most exquisite of Egyptian tombs.

Valley of the Queens - Own Image

There are also several tombs of the sons of Ramesses III to be found in the Valley of the Queens, and after the tomb of Nefertari they are regarded as some of the finest to be found in the Valley. They include QV55, which is the tomb of Prince Amunherkhepshef who was a son of Pharaoh Ramesses III and his Great Royal Wife, Queen Tyti, who also has a tomb nearby in the Valley of the Queens. It is thought that Prince Amunherkhepshef was only about 15 years old when he died around year 30 of his father’s reign and he is shown in most of the wall paintings in the tomb wearing the side locks of youth. Although he was one of the pharaoh’s younger sons, he still held some very important titles such as ‘Fan Bearer to the Right of the King’ ‘Superior of the Two Lands’ and ‘Royal Scribe’

The tomb of Prince Amunherkhepshef was unfortunately discovered to have been completely looted in antiquity, probably not long after it had been sealed during the 19th dynasty, when it was excavated between 1903 and 1904 during the second campaign undertaken by the Italian Archaeological Mission. The tomb is decorated with well-executed painted scenes which mainly depict Amunherkhepshef’s father presenting him to the various Egyptian gods and goddesses.

Apart from an unfinished pink granite sarcophagus, very little in the way of funerary equipment was ever recovered during the excavation of this tomb.  In fact, further research has shown that Amunherkhepshef was never actually buried in this tomb, but was in fact interred in an adapted sarcophagus once belonging to Queen Tausert in the tomb of Chancellor Bay in the Valley of the Kings (KV13). There is, however, one fascinating, albeit slightly gruesome artefact still on display in QV55 and that is the mummy of a foetus wrapped in linen bindings.  This tiny mummy was originally found in a tiny wooden chest, but is now kept in an urn in the back chamber of the tomb.

The opening hours are 6am to 5pm, but the best time to visit the Valley of the Queens is very early in the morning, before the sun gets too hot and the crowds have descended. The tombs that are generally open on a daily basis are those of Tyti, Amunherkhepshef and Khaemwaset, although this may vary.  There are local vendors at the entrance to the site selling souvenirs and there are toilets.  As with all the ancient sites in Luxor, it is a good idea to wear a hat and cover your arms to protect yourself from the hot Egyptian sun, wear suitable footwear and take a bottle of water with you.