Valley Of The Kings (6/8)

The historical documentary series continues. This episode explores the Valley of the Kings, the royal necropolis of the pharaohs. A new generation of Egyptologists presents revolutionary theories on why the pharaohs abandoned the pyramids as their burial sites in favour of these secret underground tombs.

Three and a half thousand years ago, Thebes was the heart of Egypt’s civilisation. Situated on the eastern banks of the Nile, the ancient city was the religious heart of the state. Four miles to the west of Thebes lay the Valley of the Kings, a massive royal cemetery comprising 63 underground tombs linked by a maze of tunnels. Unlike the pyramids of the 17th Dynasty, these burial chambers were hidden from view and lay undiscovered by modern man until the early 19th century. “Very gradually we’re unpeeling the layers,” says Egyptologist Nicole Douek. But several questions remain unanswered – why was the royal burial ground moved by the pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty? And why did Egypt’s rulers shun the grandeur of a pyramid monument for a series of underground burial chambers?

In 1902, Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, came across the entrance to a tunnel. The 600ft passageway was narrow, steep and littered with rubble. At the end of this treacherous path lay the deepest and oldest tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Inside the chamber was a sarcophagus inscribed with the name of the queen Hatshepsut. The celebrated female pharaoh had also built a magnificent mortuary temple on the site to commemorate her long and successful reign.

For the first time, the two elements of burial chamber and mortuary temple had been split. One popular theory to explain this division is that Egypt’s pharaohs wanted to protect their graves from tomb raiders. But Dr Dan Polz disagrees with this view. “How can you possibly hide such a tomb from the locals, from the workmen?” he reasons. Instead Polz focuses on the significance of the positioning of the burial chamber. Hatshepsut’s tomb is directly across the Nile from one of the most important holy sites in Ancient Egypt, the Karnak temple. Dr Polz speculates that perhaps this linking line extends even further – to the afterlife. Did the queen have her body buried in this location to ensure her safe passage to the netherworld?

Further clues lie inside Hatshepsut’s burial chamber itself. On the walls of her tomb are hieroglyphics depicting the soul’s journey to immortality. The images are thought to be a kind of guide for the passage to the underworld. In her deep tomb, Hatshepsut was ensuring that she was as close to divinity as possible. “They might have been seen as a road map,” says Egyptologist Dr Kent Weeks of the hieroglyphs.

After 500 years, use of the royal necropolis ceased forever. The last tomb ever constructed in the Valley of the Kings was that of King Ramesses XI. His burial chamber lies unfinished because a new generation of rulers took over and moved the capital north to Delta. Suddenly the community of tomb builders was forced to disband. In search of a way to eke out a living, the men turned to pilfering the very tombs they themselves had built. “If we had everything that was ever buried there, we would have literally mountains of gold,” says Nicole Douek.

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