'The sun always shines after the storm' - Tutankhamun
After a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Safaga, there is an air of excitement within the bus as each of the passengers look forward to being released from the confines of the bus for our first stop.
With Nina, our guide, we are shuffled through a busy visitor centre and pushed towards electric-powered trolley buses, which will take us to the entrance of The Valley of the Kings. Clutching our entry tickets, which allows us to visit three tombs during our stay plus the extra-cost ticket to visit the most important or the most famous of all tombs in this iconic place, we quickly pass by the guards and make our way up a short hill. The sun is beating down on my head. Hot sun that seems to be burning through sunscreen and hat, propelling me to a shady spot so I can receive instructions on where and when we are to meet before the next part of our day tour.
We find it without having to look; it’s just a few steps from where we are currently standing. The final resting place of King Tutankhamun. When Howard Carter broke the seal of the tomb in 1922, he had no idea that he was on the brink of discovering the most intact of all tombs. By Egyptian standards, this was a small tomb, perhaps because Tutankhamun was so very young when he died. So, when Howard Carter poked a small hole in the doorway, all he could see was the huge number of worldly goods that Tutankhamun would need in the next world. Many of us have seen all or part of the contents of the tomb at the various museums we have visited over the years but no museum could possibly recreate the enormity of this find, nor the air of excitement that Carter must have felt when he first laid eyes on the tomb.
In this dry, relentless heat we step towards the entrance to KV62, the official name of the tomb. I feel a ripple of excitement as I slowly made my way down the stairs to present my ticket to the official at the door. Taking a further staircase down – not too far down – I arrive at the first chamber. The ceiling has not been painted with the night sky like other tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The walls, however, attract my attention as, unlike many other tombs, the decorations are modest. Murals painted on a yellow background depict Tutankhamun’s funeral procession on one wall, whilst on another, Tutankhamun’s successor (and possibly his murderer), Ay, performing the ‘opening of the mouth’ ritual, which legitimises his role as successor. We also see Tutankhamun meeting the deities and the famous twelve baboons painting on the western wall describes the journey of the Sun God through the netherworld. The colours of the paintings, having been sealed for thousands of years, are magnificent. I could have stayed here for a long time, just looking, but I must move and let someone else share this experience, so reluctantly I walk to the burial chamber. Despite there being no adornments to the walls of the chamber, the focus of this chamber is the mummy of Tutankhamun lying in a temperature-controlled box. He may not be terribly attractive, but the fact that a three thousand-year-old mummy is lying under a sheet of glass is fascinating.
We continue exploring the valley. We enter the nearby tomb of Rameses IX. A long corridor slopes gently down to the burial chamber. But the walls! Absolutely brilliant! Both sides of the corridor, from ceiling to floor, are covered with paintings, cartouches, and hieroglyphs. Unlike Tutankhamun’s tomb, much of this this artwork is engraved or chiselled into the rock of the walls before being painted. Despite the damage done by grave robbers, the walls are magnificent and so beautifully preserved. The ceiling of the tomb is also painted, gold on indigo coloured paint.
The burial chamber again has unadorned walls. Like Tutankhamun’s tomb, locals wrestle tourists’ cameras from their hands to ‘take photos’ where tourists are not permitted to go. I guess there is an expected tip involved, but there is really nothing to photograph here. On the way up the corridor, I am a more than a little annoyed with some visitors. There is a Perspex covering, probably from shoulder to knee height along both sides of the corridor. This is to protect the painted surfaced from dirty tourist fingers, and I am alarmed to realise that there is a certain calibre of person who would deliberately put their sticky fingers under the covering – just to touch the ancient paintings. Do they not think of future generations who would also like to see these artifacts in the same conditions that their parents or grandparents have seen? So stupid!
The last tomb we visit is that of Merenptah, whom I had never heard of and now know why! I should have known when I got to the door that this would provide to be a challenge to someone with a dodgy knee. A staircase extends for as far as I can see. Each side of the corridor is covered in paintings, cartouches and hieroglyphs, but certainly not in the same excellent condition of those in Tutankhamun or Rameses’ tombs. I go further down and see where archaeologists have uncovered new painted surfaces and are in the process of restoring them. Further down into the bowels of the earth I climb; down, down, down, At the end, inside the burial chamber, a couple of symbolic tombs exist. This tomb, by comparison, is very disappointing, but I could only imagine what treasures were packed in here, and in the full length of the huge antechamber when this tomb was sealed.
All things that go down must go up again according to some law of relativity or other. And as I start the long climb back to the prick of light at the end of this extraordinarily long slanted passage, I wish that I had selected a different tomb to visit. Concentrating on getting back up the tunnel takes all my strength and almost all of my determination. I’m red in the face, gasping for breath and water and it’s not even lunch time.
I have the option to visit another tomb, but our time has almost expired. The group is assembling under the midday sun and, with our security guard, we make our way back to the entrance where electric shuttles are waiting.
The highlight of this visit to the Valley of the Kings is definitely the visit to King Tutankhamun’s tomb and I think I will remember those incredible images for all time. Our visit is fleeting, but I suppose that unless we have time to spend several hours here, with enough time to take rehydration breaks, we will never fully appreciate the true enormity or value of the site.
On the road again, we pass a new city currently being excavated. I secretly hope that, given the opportunity to return in the future, this would be on an itinerary on a future bucket list.
Our bus stops at the Colossi of Memnon, two huge statues in a paddock, exposed to the elements again for thousands of years. I’m interested to see more statues behind the main two. Perhaps they have been recently uncovered too. I walk down to stand beside these monstrous kings and am blown over with the abilities and the technologies of artisans in ancient times.
It's lunch time…