10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens

Jennifer Conerly - May 3, 2018

The Valley of the Queens is a busy Egyptian tourist attraction, yet its neighbor, the Valley of the Kings, often overshadows it. New Kingdom pharaohs who ruled Egypt from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth dynasties created the Valley of the Queens for the internments of members of the royal family and those who served them. Over the past century, archaeologists have conducted several conservation efforts to protect and study the burial ground. Discoveries using sophisticated modern techniques have revealed the site’s importance to the ancient Egyptians.

The Tombs Reflect Changes in New Kingdom Burial Practices

While its name suggests that the tombs were reserved for queens, there are more tombs designated to royal princes and princesses and nobles who served the royal family. The ancient Egyptians named the location Ta-Set-Neferu, traditionally translated as “the place of beauty.” Modern Egyptologists agree that another translation, “the place of the children of the pharaoh,” more accurately reflects the site’s initial purpose as an extension of the Valley of the Kings instead of a specific burial ground for royal consorts.

From the first dynasties, Egyptian pharaohs erected magnificent pyramids for their burials. This practice changed in the New Kingdom, with Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs choosing more isolated locations for their resting places. In the cliffs west of Thebes, laborers carved simple shaft tombs with little decoration that looked more like caves than resting places for royalty. Included in the tombs were items that the dead used in their daily lives, such as furniture, clothing, and cosmetic items, for use in the afterlife.

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens
Valley of the Queens. ancient-egypt.info

By the Nineteenth Dynasty, the tombs became more elaborate, with hallways, rooms, and burial chambers that became a celebration of the life of the deceased. Physical appearance was essential to the ancient Egyptians, and artists decorated the walls with images that represented the dead as they had looked in their youth, not as they appeared when they died. Nineteenth Dynasty tombs were filled with grave goods especially prepared for their journey into the afterlife, such as funerary texts, food, and drink.

While pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty used the Valley of the Queens as a burial ground for members of the royal family and the elite, this practice changed in the next dynasty. The pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty, also known as the Ramessid period named for the family that ruled Egypt, ordered their wives buried in the Valley of the Queens. Under Ramses II, only wives with the assigned title “Royal Bride” were allowed to be interred in the funerary complex.

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens
The Egyptian goddess Hathor, who represented happiness and motherhood. Picture by Jeff Dahl, 2007. Wikipedia.

Mortuary Priests and a Police Force Protected the Site

Egyptologists have many theories why New Kingdom pharaohs chose this isolated location for the construction of the Valley of the Queens. The site may hold a political significance: not only was it located near the Valley of the Kings and the worker village Deir el-Medina, but it lies west of the Nile River, across from the capital city of Thebes, in modern-day Luxor, Upper Egypt. There is a grotto dedicated to the goddess Hathor that lies near the opening of the Valley; researchers assume that the ancient Egyptians considered the location a sacred place where the dead could come back to life.

The pyramid tomb complexes built by pharaohs of earlier dynasties were looted continuously, with many grave robbers pilfering the grave goods buried with the dead. As the wealth of the royal family increased throughout the New Kingdom, the grave goods became more luxurious, with gold, jewels, and other symbols of wealth. Pharaohs chose the isolated rocky cliffsides of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens for their proximity to the capital city, but they were still secluded enough to protect them from robberies.

Ancient Egyptians cared for their dead, for they believed that the spirit could re-enter the body in the afterlife. The royal family took special precautions to guard the graves. Mortuary priests preserved the bodies of the dead through mummification; these religious men prayed and performed rituals from their temples adjacent to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. The remote locations of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens did not deter grave robbing, and looters still broke into the hidden, sealed tombs to steal the cache of valuable items.

The royal family created an elite police force to monitor the tombs. The Medjay used the elevation of the cliffs to patrol the area for opportunistic thieves. As corruption increased by the end of the New Kingdom, many elite nobles and bureaucrats who served the royal family, individuals who would know what was inside the tombs, began orchestrating the grave robbing, provided they received a percentage of the stolen goods. With the increase of the robberies, the mortuary priests moved the bodies of the royal family to protect them from desecration, and many of the mummies remain unrecovered today.

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens
A relief depicting workers in ancient Egypt. http://www.ancientpages.com/2016/06/07/worlds-first-documented-labor-strike-took-place-in-ancient-egypt-in-the-12th-century-bc/

Construction Created a Demand for Highly Specialized Artisans and Builders

Creating the burial chambers in the Valley of the Queens was a learning process, and laborers encountered structural problems as they cut into the rocky cliffside. The hills were limestone, a sedimentary stone that can be easily scratched and broken. The pliable nature of the limestone made it perfect for carving the tombs, but flooding and earthquakes frequent in this area further weakened it. The damaged stone increased the possibility of cave-ins, endangering the workers and the stability of the area.

In many cases, the workers abandoned their project to start another tomb elsewhere, creating many incomplete chambers in the funerary complex. As construction continued into the Nineteenth Dynasty, the wealth and power of the pharaohs created a demand for more lavish burials of the royal family. Increasingly specialized workers were hired to build the more sophisticated burial chambers. Instead of workers who were employed to dig holes in the rock, the tunnels, hallways, and large funerary rooms of the more elegant tombs required a particular knowledge of architecture and masonry.

These new skilled workers needed experience with stabilizing the stone and with creating multi-room structures, and they soon learned to change their environment to suit their purposes. They developed muna, a strong and pliable plaster that hardened to strengthen the fragile walls. The wealth and power of the Nineteenth dynasty pharaohs created a demand for more sophisticated burials of the royal family. The layout of the chambers changed from simple shafts to extensive collections of rooms. The invention of muna helped the workers created these more opulent chambers safely and decreased the likelihood of crumbling walls and abandoned sites.

The tombs at the Valley of the Queens became testaments of the pharaoh’s devotion to the deceased. The rulers of Egypt hired artists to decorate the walls with intricately painted reliefs. The muna used to fortify the walls gave these artists a blank canvas to begin their work. Over this plaster, the artists created beautiful artworks depicting the deceased’s journey into the afterlife. Some of the excavated tombs from the Nineteenth dynasty are some of the most beautiful examples of ancient Egyptian art.

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens
Deir el-Medina. Photographed by Steve F-E-Cameron, March 2010. Wikipedia.

The workers lived in their own city near the Valley of the Queens

With consistent construction on the royal tombs, an individual town was established for the workers to live. Located south of the Valley of the Kings and east of the Valley of the Queens, Deir el-Medina reached its height during the Nineteenth Dynasty, although archaeological evidence uncovered in the ruins of the settlement dates back to the reign of Thutmose I in the early fifteenth century BCE. Deir el-Medina remained occupied with skilled and unskilled workers until the end of the Twentieth Dynasty.

Excavations of the worker city provide a glimpse of how these workers lived and the overall condition of nonroyal life in the New Kingdom. The city was highly organized, with homes built close together in a rectangular grid using the same construction procedures; there is no evidence of natural additions that other settlements show as they grow in size. Deir el-Medina shows signs of a hierarchy, with the larger, more comfortable homes reserved for the most talented and in-demand workers of a higher status.

The pharaoh highly valued the workers, who would be considered middle-class by today’s standards. Women could read and write, and the workers could pass down their in-demand positions to their children. The residents of Deir el-Medina received almost three times more rations than a typical laborer, and the pharaoh provided them with extra supplies and rations to comfortably observe religious holidays. The workers were given enough days off to have another job and construct their tombs in their free time.

By the reign of Ramses XI in the early eleventh century BCE, the laborers abandoned Deir el-Medina due to the instability of the age and the constant threat of tomb robbery and civil war. In the fourth century BCE, the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt constructed a temple devoted to the goddess Hathor at the former site of the worker city. Christians later repurposed the temple into a church during the Roman era. The Arabic name Deir el-Medina refers to this church, translating to “the monastery of the town.”

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens
A scene from Nefertari’s Tomb, 13th century BCE. Photographed by The Yorck Project, 2002. Wikipedia.

Salt Almost Destroyed Queen Nefertari’s Tomb

The most famous burial chamber in the Valley of the Queens belongs to Nefertari, the queen consort of Ramses II. Nefertari and Ramses married before he became pharaoh in 1279 BCE, and she remained his primary Great Royal Wife until her death around 1255 BCE, about twenty-five years into Ramses’ sixty-six-year reign. Nefertari dominated the royal court and played a diplomatic role, writing letters and exchanging gifts with Queen Pudukhepa, the wife of Hattusili III, the king of the Hittites with whom Egypt was often at war.

Even though he had other wives, Ramses was devoted to Nefertari, and he honored her in life and death. He built her temple next to his own at Abu Simbel, making her statues the same size as his, a rarity in ancient Egypt. Ramses constructed a massive funerary chamber for her equivalent in size to those reserved for pharaohs in the Valley of the Queens, and he instructed the artists working on her final resting place to inscribe a love poem to her that he wrote himself on the walls. Nefertari’s tomb is considered one of the most beautiful funerary chambers of ancient Egypt.

The vibrant and detailed paintings of scenes that depict Nefertari’s descent into the afterlife had no previous model in Egyptian art. The limestone and the plaster used to reinforce the walls contained a high amount of salt; over the centuries, the salt crystallized, peeling the paintings off of the walls. When archaeologists unsealed her tomb in the early twentieth century, the extra exposure to moisture, as well as frequent rainstorms and flooding in the valley, further deteriorated its condition. The Egyptian authorities closed it to the public in the 1950s to begin conservation efforts.

The crystallized salt further damaged the tomb’s walls with every passing year. In the 1980s, preservationists with The Getty Conservation Institute led a six-year restoration effort to prevent extended deterioration. Beginning in 1986, scientists assessed the damage, cleaned the walls, and restored the paintings. When the project concluded in 1992, the tomb remained closed to monitor the effects of the repair before allowing public access; after several closures and re-openings, Nefertari’s tomb was recently reopened for viewing in late 2016.

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens
A map of Egypt under Hyksos rule. The Hyksos invaded and conquered Egypt, ending the Middle Kingdom and beginning the Second Intermediate Period. Egypt was divided into two centers of power, with the former royal family ruling Thebes and the surrounding areas and the Hyksos maintaining control over the rest of the country. Princess Ahmose’s father and brothers led the offensive against Hyksos rule; her brother Ahmose I drove the Hyksos out of Egypt and established the Eighteenth Dynasty, beginning the New Kingdom. Map by Iry Hor. Wikipedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34922151

The Princess Buried in QV 47 Witnessed a Turbulent Period of Egyptian History

Although Nefertari is one of the most famous queens of the New Kingdom, she is not the only famous royal woman buried in the Valley of the Queens. Initially, the site became the resting place for members of the royal family. Princess Ahmose, a virtually unknown Seventeenth Dynasty princess, was buried in QV 47, what is largely thought to be the first tomb constructed in the Valley of the Queens. She is the only royal woman from the Seventeenth Dynasty buried at the site.

Not much is known about Princess Ahmose, except that she was an eyewitness to a turbulent period in Egyptian history. After the fall of the Middle Kingdom, the Hyksos, a Semitic people from the eastern Mediterranean, invaded the country and took control of Lower Egypt, beginning the Second Intermediate Period. The Hyksos established the Fifteenth Dynasty, usurping the power of the pharaohs. The former royal family fled to Thebes, where they negotiated a peaceful coexistence with the Hyksos, ruling as the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Dynasties.

The Egyptians maintained control of the area surrounding Thebes while the Hyksos ruled the rest of the country. Princess Ahmose’s father Sequenenre Tao and brothers Wadjkheperre Kamose and Ahmose I led a lengthy campaign to remove the Hyksos from power. When the Hyksos ruler Apophis offended Sequenenre Tao, one of the last pharaohs of the Seventeenth Dynasty, they engaged in a series of diplomatic insults, and the two soon went to war. Sequence Tao was killed in battle, and his son Wadjkheperre Kamose continued the assault on the Hyksos until he died in battle himself.

Sequenenre Tao’s younger son, the child-pharaoh Ahmose I, renewed the resistance as an adult, driving the Hyksos out of Egypt, reuniting the country as the first ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty. While no written record exists of her experiences during this struggle for power, Princess Ahmose remained a valued member of the royal family throughout the reigns of her brother, Ahmose I, and her nephew Amenhotep I. She appears to have died during the reign of Amenhotep’s successor, Thutmose I, outliving most of her immediate family.

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens
A statue of Ramses II in Luxor, Egypt. Slide colored by Joseph Hawkes. Wikipedia. Brooklyn Museum Archives. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/archives/image/4517/image

Ramses II Used the Valley of the Queens to Bury His Royal Wives

Ancient Egyptian politics severely restricted the lives of royal women. Pharaohs restricted the marriages of their daughters. Royal princesses were not allowed to marry below their rank, and they were only allowed to marry princes and kings. Egyptian pharaohs were also reluctant to allow their daughters to marry foreign kings to eliminate the possibility of an outsider usurping the throne of Egypt in the name of his wife. Many royal princesses never married, and if they did, they married either their father or their brother.

Ramses II ruled Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BCE as the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty. Unusual in Egyptian history, Ramses reigned for sixty-six years, outliving many of his wives and royal heirs. He used the Valley of the Queens almost exclusively as the resting place for his royal consorts. Following Egyptian tradition, Ramses married no less than four of his daughters throughout his lengthy reign, installing them as Chief Royal Consort when the wife holding the position died.

When Queen Nefertari died, her daughter Meritamen married her father and replaced her mother as Chief Royal Consort. Meritamen shared this ceremonial role with her half-sister Bintanath, Ramses’ eldest-born daughter by his highest-ranking wife during Nefertari’s lifetime, Isetnofret. He later married two other daughters, Nebettawy and Henuttawy. According to the respect recorded to their elevated position as the King’s Daughter, and later the King’s Wife, Ramses venerated his daughter-wives in many building projects throughout his reign and arranged their burials in the Valley of the Queens.

Both Meritamen and Henuttawy’s tombs, in QV 68 and QV 73 respectively, bear a resemblance to their mother Nefertari’s tomb. Nebettawy, buried in QV 60, may also have been Nefertari’s daughter, but this isn’t confirmed. Ramses II died in his 90s, leaving behind a wealthy country from his military conquests and a legacy that would lead many of his successors to use his name when they ascended the throne of Egypt. Although Bintanath was Ramses’ eldest daughter, she outlived her father. She died after her brother Merenptah, Ramses II’s thirteenth son who was the oldest of his sons to outlive him, became pharaoh. Merenptah buried Bintanath in QV 71.

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens
Ramses III and his son Prince Amun-her-khepeshef. http://www.ancientpages.com/2016/10/23/ancient-tombs-nobles-valley-queens/

Two of Ramses III’s sons are buried in the Valley of the Queens

While not as famous as his namesake, Ramses II, the Twentieth Dynasty pharaoh Ramses III reigned from 1186 to 1155 BCE during the beginning of the decline of the New Kingdom. He was the last pharaoh to have complete ultimate power over the country, and Egypt’s authority in the ancient world began to decline during Ramses’ reign. External threats of invasion led to economic decline, and his successors struggled to maintain their hold over the country for almost seventy-five years after his assassination.

Constant warfare plagued Egypt, and the royal treasury declined from the cost of the wars. Despite the economic turmoil, the royal family still commissioned tombs in the Valley of the Queens for burials. Ramses III’s sons Amun-her-khepeshef and Khaemwaset are both buried in the Valley of the Queens. These opulent royal burials further strained the economy, leading to tensions in the population, especially among the workers who constructed the tombs. By the end of his reign, Ramses III had weakened royal power and set the stage for the fall of the New Kingdom.

Although both the royal princes Amun-her-khepeshef and Khaemwaset were given lavish burials when they died, not much is known about their lives. Amun-her-khepeshef’s burial tomb, QV 55, was discovered in the early twentieth century, but it was robbed in antiquity. The prince was Ramses III’s oldest son and heir before he died of unknown causes when he was fifteen, probably from illness. Amun-her-khepeshef makes an appearance as Ramses III’s heir in relief at one of his father’s temples, Medinet Habu.

Khaemwaset’s tomb in QV 44 was also uncovered nearly intact. The grave goods were missing, but archaeologists recovered a canopic jar from the tomb, which is now located in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. His sarcophagus was also recovered and brought to the Turin Museum of Natural History in Italy. Not much is known about Khaemwaset, other than he was a priest of the god Ptah in Memphis and he outlived his father Ramses III. Khaemwaset died in the reign of his older brother, Ramesses IV, who interred him in the Valley of the Queens.

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens
Inscriptions on a church in Old Cairo, Egypt, with both Arabic and Coptic script. Photographed in April 2005. Wikipedia.

Rulers of Egypt still used the Valley of the Queens after the fall of the New Kingdom

For over two-thirds of his thirty-year reign, Ramses III fought invasions by the Sea Peoples and the Libyans, which drained the royal treasury. Crop failure increased grain prices, weakening the country’s ability to feed its people. The tomb workers at the Valley of the Queens went on strike, refusing to continue construction over non-payment and supply delays, in what was the first recorded worker’s strike in history. After the death of Ramses III, political instability worsened the crippled economy as Ramses’ heirs fought each other for influence, and his heirs struggled to maintain control of the country for most of the next century.

Ramses’ heirs used the Valley of the Queens for royal burials until the reign of Ramses VI from the mid-to-late twelfth century BCE. Tensions between workers and the state continued for more than fifty years, with documented disputes in the reigns of Ramses IX and X in the late twelfth century BCE. Tomb robberies increased throughout the economic decline of the Twentieth Dynasty with the help of corrupt royal officials who enriched themselves and the declining royal treasury until all of the tombs in the Valley of the Queens were emptied out.

The last New Kingdom pharaoh, Ramses XI, completely lost control over the country, with the elite priests the High Priests of Amun conquering Upper Egypt, ending the New Kingdom period. The rulers of the Third Intermediate Period no longer reserved the Valley of the Queens for royalty or the elite, enlarging the tombs to make room for the extra bodies by opening them up and digging new burial shafts. There was a resurgence of burials at the site during the Roman period until the fourth century.

After the Roman period, the Christian Copts used the Valley of the Queens as a religious settlement until the seventh century. They inhabited some of the tombs, including those of two of Ramses II’s daughter-wives, Nebettawy and Henuttawy; the Christians ruined some of the tombs by burning them down and plastering over many of the wall paintings, replacing them with Christian symbols and art. The Copts occupied the Valley of the Queens until the seventh century until the Arab conquest of Egypt.

10 Larger Than Life Facts About the Valley of the Queens
Ernesto Schiaparelli, one of the initial excavators of the Valley of the Queens. Unknown photographer, before 1928. Wikipedia.

The site has fascinated archaeologists since the early 19th century

Robert Hay, one of the earliest Egyptologists, first visited Egypt in 1818 when he was serving in the Royal Navy. Six years later, Hay hired an artist, Joseph Bonomi, to return to Egypt with him on an exploration project. On two separate trips, the two men spent the majority of the next ten years traveling the country, recording Egypt’s great monuments and collecting artifacts. Their notes, drawings, and artifacts are now located in the British Library and the British Museum in London and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

In 1826, Hay and his associate first recorded the location of the Valley of the Queens west of the former capital city of Thebes. Despite the early discovery, the site remained unexplored until the early twentieth century. In 1903, Ernesto Schiaparelli and his assistant, Francesco Ballerini, led two separate excavation campaigns, uncovering some of the most famous tombs at the site, including those of Ramses III’s sons Amun-her-khepeshef and Khaemwaset. Schiaparelli himself is credited with the discovery of Queen Nefertari’s tomb.

Over one hundred tombs have been uncovered in the Valley of the Queens since Schiaparelli and Ballerini’s initial excavations in the early twentieth century. Artifacts recovered from the site can be found in museums all over the world. As further explorations followed, the unsophisticated nature of early to mid-twentieth-century archaeology permanently damaged the site. After the middle of the twentieth century, as methods began to improve, more attention was paid to the rapidly deteriorating tombs which had been exposed to the elements for decades.

Beginning in 1970, the Louvre Museum, the Centre d’Etudes et Documentation sur l’Ancienne Egypte (CEDAE) of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, and the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) of Paris began annual excavations of the site. Archaeologists and Egyptologists cleaned the debris that had been collected from earlier excavations and gathered information from all of the discovered tombs. Their efforts have helped preserve the Valley of the Queens for further study, and these yearly studies were responsible for gathering much of the information now available on New Kingdom society burial practices as well as the royals and elite who were buried there.


Continue Reading:

The Washington Post – Mystery of Ancient Egyptian Legs Likely Solved: They’re Queen Nefertari’s Knees

SCI News – Mummified Remains Identified as Queen Nefertari, Pharaoh Ramesses II’s Royal Spouse

Smithsonian Magazine – CT Scan Shows Pharoah Ramesses III Was Murdered by Multiple Assassins