tombs

What You Need to Know About the Valley of the Kings in Luxor

Pharaohs were buried in elaborate underground tombs depicting their life and accomplishments and filled with everything their spirit would need for a comfortable afterlife.

When visiting Luxor, you must plan a morning excursion to the Valley of the Kings

When visiting Luxor, you must plan a morning excursion to the Valley of the Kings

Visiting the Valley of the Kings, the mortuary complex of Ancient Egyptian pharaohs has been a lifelong dream of mine. The massive royal necropolis is located in Upper Egypt on the West Bank of the Nile, opposite the ancient city of Thebes, now known as Luxor.

The ancient Egyptians believed that life was merely a brief passage of time followed by another where the deceased pharaoh would gain eternal access to move freely between the world of the living and the dead. The tomb provided a secure resting place and access to the supernatural realm, ruled over by the gods.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul split into two parts after death. The ka, or life force, was the individual’s double, which received the offerings it needed to survive. The second part was the ba, represented as a human-headed bird, which flew around during the day but returned to the tomb at night.

By the time Amenhotep I came to the throne, kings had learned from bitter experience that a monumental tomb, especially a pyramid, was more of a curse than a blessing. Advertising the location of the royal burial for all to see merely attracted the attention of tomb robbers and almost guaranteed that the deceased would not remain undisturbed for eternity. If the king were to enjoy a blessed afterlife, as intended, the nature of the royal tomb itself had to change.

As part of his wider program of religious remodeling, Amenhotep I implemented just such a radical redesign. From now on, the royal mortuary complex would be split into two distinct elements. A mortuary temple, sited prominently on a plain, would stand as the monarch’s permanent memorial and would act as a public focus for the royal cult. Quite separate, hidden away in the cliffs of western Thebes, a royal tomb cut deep into the rock would provide a secure resting place for eternity, without any outward sign to attract unwanted attention.

–Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, 2010

Our guide Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, picked us up from our hotel at 8:30 a.m., and we set out on our West Bank excursion, which included the Valley of the Kings, the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut and the Colossi of Memnon. Because we’re ancient temple junkies, and we still had the better part of the afternoon, we also added the Tombs of the Nobles and Medinet Habu. Prices included a comfortable air-conditioned car, a driver, our English-speaking guide, Mamduh, and general entrance fees.

Wally and I arrived at the site around 9 a.m., avoiding the tourist rush and blistering heat of the late afternoon. It was already 87ºF and would climb over 100º.

The site was chosen in part because its tip, the peak of El Qurn, resembled a pyramid

The site was chosen in part because its tip, the peak of El Qurn, resembled a pyramid

Despite the name, the Valley of the Kings is comprised of two distinct valleys. The East Valley is where most of the royal tombs can be found. The site was chosen, in part as it was secluded, but also because it is dominated by the peak of El Qurn, a geological formation resembling a pyramid, sacred to the goddesses Hathor and Meretseger, both of whom were regarded as protectors of the dead. The West Valley contains the tombs of nobles and members of the royal family.

The official name for the rugged landscape in ancient times was Ta Sekhet Maat, or the Great Field, and beneath its barren surface lie more than 60 man-made subterranean tombs cut into the rock to commemorate the lives of New Kingdom pharaohs and wealthy nobles, which date from 1500 to 1070 BCE.  The site’s most famous and intact tomb is that of the boy-king Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Other famous pharaohs include Hatshepsut, the only female king, and a slew of Ramesside period monarchs.

Don’t you dare graffiti these tombs like those Coptic Christians!

Don’t you dare graffiti these tombs like those Coptic Christians!

To enter the World Heritage Site, Mamduh paid the entrance fee of 400 LE, which included admission for only three tombs (you’re dependent upon which ones are open that day), a policy implemented to reduce crowds. We paid an additional 500 LE to see the tomb of Tutankhamun, and because we wanted to take pictures inside the tombs, we sprang for a 300 LE photography permit. (Note that you won’t be able to take photos inside King Tut’s tomb, even with a photography permit.) The tomb of Seti I, which also requires an additional fee, was closed at the time of our visit.

The bas-reliefs in the tombs are amazing, and many retain their original paint

The bas-reliefs in the tombs are amazing, and many retain their original paint

Heads up: If you’re considering taking your chances and skipping the photo permit, don’t. We witnessed more than one tourist asked to show their permit, and when they didn’t have it, they were pulled aside and forced to delete their photos.

We took a yellow trolley up the paved road leading to the site entrance and disembarked at a secondary checkpoint, where you’ll be asked to show your tickets. All of the tombs are assigned a number, preceded by the acronym KV (Kings’ Valley), in the order of discovery, a system established by British Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson in 1827.

You can take one of these cute little yellow trams to get to the archeological site

You can take one of these cute little yellow trams to get to the archeological site

Show your ticket at every entrance, and the guard will punch a hole in it to assure you only visit three.

You’ll be able to see three tombs per ticket at the Valley of the Kings

You’ll be able to see three tombs per ticket at the Valley of the Kings

Tomb Raiders

Building a tomb was a massive undertaking and preparation for burial within the necropolis began the moment a pharaoh ascended the throne. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul had dual counterparts and split into two parts after death. The ka, or life force, was the individual’s double (represented symbolically with what I like to refer to as “goalpost hands” atop its head). The ka entered the tomb through a false door, usually above the sarcophagus, to receive the offerings it needed to survive. The second part was the ba, the mobile part of the soul, represented as a human-headed bird. The ba was thought to fly about during the day among the land of the living, but needed to return to the body at night.

The human-headed birds at the bottom are the ba, the part of the soul that can fly around and protect family members after death

The human-headed birds at the bottom are the ba, the part of the soul that can fly around and protect family members after death

A traditional tomb plan consisted of a long corridor, descending through one or more halls, reflecting the nightly descent of the sun-god Amun to the underworld. Most royal tombs had multiple rooms, with the last serving as the burial chamber. Egyptians believed that when a pharaoh died, he (or she) became Osiris, the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.

Royal tombs have a long, slow descent to the burial chamber

Royal tombs have a long, slow descent to the burial chamber

Another feature common to most tombs is the well shaft, which may have originated as an actual barrier intended to stop seasonal floodwaters from entering the lower parts of the tombs but also served to provide water to the ka.

Although tombs were originally sealed after construction and the burial was completed, many were robbed by the workers of Deir el-Medina, the nearby village which was home to the artisans employed to build and decorate them.

This diorama shows the tombs they’ve discovered — which may be just a fraction of what’s buried in the valley

This diorama shows the tombs they’ve discovered — which may be just a fraction of what’s buried in the valley

Our visit to the Valley of the Kings was a truly memorable experience, and because you’re limited to only three, be sure to take your time and don’t rush through them. –Duke

 

Père Lachaise Cemetery: A Historical and Pictorial Tour

Once an undesirable place to be buried, the Paris cemetery has lured many dead celebrities, starting with Moliere, Jean de la Fontaine, and Abelard and Heloise.

A day spent wandering a cemetery as cool as Père Lachaise sure makes Wally happy

A day spent wandering a cemetery as cool as Père Lachaise sure makes Wally happy

Père Lachaise is the most popular cemetery in the world — and Duke can see why

Père Lachaise is the most popular cemetery in the world — and Duke can see why

Now reported as the most-visited cemetery in the world, Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France, was not so when it opened in 1804. Established on the site of a former Jesuit retreat, it was originally considered too far from the city limits to be a desirable place to spend eternity.

In addition to location, the land where it stood had not yet been blessed by the Church, thus deterring Roman Catholics from burying their relatives here. In fact, the cemetery contained only 13 graves in its first year.

The citizens of Paris began clamoring to be buried among the famous folk.

Headstones of the Dead and Famous

Because death is also a business, the administrators needed to find a way to attract the citizens of Paris to want to be buried there. With great fanfare, they devised a plan: They arranged the transfer of the remains of Jean de la Fontaine, famous for his Fables, and Molière, who wrote comedic plays, including Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. The campaign showed results, and in 1817, the remains of the legendary lovers Abélard and Hélöise were also transferred there. Again, the strategy proved successful, as the citizens of Paris began clamoring to be buried among these famous folk.

For a list of some of the most famous “residents” of Père Lachaise and how to make a game of honoring them, read our previous post.

The columbarium and cremation house were built in 1894 and designed by Jean Camille Formigé in a Neo-Byzantine style.

Vandalism is rampant throughout this immense space. Old family crypts have been pried open, their interior windows of stained glass broken or altogether missing.

The most moving memorials to me were those dedicated to the Jews deported to Nazi death camps.

Père Lachaise is filled with remarkable works of art and has become a hotspot for the dead and living alike. –Duke

Père Lachaise Cemetery Scavenger Hunt

What you should leave on the graves of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Georges Méliès and others. Finding them is part of the fun.

Think of Père Lachaise Cemetery as a large park — that just so happens to have a bunch of dead people buried in it

Think of Père Lachaise Cemetery as a large park — that just so happens to have a bunch of dead people buried in it

On the first day of class, a lot of my college professors would have everyone state an interesting fact about themselves. My go-to response was, “I like to hang out in cemeteries.”

I thought it was just odd enough to make me seem mysterious and it revealed my quirky nature.

At one point, the oversized testicles were removed, with the rumor being that the cemetery manager used them as paperweights.

It’s also true. I’m a sucker for cemeteries, whether they’re small graveyards tucked next to a church, with moldering tombstones or grand affairs with elaborate statues like the Cimiterio Monumentale I stumbled upon in Milan, Italy.

I’m a cemetery aficionado, a connoisseur, if you will. And hands down, there’s one cemetery that beats out all competitors: Père Lachaise in Paris, France.

Jim Morrison’s grave is barricaded off. Apparently his fans can be a bit unruly and destructive to other tombs

Jim Morrison’s grave is barricaded off. Apparently his fans can be a bit unruly and destructive to other tombs

It’s no surprise that Père Lachaise is said to be the most visited cemetery in the world. Situated in Paris’ 20th arrondissement, the necropolis is named for Father François d’Aix de La Chaise, who heard the many confessions of King Louis XIV.

There are 70,000-some graves packed into the 109 acres, many of them of famous individuals of all stripes. It became a scavenger hunt of sorts to use the map to try to locate particular graves — and once you find them, you realize many have a certain way people pay tribute to the ghosts of these great men and women.  

 

The iconic shot from Mélièrs’  A Trip to the Moon

The iconic shot from Mélièrs’ A Trip to the Moon

WHO: Georges Mélièrs, 1861-1938

FAMOUS FOR: Helping create the birth of cinema

WHAT TO LEAVE: Film canisters or something photography-related

Our first stop was at Méliers’ grave. He’s famous for A Trip to the Moon — you might have seen the iconic image of a rockship that lands in the eye of the Man in the Moon. The gorgeous and magical movie Hugo is a worthy tribute to Mélièrs.

This was our first hint at how difficult finding particular graves can be. We were sure we were in the right spot, but just couldn’t find Mélièrs’ tombstone. A nice older gentleman must have known what we were looking for — he came over and pointed down into a mass of tombstones. I spoke with him briefly in French. We realized the grave was a couple of rows deep on a narrow side path.

“There goes the stereotype of French people being rude,” Duke said. 

We still couldn’t find a way down into the depths, but then we saw a couple coming up the hill from the main road, like the entrance to a secret passage.

Leave something photo- or film-related on Mélièrs’ grave — or just a note

Leave something photo- or film-related on Mélièrs’ grave — or just a note

Wally’s note reads, “Thanks for all the magic!”

Wally’s note reads, “Thanks for all the magic!”

One never knows when some graveyard dirt will come in handy

One never knows when some graveyard dirt will come in handy

Oscar Wilde, the dandy himself

Oscar Wilde, the dandy himself

WHO: Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

FAMOUS FOR: Writer (The Portrait of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest), witticist, gay pioneer

WHAT TO LEAVE: A lipstick kiss

Wilde had some great lines. My personal favorite has always been: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

His grave is one of the more interesting ones at Père Lachaise. Part of the Art Deco stone monolith is an angular angel, with massive wings and anatomically correct privates. At one point, the oversized testicles were removed, with the rumor being that the cemetery manager used them as paperweights.

In the 1990s, a new tradition started: People would leave lipstick kisses on Wilde’s grave. It’s a sweet idea, and one I think Wilde himself would approve of. But the cemetery staff kept cleaning them off, which was causing irreparable damage.

So, in 2011, a glass wall was erected around the grave. So you can leave a kiss for Wilde — without damaging his tomb.

I didn’t happen to have any lipstick, so I wrote him a nice note and left that instead.

Even with a glass barrier, people still find ways to kiss Wilde’s grave. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind

Even with a glass barrier, people still find ways to kiss Wilde’s grave. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind

Wally is wild about Wilde

Wally is wild about Wilde

Édith Piaf

Édith Piaf

WHO: Édith Piaf, 1915-1963

FAMOUS FOR: Songstress (“La Vie en Rose”)

WHAT TO LEAVE: Roses

You’ll have to hunt for a grave marked, “Famille Gassion-Piaf.” I didn’t have any flowers, so I tried to draw one on a note I left on her tomb.

Not Wally’s best work, but he wanted to offer Piaf a flower of sorts

Not Wally’s best work, but he wanted to offer Piaf a flower of sorts

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

WHO: Marcel Proust, 1871-1922

FAMOUS FOR: Writer (In Search of Lost Time)

WHAT TO LEAVE: Métro ticket stubs

I couldn’t find anything about why people decided to start leaving subway ticket stubs. I could make up some bullshit about the subway trains symbolizing the passage of time — but it was probably the only thing a tourist had in their pocket, others followed suit, and a tradition was born.

These were the main graves we left tributes on. There are plenty of other celebrities’ graves to hunt down at Père Lachaise. Look over the list and decide which ones you’d like to honor. When in doubt, bring a pad of paper and write a note about how the person touched your life. Or start your own tradition.

If you’ve never spent an afternoon wandering through a cemetery, Père Lachaise is a great place to start. You’re sure to be converted. It might sound creepy, but it’s really not. Maybe it even helps us, in some small way, accept the inevitability of death. –Wally

Monumental Cemetery, Milan: A Sculpture Slideshow

One of my favorite things to do in Milan, Italy was wander through this graveyard and its statues that rival Père Lachaise in Paris.

I love cemeteries. They're some of my favorite places to spend a quiet afternoon. And this particular cemetery was like being in a sculpture park. 

It was my last day in Milan, Italy, and I came upon the Monumental Cemetery by accident.

If you’re someone who thinks cemeteries are depressing, think again.

As I was crossing a street, I saw the collonaded archway entrance at the end of the block. I didn't know what it was. But I was irresistably drawn to it. 

Imagine my delight when I discovered it was one of the most impressive cemeteries I had ever seen. 

I wandered the lanes for a couple of hours, marveling at the sculptures, snapping away at with my camera. 

Here are 30-some of my favorite pictures. (As you can tell, I had a hard time narrowing these down. They're all just so amazing.)

 

Drop Dead Gorgeous

The cemetery, known locally as the Cimitero Monumentale, was constructed from 1863 to 1866.

Someone decided to consolidate all the small graveyards that were spread throughout the city of Milan into two large cemeteries. The "common" people got the Cimitero Maggiore, while the rich got the Monumental Cemetery, which, when it comes down to it, it actually a beautiful outdoor museum. 

Spread over 62 acres, the cemetery has three distinct sections: one for Catholics, one for non-Catholic Christians and one for Jews.

Fun fact: One of the mausoleums has an elaborate sculpture depicting the Last Supper. This is the final resting place of the Campari family, who brought us those potent red bitters of the same name.

If you're someone who thinks cemeteries are depressing, think again. The Monumental Cemetery in Milan is just the place to have a change of heart. It's, well, heavenly. –Wally