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The Discovery of King Tut’s Tomb

The botched recovery and vandalism of Tutankhamun’s mummy (including its erection!) — and a connection to Downton Abbey.

Everyone ogles over the treasures of King Tut’s tomb — but few know how messy the recovery of the mummy was

Everyone ogles over the treasures of King Tut’s tomb — but few know how messy the recovery of the mummy was

Ancient Egypt’s most famous and recognizable pharaoh in the modern world was still a teenager when he died, and his nickname, King Tut, has become a household name. 

When Howard Carter discovered and unsealed Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and revealed its extraordinary contents, he sparked a global interest in archaeology and Ancient Egypt the likes of which had never before been seen. 

It took his team eight years to catalog and remove all of the ancient artifacts within the relatively small tomb. One can only begin to imagine the wealth of relics entombed within the larger royal sepulchres surrounding Tutankhamun’s, prior to being plundered over the centuries. 

New technologies and conservation continue to yield information about his treasures almost a century later. 

Carter (right) must have been dying of impatience while he awaited the arrival of Lord Carnarvon to begin excavating the tomb he found!

Carter (right) must have been dying of impatience while he awaited the arrival of Lord Carnarvon to begin excavating the tomb he found!

When Carnarvon Met Carter

George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was the patron who footed the bill for the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. He was also the lord of Highclere Castle, the impressive estate where Downton Abbey is filmed. And like the fictional Lord Grantham, Carnarvon married into money. 

Is that Downton Abbey? Sort of — the show is set in the real-life Highclere Castle, once home to Lord Carnarvon, who paid for the search for and excavation of Tut’s tomb

Is that Downton Abbey? Sort of — the show is set in the real-life Highclere Castle, once home to Lord Carnarvon, who paid for the search for and excavation of Tut’s tomb

He liked fast horses and even faster cars. A near-fatal automobile accident in 1903 (he was reportedly going a whopping 30 mph or so) left him in chronic pain, and his physician advised the restoring influence of a warmer climate. So he and Lady Carnarvon often spent their winters in Cairo, buying antiquities for their collection and sparking his passion for Egyptology. 

Carnarvon only lived five months after being a part of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun

Carnarvon only lived five months after being a part of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun

In 1907, Lord Carnavon was introduced to a driven and stubborn young archaeologist named Howard Carter by French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, who was the director general of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. 

From the very beginnings of their association, Carter wanted to excavate the Theban necropolis of the Valley of the Kings (modern-day Luxor) in search of the elusive tomb of a minor 18th Dynasty pharaoh, first known through a small faience cup inscribed with the king’s name that was found by American Egyptologist Theodore Davis in 1905. 

Permission to excavate in the valley was granted to Carnarvon in 1914 but didn’t commence until 1917 due to World War I. After four relatively fruitless seasons, and with the final resting place of Tutankhamun undiscovered, Carnarvon was ready to put an end to Carter’s search. Were it not for Carter’s insistence to continue for one more season, the tomb might never have been found. 


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The Boy King became the most famous pharaoh of Ancient Egypt when Carter discovered his unplundered tomb in the 1920s.

Was the tomb cursed?
What’s it like to visit today?

EXPLORE King Tut’s Tomb


Talk about a 12-step program! These stairs were the first evidence of the wonders that lay within this untouched tomb

Talk about a 12-step program! These stairs were the first evidence of the wonders that lay within this untouched tomb

On the morning of November 1, 1922, the top of a sunken staircase was revealed. By the following afternoon, 12 steps had been cleared. Carter ordered his men to refill the staircase and sent off the now-famous telegram to Carnavon, who was in England at the time: 

At last I have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations.

The earl’s death, five months after the tomb was opened, purportedly from a mosquito bite, is the stuff of legends and is regarded by some as evidence of the curse of the pharaoh. 

Be careful, Carter and Co.! The poor mummy of King Tut was horribly mangled during its removal process

Be careful, Carter and Co.! The poor mummy of King Tut was horribly mangled during its removal process

Off With His Head!

It wasn’t until 1925 that Tut’s mummy was finally revealed. The bands of linen cloth that covered the king from head to feet had been saturated by copious amounts of unguents and resins, leaving his desiccated skin the color and texture of nori seaweed. Perhaps it was thought that by making the boy king appear as Osiris, the god of the afterlife, the transgressions of his heretic father, Akhenaten, who foisted monotheism upon the unwilling population, would be forgiven. 

Whoops! Carter and his team accidentally decapitated the Boy King when they took off the funerary mask

Whoops! Carter and his team accidentally decapitated the Boy King when they took off the funerary mask

Over time these resins changed into a hardened black substance, acting as a glue and adhering his body to the coffin. Carter and his anatomist, Douglas Derry, had to chisel the king's remains out in pieces. Tut’s mummy was unceremoniously decapitated by Carter and his team when its golden death mask was removed. 

On the wall to the right, Tut is shown with his ka, or embodied soul, worshipping Osiris, the mummified god of the afterlife

On the wall to the right, Tut is shown with his ka, or embodied soul, worshipping Osiris, the mummified god of the afterlife

The Osiris Connection: A Boner of Contention

Beneath their swaddling, Tutankhamun's mortal remains had more than a few unusual features. According to Carter’s notes, a conical form, composed of linen bandages, was found atop the king’s head, its shape resembling the feathered, bowling pin-shaped atef crown of Osiris. 

Also noted by Carter was that Tut’s mummy had a woody. The royal penis was embalmed and preserved in an upright nearly 90-degree angle, perhaps symbolically evoking Osiris’ fertility and regenerative powers. 

Photographed after unwrapping by Harry Burton, Tut’s member was reported missing in 1968, when British scientist Ronald Harrison took a series of X-rays of the mummy. His royal endowment sprung up on a CT scan in 2006, hidden in the sand surrounding the king’s remains.

The consensus among Egyptologists was that additional damage to Tutankhamun’s mummy was done by looters sometime after Carter had finished clearing the tomb of its contents in 1932 — most likely during World War II and again in 1968. Both ears were missing, and the eyes had been pushed in. The standing theory is that the looters had bribed the Valley of the Kings guards to let them in, steal the remaining jewelry left in the tomb, and “blinded” and “deafened” the mummy to keep it from coming after them.  

The famous funerary mask of King Tut seems to help prove that Nefertiti did indeed become pharaoh

The famous funerary mask of King Tut seems to help prove that Nefertiti did indeed become pharaoh

A Recycled Mask From Nefertiti 

Interestingly, the most iconic of Tutankhamun’s treasures, his golden death mask, seems to have originally been intended for his stepmother, Nefertiti. 

The face, ears and beard of the beautifully wrought mask were modeled separately to represent the young king as Osiris. Research has revealed that one of the cartouche inscriptions found inside the mask was reinscribed in antiquity with Tutankhamun’s name imposed over the previous, partially erased cartouche of Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten, the official name used by Nefertiti after she became co-pharaoh of Egypt. This has led some to believe that, like Hatshepsut, Ancient Egyptians attempted to edit out a woman’s rule as king. 

Can you imagine how freaked out the museum staff must have been when they broke off King Tut’s funerary mask beard?!

Can you imagine how freaked out the museum staff must have been when they broke off King Tut’s funerary mask beard?!

The Broken Beard 

In August 2014, the elongated braided beard attached to that iconic funerary mask accidentally snapped off while staff at the Egyptain Museum in Cairo were replacing a lightbulb in its glass display case. A sloppy attempt to hastily reattach the beard with epoxy followed, further damaging the treasured 3,300-year-old mask. This iconic item was taken off display to be restored by a team of German specialists. The resinous glue was carefully removed and the beard reattached with beeswax, an adhesive used in antiquity. 

This 1925 photo by Harry Burton shows that Tut’s beard had broken off previously

This 1925 photo by Harry Burton shows that Tut’s beard had broken off previously

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time the beard had been separated from the mask, though. Photographs taken of the artifact in 1925 by Burton are of a beardless Tut, and it apparently wasn’t reattached until the 1940s. 

The scarab on this necklace was created by a meteorite crash!

The scarab on this necklace was created by a meteorite crash!

Jewelry That’s Literally Out of This World 

Among the incredible objects discovered in Tut’s tomb was a protective scarab pendant featuring a rare chartreuse yellow gemstone originally identified as chalcedony by Carter. However, modern researchers determined that it’s not a stone at all but a type of extraterrestrial glass created by a meteorite that crashed into the silica-rich sands of the Grand Sand Sea millions of years ago. Known as Libyan desert glass, this material was valued by the Ancient Egyptians as having celestial origins. –Duke

A Brief History of King Tut

The all-too-short life of the Boy King, Tutankhamun, who gained fame when Howard Carter discovered his tomb — one of the only ones in the Valley of the Kings that wasn’t plundered by grave robbers.

This is what King Tut’s tomb looked like when Howard Carter discovered it in 1922

This is what King Tut’s tomb looked like when Howard Carter discovered it in 1922

Ever since I was a young boy, I’d yearned to visit Egypt. I was fascinated by King Tutankhamun and the discovery of his mostly intact tomb, with its wealth of magnificent, well-preserved artifacts. 

For starters, the Boy King’s legacy is fascinating. Filled with political corruption, incest, religious upheaval and a possible murder, his history is just as epic as the eight seasons of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones — and, much like the addictive HBO adaptation, it all collapsed in the end. 

Born in 1341 BCE, his given name was Tutankhaten, Beloved of the Aten, the solar disc of the sun worshipped at Amarna, the capital city established by his father, Akhenaten, the revolutionary heretic king who embraced Aten as the sole supreme being for Egyptians to worship. 

A sphinx bearing the head of Tutankhamun at the Luxor Museum

A sphinx bearing the head of Tutankhamun at the Luxor Museum

The Boy King

Tut was nicknamed the Boy King because he ascended the throne around the age of 8 or 9. Some historians have suggested his vizier, Ay, was the real power behind the throne, citing that it was Ay’s decision to abandon the new capital city of Amarna and restore the authority of the priests and the polytheistic pantheon of Thebes. Whatever the case, when Tut died without an heir, Ay briefly became king. 

Like other pharaohs, Tutankhamun took five royal names, and most of us know him by his fifth nomen, Tutankhamun, after he dropped the -aten suffix in favor of -amun, chief among the old gods. Ancient Egyptians, though, would have called him by his prenomen or throne name, Nebkheperure, which essentially meant Ra Is the Lord of Manifestations to honor a different sun god. 

A goddess guards Tut’s canopic shrine

A goddess guards Tut’s canopic shrine

Incest Is Best?

Tutankhamun was married to his half-sister, Ankhesenamun. The practice of incest to keep the royal bloodline pure was common among the ruling class of Ancient Egypt. They regarded themselves as representatives of the divine on earth. Atum, the god of creation, produced his children Shu and Tefnut by his own hand (aka jerking off). His daughter Tefnut married her twin brother Shu, and voilà! Nut and Geb were added to the ever-expanding pantheon of incestuous liasons. 

Tut and Ankesenamun had two stillborn daughters, likely casualties of genetic deficiencies from generations of inbreeding. Their tiny mummified fetuses were buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb. A DNA study revealed that one was 5 to 6 months old and the other 9 months old. 

Because of his link to the scandalous Akhenaten, Tut’s reign was eventually struck from the record by his successors. Between the ever-shifting desert sands and the Ancient Egyptians attempt to remove all traces of the “Amarna heresy,” Tutankhamun was literally out of sight and out of mind. This in all likelihood helped to preserve his tomb. 


The Abydos Kings List

The Abydos Kings List

Tutankhamun, Akhenaten (aka Amenhotep IV), Ay, Hatshepsut and Meryneith were some of the rulers stricken from the official record. 

LEARN MORE about the Kings List in the Abydos Temple. 


Lord Carnarvon, his daughter Evelyn and Howard Carter

Lord Carnarvon, his daughter Evelyn and Howard Carter

The Untouched Tomb

Unlike other royal tombs, which were looted in antiquity (often by the very laborers who built them), 5,000-some items were found inside King Tut’s tomb. 

British archaeologist Howard Carter was no stranger to the Valley of the Kings and had been obsessively searching for the elusive burial site of Tutankhamun for years. In 1914, his financier George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, secured a license to excavate a parcel of land close to the tomb of Ramesses VI. Carter hired a crew of workers to help find the tomb, but was halted by World War I.

By 1922, Lord Carnarvon, frustrated with the lack of progress and financially spread thin, informed Carter that he would only extend funding for one more season unless Carter struck pay dirt. Like sand in an hourglass, time was running out, when, on November 4, while excavating the very last plot, the crews’ waterboy discovered a step that appeared to be part of a tomb. Carter immediately wired his employer, and the excited Lord Carnarvon arrived two and a half weeks later, with his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert. 

Carter made a tiny hole in the plaster-sealed entrance. By the light of a candle, he was stunned by what he saw and wrote in his diary:

Presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold — everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment — an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by — I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Carter and an assistant unveiled the remains of Tutankhamum

Carter and an assistant unveiled the remains of Tutankhamum

Next came the laborious task of cataloging and removing each artifact from the tomb, beginning with the antechamber. Carter called upon the skilled archaeological photographer Harry Burton, who happened to be among the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian expedition team working at the nearby site of Deir el-Bahari. Burton captured the contents of the tomb as they were found. Then, a sketch and description were made on numbered cards before the object was carried out on wooden stretchers. Carter would eventually catalog thousands of artifacts from the tomb. The final contents were finally removed 11 years later, on November 10, 1933.

Did breaking this seal unleash a curse upon all present?!

Did breaking this seal unleash a curse upon all present?!

The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb

Shortly after the burial chamber was opened, stories of the legendary mummy’s curse began surfacing. Rumors quickly spread that Carter had found a clay tablet over the tomb’s entrance that read, “Death shall come on swift wings to whoever toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh.” 

Near the end of February 1923, Carnarvon was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito. He reopened the bite while shaving, a seemingly innocuous event that would prove fatal. Carnarvon died in Cairo two weeks later from sepsis-abetted pneumonia. 

Even the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who by this time had stopped writing his popular Sherlock Holmes mysteries in favor of spiritualist leanings, weighed in, declaring to the press that “an evil elemental may have caused Lord Carnavon’s fatal illness. One does not know what elementals existed in those days, nor what their form might be. The Egyptians knew a great deal more about these things than we do.” 

Carter, however, seems to have escaped the mummy’s curse and lived on until 1939, when he died of lymphoma at the age of 64.

You’ll have to pay an extra $15 or so to see King Tut’s mummy and tomb

You’ll have to pay an extra $15 or so to see King Tut’s mummy and tomb

Visiting King Tut’s Tomb

While exploring the Valley of the Kings, Wally and I decided to pay the extra fee of 250 Egyptian pounds (about $15) to see KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun. The site isn’t included with the three tombs that are part of the 200 L.E. fee to the royal necropolis. I imagine this cost is a measure put in place by the Department of Antiquities to limit the amount of visitors entering the tomb. Moisture from breath and perspiration increase humidity levels in the subterranean rock-cut chambers, which in turn damage the lime plaster wall paintings covering the walls. 

The small tomb is less impressive than the other ones you’ll visit in the Valley of the Kings and lacks the elaborate linear design predominantly used by New Kingdom pharaohs — the sun god Ra would find himself challenged, having to follow some twists and turns as he makes his nightly descent at sunset. 

Unlike other tombs, which are covered with paintings, only Tut’s burial chamber is decorated

Unlike other tombs, which are covered with paintings, only Tut’s burial chamber is decorated

Tut’s mummified remains lie on display in a climate-controlled glass box in the tomb’s antechamber. We were the only ones inside at the time and were followed around by a guard, probably to make sure we didn’t take pictures. I incorrectly assumed that my photography pass would be valid and that I could take non-flash pictures while inside. I learned that was not the case when I tried to take a shot of the Boy King’s remains. –Duke

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

14 ways this powerful Ancient Egyptian woman used genderbending to become a female pharaoh, as revealed in Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King.

Everyone knows all about Cleopatra, the clever seductress of two powerful Roman men who ruled over Ancient Egypt.

But without her forebear Hatshepsut, there might never have been a Cleopatra. Surely Cleopatra looked upon the woman who rose to the upper echelon of power as a true inspiration.

What made Hatshepsut’s success all the more remarkable was how unprecedented it was. Sadly, for the most part, feminism hasn’t progressed beyond the traditional patriarchy over the past few millennia. Case in point, the United States has yet to elect a woman as president.

In the ancient world, having a woman at the top of the political pyramid was practically unheard of. Patriarchal systems ruled the day, and royal wives, sisters, and daughters served as members of the king’s harem or as important priestesses in his temples, not as political leaders. Throughout the Mediterranean and northwest Asia, female leadership was perceived with suspicion, if not outright aversion.

–Kara Cooney, “The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt”


LEARN 9 FASCINATING FACTS about Hatshepsut’s early life here.


In terms of the ancient world, Hatshepset truly was a remarkable woman. As our guide Mamduh mused, “They should make a movie about her — maybe many movies.”

Thank Sobek for Jean-François Champollion! He was the first to find references to our remarkable pharaoh in the modern era

Thank Sobek for Jean-François Champollion! He was the first to find references to our remarkable pharaoh in the modern era

“History records only one female ruler who successfully negotiated a systematic rise to power — without assassinations or coups — during a time of peace, who formally labeled herself with the highest position known in government, and who ruled for a significant stretch of time: Hatshepsut,” writes Kara Cooney in The Woman Who Would Be King.

During her prosperous reign, gold, cedar, ebony and other goods flowed through Egypt, and the temples, shrines and obelisks raised in her name were so impressive that later pharaohs endeavored to be buried nearby, creating the Valley of the Kings.

Incidentally, we have French archaeologist Jean-François Champollion to thank for rediscovering the first hints of Hatshepset’s existence in 1928 — apparently, deciphering the Rosetta Stone wasn’t enough of a claim to fame. 

Even Hatshepsut must have felt that her cross-dressing image was a bit too shocking for the time.

So how exactly did Hatshepsut move beyond being a queen regent to divine ruler? I do wonder how she viewed herself — could she be the first trans leader in history?


The loss of a nose makes this statue of Egypt’s first female king, Sobeknefru, a bit too creepy

The loss of a nose makes this statue of Egypt’s first female king, Sobeknefru, a bit too creepy

1. There was actually a female king of Egypt before Hatshepsut.

Just like Cleopatra, Hatshepsut had a role model from the past. Sobeknefru, daughter of Pharaoh Amenemhat III of the Twelfth Dynasty, ruled Egypt around 1800 BCE — about three centuries before Hatshepsut was born.

2. There wasn’t even a proper word for queen — so Sobeknefru blended masculine and feminine iconography.

The queens of Ancient Egypt were known as hemt neswt, or wife of the king — “a title with no implications of rule or power in its own right, only a description of a woman’s connection to the king as husband,” Cooney writes. To truly be seen as the ultimate ruler of the country, Sobeknefru had to take on the masculine title of “king.”

“Clothing was more problematic,” Cooney continues, “and Sobeknefru depicted herself wearing not only the masculine headdress of kingship but also the male royal kilt over the dress garments of a royal wife.”


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THE FIRST FEMALE KING OF EGYPT, Sobeknefru, was named for the crocodile god, Sobek.

Learn more about his worship from our post on the temple of Kom Ombo.


3. A title shift on Hatshepsut’s monuments at Karnak might be the first clue of her massive ambitions.

A few years before she even became king, Hatshepsut dropped the title of God’s Wife, opting instead for the title of King’s Eldest Daughter. While the role of high priestess was one of the most powerful in Ancient Egypt, the adoption of this new title set the stage for a legitimate claim to the throne. 

“Some Egyptologists see this rejiggering of her personal relationships as the crux of her power grab, a shift that moved her from a queen’s role to an heir’s, as the rightful offspring of Thutmose I and one who could make a heritable claim to the throne despite her female gender,” Cooney writes.

4. Like Sobeknefru before her, Hatshepsut reinvented her image as a nonbinary gender. 

Another section at Karnak, the most massive temple complex of the day, in the royal city of Thebes, present-day Luxor, depicts Hatshepsut in men’s garments along with women’s.

The block “shows Hatshepsut wearing the gown of a queen on her body but the crown of a king upon her head,” Cooney writes. “The atef crown — a fabulous and extravagant amalgamation of ram’s horns and tall double plumes — was depicted atop her short masculine wig, probably to the shock of the craftsmen in charge of cutting the decoration. It was a confusing image for the Egyptian viewer to digest: a female king performing royal duties, offering jars of wine directly to the god, and all before any official coronation.”

5. She also took on a throne name, a privilege reserved for kings — again, before she was even crowned.

In the text on the same monument at Karnak, Hatshepsut called herself the One of the Sedge and of the Bee, which is translated as King of Upper and Lower Egypt.

What’s more, she introduced a throne name, Maatkare, The Soul of Re Is Truth. This act was “inconceivable,” according to Cooney. “Hatshepsut was transforming her role into a strange hybrid of rule ordained before it had officially happened,” she writes.

Part of her throne name is the goddess of truth and justice, “implying that at the heart of the sun god’s power was a feminine entity, Ma’at, the source that was believed to keep the cosmos straight and true,” Cooney writes, continuing, “Hatshepsut’s throne name communicated to her people that her kingship was undoubtedly feminine, and that feminine justice was necessary to maintain life with proper order, judgment, and continuance.”

6. About nine years into Thutmose III’s reign, Hatshepsut was crowned pharaoh — meaning there were two kings simultaneously on the throne.

When Hatshepsut was about 24 years old, in 1478 BCE, “the impossible happened,” as Cooney states. Thutmose III might have been a child, but he was still officially the king. Yet Hatshepsut, that wonderful feminist icon, decided to stop being the queen regent and that she would share the throne with her young nephew.

In this carving from her funerary temple, Hatshepsut is shown as a male, wearing the false beard and crown of the pharaoh

In this carving from her funerary temple, Hatshepsut is shown as a male, wearing the false beard and crown of the pharaoh

7. Hatshepsut’s coronation was an elaborate affair that was, apparently, attended by the gods themselves.

The coronation took place in the temple complex of Karnak over the course of several days. If we’re to believe Hatshepsut, her dead-but-deified father, Thutmose I, was the first to place the crown upon her head. The cow-headed goddess Hathor was also present, shouting a greeting and giving her a big hug. And the chief god, Amen-Re (also spelled Amun-Ra), “personally placed the double crown upon Hatshepsut’s head and invested her with the crook and flail of kingship, saying that he created her specifically to rule over his holy lands, to rebuild his temples and to perform ritual activity for him,” Cooney writes.

What better way for Hatshepsut to be seen as a legitimate monarch than by having received the blessings of the gods? She really wanted to hammer home the supposed events of her coronation day — she had images of the gods crowning her chiseled into the major house of worship of the time, Karnak, as well as her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari.


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SEE THE WONDROUS ARCHITECTURE of Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — and learn more about this surprisingly modern-looking structure.


8. Upon being crowned, Hatshepsut changed her birth name — yet another instance of gender ambiguity.

Hatshepsut added Khenemetenamen to the front of her name, “which, although unpronounceable for most of us,” Cooney writes, “essentially meant ‘Hatshepsut, United with Amen,’ communicating that her spirit had mingled with the very mind of the god Amen through a divine communion.” 

Interestingly, she kept a feminine ending as part of the construction of that mouthful of a name. “There was no subterfuge about her femininity in her new royal names, but her womanly core was now linked with a masculine god through her kingship,” Cooney adds.

9. Hatshepsut’s royal names didn’t hide the fact that she was a woman. She was out to change the very perception of a king.

Egyptian kings liked to prove how macho they were, choosing names like Ka-ankht, Strong Bull. Hatshepsut’s Horus name was Useret-kau, Powerful of Ka Spirits, tying herself not to physical (and sexual) prowess, but to the mysterious might of the spirits of the dead. 

Like her new birth name, Hatshepsut used the feminine -t ending. “She and her priests knew her limitations as a woman and seemed interested in flexibility rather than deceit,” Cooney explains. “She became king in name and title, but she knew that she could not transform into a king’s masculine body. She couldn’t impregnate a harem of women with any divine seed. There was no need for her royal names to point out those deficiencies or to lie about her true nature. Instead, she and her priests focused on how her femininity could coalesce with and complement masculine powers.”

Only kings wore these long false beards — though only Amun knows why!

Only kings wore these long false beards — though only Amun knows why!

10. Hatshepsut immediately upgraded her existing iconography once she became pharaoh.

All of the images of her as queen under Thutmose III were altered to show her as the senior king of a co-regency. “No longer would she be depicted as subordinate to Thutmose III,” Cooney writes. “Every sacred space in Egypt was changed, especially in the cultic centers of power, where an image translated into reality and to write or depict something was to make it come into existence.”

11. The color of Hatshepsut’s skin in her statuary demonstrated her progression from female to male. 

Females in Ancient Egyptian art were shown with yellow skin, while males were red ochre. It’s thought that women were inside more often (weaving in the harem, one supposes) and didn’t get as tanned as the manly men out on military expeditions and the like. While Hatshepsut’s early statues stuck with the traditional yellow skin tone, later depictions, such as the ones showing her as Osiris, the god of rebirth at her funerary temple, are of an orange hue — a strangely androgynous colorization that must have baffled people at the time. By the end of her reign, Hatshepsut had adopted the red skin associated with males.

Statue after statue of Hatshepsut in a mummy pose like the god Osiris lines her funeral temple. The color has long since faded, but these carvings once had orange skin — in-between the yellow used for women and the red used for men

Statue after statue of Hatshepsut in a mummy pose like the god Osiris lines her funeral temple. The color has long since faded, but these carvings once had orange skin — in-between the yellow used for women and the red used for men

12. In addition to skin color, Hatshepsut’s statues started taking on more and more male characteristics.

Early on, Hatshepsut’s genderbending positioned her as truly androgynous. On a lifesize statue from her funerary temple, she has a woman’s facial features, graceful shoulders and small, pert breasts — but she’s shirtless and wearing a king’s kilt. Even Hatshepsut must have felt that this cross-dressing image was a bit too shocking for the time. It was placed in the innermost chambers of her temple, away from the public, where only the most elite would ever see it. This drastic hybrid sexuality was never replicated.

Eventually, Hatshepsut’s statues had broader shoulders, and her breasts became the firm pecs of an idealized young man.

Because Hatshepsut presented herself as a male, Egyptologists can’t tell whether this is a statue of her or of her co-king, Thutmose III

Because Hatshepsut presented herself as a male, Egyptologists can’t tell whether this is a statue of her or of her co-king, Thutmose III

13. Hieroglyphic text went back and forth between referring to Hatshepsut as a female and as a male.

Sometimes she was “she;” sometimes she was “he.” On occasion, she was the Son of Ra, the sun god; more often she was referred to as the Daughter of Ra. Once in a while, she was called the “good god,” but most of the time — even accompanying a masculinized image of her — she was the “good goddess.”

14. Like many a pharaoh, Hatshepsut told a story of her divine birth.

The combo god Amun-Ra is said to have visited her mother in her bedchamber. “She awoke because of the fragrance of the god,” the text reads. I’m sure a bit more happened than this, but Hatshepsut chose to depict the moment as her mom and Amun-Ra sitting across from each other, hands touching, gazing sweetly into each other’s eyes.

This avant-garde woman rose to the highest political rank in a society over 3,000 years ago. So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that after her death, her successor tried his very best to wipe all references to his aunt being king from the face of the planet. –Wally

Interview With an Archaeologist

A firsthand account of what it was like to excavate the Hatshepsut temple at Deir el-Bahari in the 1970s.

Kenneth shares his experience as an archaeologist in Luxor, Egypt in the early 1970s

Kenneth shares his experience as an archaeologist in Luxor, Egypt in the early 1970s

Archaeology is one of those careers that sounds so thrilling — I always picture Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones on his search for the Ark of the Covenant (minus the snakes). But it turns out that, more often than not, this profession means long hours, low pay, and months or years of tedious fieldwork.

That being said, when Kenneth reached out to us with a kind note about our blog, mentioning that he had been briefly involved with the excavation of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahari, we simply had to learn more. 

He obliged with an interview of what it was like to be an archaeologist in Egypt half a century ago, back when he was a starving field worker put up at the now-glamorous Winter Palace hotel, “in a shabby, Nile-view room with the bathroom far down the hall.” –Wally

The Colossi of Memnon stood as they do today, in a clearing surrounded by fields. But there were no barriers of any kind — you could climb the statues if agile enough

The Colossi of Memnon stood as they do today, in a clearing surrounded by fields. But there were no barriers of any kind — you could climb the statues if agile enough

What was it like being an archaeologist?

I was not a classical archaeologist for very long. (Not nearly as long as it took me to get my degree!) Turns out I liked to eat. And pay rent. Field work, which was really the reason I went into archaeology, pays next to nothing. There’s always a candidate working towards their doctorate who will offer to do the work for free. 

In 1969 I worked in Winchester, England (the Roman capital of Britain) under the well-respected British archaeologist Martin Biddle and Birthe, his Danish-born archaeologist wife. It was Martin who got me a temporary position the next season with the joint British-Polish expedition working at Deir el-Bahari. 

I was only at Luxor a few months before the Vietnam War intruded and I went off to the Navy. When I was discharged in 1973, the Arab-Israeli War was looming and available funds for archaeological work in Egypt had completely dried up. I took what I thought would be a temporary job as a flight attendant, fell in love with the job and stayed 30 years. During that time, I met my husband, Michael (we celebrated our 35th anniversary last week), and the impracticality of going off on a months-long dig and leaving Michael at home put an end to any thoughts of returning to archaeology. 

The top colonnade on Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — which did not exist in 1970 — is complete in this 1989 photo

The top colonnade on Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — which did not exist in 1970 — is complete in this 1989 photo

What was the project you were working on? 

In 1970 restoration work was focusing on the third tier of Hatshepsut’s temple. The structure has been extensively rebuilt. Some Egyptologists would say overly rebuilt. 

There was an ongoing search for stone blocks that had been appropriated by later pharaohs to use for their own building projects. In Upper Egypt there are vast areas filled with thousands of broken stone blocks from fallen or dismantled  structures. Often, missing stones from a particular ancient monument can be discovered and moved (at great effort and expense) to their original site.

Kenneth’s husband, Michael, studying the statue of Horus at the temple at Edfu

Kenneth’s husband, Michael, studying the statue of Horus at the temple at Edfu

Imagine you are working on a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces are missing. In the next room someone has dumped into a huge pile thousands and thousands of pieces from hundreds of different jigsaw puzzles. In that pile you might find the missing pieces from your puzzle. The image on one of the pieces you are missing will be of a human arm. The left arm. And so as you sift through the huge pile of dumped puzzle pieces you are looking for one bearing the image of a left arm. 

Of course, in Ancient Egypt when a stone was reused, it often had carving on one side. The stone would be turned so the carving was no longer visible, and a new carving would be done on a blank side of the stone block. Five hundred years later, the block might be reused again, and so there would be a third side that would be carved…

So, going back to that pile of jigsaw pieces, as you are looking for that image of a left arm, you’re having to turn each puzzle piece because there are different images on each side of each piece.

Fifty years ago, it was a laborious task to try to find a particular stone in one of many locations up and down the Nile. (Now, computers do the work in seconds.) There were huge books full of illustrations of thousands of “available” stones. One needed to just keep looking. And if — by chance — a stone with the left arm was found, arrangements had to be made to legally acquire and move a multi-ton block of granite or sandstone. Reams of paperwork were required. It was what we’d call grunt work. And that's mostly what I did. No glamour. No glint of gold in the sand. It was pouring over books and filling out paperwork. But it was Egypt, and I loved it. (At Winchester I was actually on my hands and knees, excavating a burial ground filled with Roman soldiers. I found coins minted under the reign of Hadrian and carved-bone dice for gambling, and because of the high peat content of the soil, well-preserved leather sandals as well. Skeleton after skeleton too — some of the bodies pathetically shattered in battle.) 

What’s your take on Hatshepsut? 

Well, of course she’s a fascinating person. The oldest known woman on the planet. She jumps out at us, her carved thoughts in many instances perfectly preserved because Thutmose III covered them with a layer of stone: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”

I think that Hatshepsut, like Cleopatra Vll, 13 centuries later (and Joan of Arc, 1,400 years after that), must have dazzled through the sheer force of her personality, to have accomplished what she did. Usurping her stepson’s throne might have made sense if the lad was unwell or unfit for the job. But he went on to be one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs! Was that despite Hatshepsut, or because of her?

Kenneth posing with Cleopatra and Caesarion on the rear wall of the temple complex at Dendera

Kenneth posing with Cleopatra and Caesarion on the rear wall of the temple complex at Dendera

When I worked in Egypt, there was only a slim hope that Hatshepsut’s body would ever be found. The fact that her architect (and supposed lover) Senemut’s red granite sarcophagus had been discovered broken into many pieces and spread across the desert seemed to indicate a royal temper tantrum that could very well have been Thutmose lll’s. Easy to imagine him hating the commoner whom Hatshepsut had showered with titles. I always thought that if Thutmose hated Senemut that much, he must have hated his ruling stepmother as well. The thought of ever finding her remains struck me as highly unlikely. I figured he eventually “grew a pair” and had her murdered and her body fed to the jackals.

But no! Now we know she was lying right under our noses in KV20 in the Valley of the Kings! And the proof that it was her right there in the Cairo Museum: one of Hatshepsut's molars, packed in a small wooden box bearing her cartouche, and matching the gap in her mummified jaw. And we now know she grew old, and fat — with pendulous breasts. A life lived long!

So how and why was the throne eventually turned over to Thutmose? That is a mystery we may never unravel. I like to think Thutmose may have been a late bloomer. That his smart, capable stepmother watched over him and groomed him to become the great pharaoh he was.  

The timeless Old Cataract, which Kenneth and Michael say is “one of our favorite hotels anywhere in the world.” Wally and Duke agree!

The timeless Old Cataract, which Kenneth and Michael say is “one of our favorite hotels anywhere in the world.” Wally and Duke agree!

What was your favorite memory of that time in Egypt? 

There were no tourists! War with Israel was looming. Luxor was virtually empty. Once, on a day off, I had Luxor Temple entirely to myself. Walking down a colonnade, between towering pillars, a falcon flew just over my head, sailing along ahead of me about 20 feet in the air. At the end of the colonnade, he rose up and landed on top of the head of an enormous statue — a statue of Horus. I just stood perfectly still, savoring the moment, and feeling I’d been visited by a god.

The floating restaurant Bodour, moored just upriver from the Winter Palace in Luxor, was one of their favorite places to dine, with its sumptuous Belle Epoque furnishings

The floating restaurant Bodour, moored just upriver from the Winter Palace in Luxor, was one of their favorite places to dine, with its sumptuous Belle Epoque furnishings

What was your least favorite memory of Egypt? 

The food. I grew up in health-conscious San Francisco. I was desperate for salads, which were not safe anywhere in Egypt because produce was routinely fertilized with human excrement. I gave in to temptation on a quick trip to Cairo and ordered a chef’s salad at the Nile Hilton, the hotel in the city. (It's now the Ritz-Carlton.) I thought, “Surely it will be safe to eat a salad here."” Nope. I ended up at Cairo's American Hospital for two days!

The rising sun turns the Theban mountains pink. As you can see, the West Bank was entirely agricultural. Luxor had yet to jump the river

The rising sun turns the Theban mountains pink. As you can see, the West Bank was entirely agricultural. Luxor had yet to jump the river

How has Egypt changed since the 1970s?

As far as the monuments are concerned, 50 years is a mere blink of the eye. The ancient stones are unchanged. What has changed is contemporary Egypt. In 1970 the view across the Nile from the Winter Place was one of cultivated fields and the distant Theban mountains. That was it. (I could just make out the ramps at Deir el-Bahari from my room’s balcony.) There were hardly any visible West Bank buildings at all. The few villages, such as sand-colored Qurna, blended in with the cliffs. These days, the city of Luxor has jumped the river and spread along the West Bank.

The Tomb of Ramesses IV in the Valley of the Kings

KV2 is a particularly fine example of these once-hidden burial chambers, where magic spells helped guide the pharaoh through the afterlife.

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

Arid, desolate and dusty, the colorless desert landscape of the Valley of the Kings belies the magic and mysticism hidden beneath in the tombs of the pharaohs. 

Our early morning arrival allowed us to avoid some of the crowds, a welcome reprieve, as we’d travelled halfway around the world and didn’t want to share our trip with throngs of other tourists. And though the entrances to Egypt’s New Kingdom pharaohs’ burial chambers were intended to remain secret, they now dot the barren tract of land in every direction you look.

Early explorers, such as Jean-François Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone), used the tomb as lodging during their time excavating the Valley of the KIngs.
Wally near the tomb’s entrance

Wally near the tomb’s entrance

While visiting the site, your ticket includes admission for three tombs. Our guide, Mamduh, chose the tombs of Ramesses III, IV and IX — each of which is beautiful and unique in its own way.

We refer to many Egyptian pharaohs with Roman numerals like those of the kings of Europe. But, as Barbara Mertz points out in Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs, “such designations were never used by the Egyptians. (It’s easier to keep track of these fellows by such means than by trying to remember their distinctive throne names, which are often annoyingly similar and which were sometimes changed midreign.)”

The pharaoh with the god Horus

The pharaoh with the god Horus

Heqamaatre Ramesses, otherwise known as Ramesses IV, was the fifth and youngest son of Pharaoh Ramesses III. He was appointed crown prince by the 22nd year of his father’s reign, after his brothers had died — it wasn’t uncommon for people to die young in Ancient Egypt. With the assasination of his father in 1156 BCE, Ramesses IV, who was at this time middle-aged, inherited the throne. He died a mere six years into his reign. 

Magic spells line the walls of the tomb to guide Ramesses through the dangers of the afterlife

Magic spells line the walls of the tomb to guide Ramesses through the dangers of the afterlife

Passage to the Underworld

Each site in the Valley of the Kings now has a designator that begins with KV, for Kings’ Valley. Ramessess IV’s tomb is known as KV2 and has been open since antiquity. The area in front of the entranceway to the tomb was excavated by Edward Ayrton in 1905, and later by Howard Carter in 1920 (of King Tut fame). The archeological dig yielded a few relics, including shabti figures (which would act as servants in the afterlife) and glass and glazed earthenware pottery known as faience. 

Early explorers, such as Jean-François Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone), Ippolito Rosellini and Theodore David, among others, used the tomb as lodging during their time excavating the valley. 

The entryway has a staircase divided by a sloping central ramp that descends into a linear 292-foot-long passageway representing the symbolic journey of the sun god Ra (or Re). The tomb’s design is comprised of three corridors, an antechamber and a burial chamber with small annex chambers beyond.  A large number of Coptic Christian and Roman graffiti can be seen scattered throughout the tomb, including prayers, drawings of crosses and saints. A particularly large inscription in red paint can be seen near the entrance to the tomb.

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Unlike other tombs from this era, KV2’s original design was modified: The chamber intended to be a pillared hall was converted to a burial chamber when the king died sooner than expected. Ramesses IV had doubled the workforce on the project to speed it along, but no one can stop death from coming — even a deified ruler.

A pair of rectangular niches set high into the walls at the front of the second corridor are decorated with manifestations of Ra. These figures continue as a register above the texts of the Litany of Re, which cover both walls of this corridor. The detailed carvings remain vibrant, despite the age of the tomb. 

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Seeing Stars 

The third corridor contains a vaulted ceiling decorated with scenes from the funerary text the Book of Caverns. Although no well shaft was ever cut, a descending ramp passes through the antechamber and ends at the burial chamber’s entrance. Surrounded by golden stars on a blue background, the king’s names follow the path of the sun — the pharaoh and Ra had become one. 

The paint is surprisingly bright, considering it’s millennia old

The paint is surprisingly bright, considering it’s millennia old

The massive stone sarcophagus would have housed at least two coffins like nesting dolls

The massive stone sarcophagus would have housed at least two coffins like nesting dolls

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

In the burial chamber, scenes from the Book of Gates show towering gateways that separate the divisions of the underworld guarded by fire-spitting serpents. Illustrations from other funerary texts, including the Amduat and the Book of Heavens, were inscribed on the ceiling of the sarcophagus chamber, depicting Ra’s nightly journey through the underworld. 

Watch out for snakes! A depiction of what we can expect in death

Watch out for snakes! A depiction of what we can expect in death

Scenes from funerary texts were carved onto the walls of the tomb

Scenes from funerary texts were carved onto the walls of the tomb

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Ancient Egyptians believed that paintings could come to life — no need to bury servants alive; just draw them on the wall!

Ancient Egyptians believed that paintings could come to life — no need to bury servants alive; just draw them on the wall!

The burial chamber is almost filled by the massive quartzite sarcophagus. Twin figures of the sky goddess Nut are depicted on the ceiling, her elastic, naked body held aloft by her father Shu, the god of air and sunlight. Nut’s arms and legs extend downward to touch the horizon. Each night she swallows the sun disk, which travels through her body and emerges in the form of a winged scarab from her womb in the morning. 

Ramesses IV’s tomb is an impressive example of New Kingdom burial chambers — though I’m not sure I’d want to have a slumber party in there like all those archaeologists. –Duke

 
You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

The Tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings

Explore KV11, one of the largest tombs in Luxor, and learn why it takes a strange and sudden turn.

Most tombs have a long, straight corridor — but this one takes a slight turn because it ran into a neighboring burial site!

Most tombs have a long, straight corridor — but this one takes a slight turn because it ran into a neighboring burial site!

Egypt is a country steeped in myth and history, and one of the most interesting places to see this can be found on the West Bank of the Nile River — the direction of the setting sun and the underworld of ancient Egypt. Known as the Valley of the Kings, it was part of the capital city of Thebes and was where the tombs of the deceased New Kingdom pharaohs were built. 

As mentioned in an earlier post on the Valley of the Kings, the admission price (160 Egyptian pounds, or about $9) includes three tombs. We had read about the richly decorated tombs filled with spells and scenes from the Book of the Dead and couldn’t wait to see them with our own eyes. 

Ramesses III’s mummy was so unappealing that it became the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film “The Mummy.”

Rasha from Egypt Sunset Tours arranged our itinerary, including our guide and driver, and could not have been more accommodating and flexible. One of the tombs included on our visit  was KV11, that of Ramesses III. (These kings are sometimes spelled Ramses or Rameses, though we’ve gone with the most widely used by Egyptologists, Ramesses.)

The pharaoh is welcomed to the afterlife by the falcon-headed god Horus

The pharaoh is welcomed to the afterlife by the falcon-headed god Horus

Ramesses III, the Great Bull

Usermaatre-Meryamun, or Ramesses III, was the second Twentieth Dynasty ruler and considered to be one of the last great pharaohs of the New Kingdom, before Egypt plunged into chaos. Being king meant that he had five royal names. His Horus name, which he adopted upon taking the throne, was something along the lines of Kanakht Asnesyt, which translates to the Great Bull, Great of Kingship. (Names typically have multiple spelling variants after transliteration which aims to preserve sound, given differences in the languages’ sounds and writing systems.) 

The walls of the tomb is covered with spells from the  Book of the Dead

The walls of the tomb is covered with spells from the Book of the Dead

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Although Ramesses III’s reign was fraught with conflicts, his troops secured the empire's borders against foreign invasion attempts by Libya and the mysterious Sea Peoples of the Mediterranean (depicted on the walls of his mortuary temple and royal palace, Medinet Habu), earning him the reputation as a mighty warrior king. 

Using Ramesses II as his model, he took a harem of many wives — though they would ultimately lead to his demise. The god-king’s 31-year reign ended when he fell victim to an elaborate assasination plot known as the Harem Conspiracy. A minor wife, Tiye, hatched a plan to have the monarch killed and seize the throne from Ramesses’ designated heir for her son, Prince Pentaware. 

The assailants succeeded in killing Ramesses III — the throat of his mummified remains reveals that his throat was slit — but failed in its goal of crowning Pentaware. Queen Tiye, Prince Pentawere and dozens of others were caught and put on trial.

The mummy of Ramesses III. The wrappings hid the fact that the pharaoh’s throat was slit when he was assassinated during a massive coup

The mummy of Ramesses III. The wrappings hid the fact that the pharaoh’s throat was slit when he was assassinated during a massive coup

Fragmentary documentation known as the Judicial Papyrus of Turin details the court trial that followed, including the accusations and punishment against its multiple conspirators. How the law dealt with Queen Tiye is unknown, but Pentawere was found guilty and forced to commit suicide. 

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

Repurposing His Father’s Abandoned Tomb

The plan of KV11, the designation of the royal tomb of Ramesses III, is comprised of an inclined entrance passage with steps cut into the floor, a descending central corridor, pillared hall and burial chamber. Its first three corridors were started by his father, Setnakhte, the last king of the Nineteenth Dynasty, but abandoned when it collided with KV10, the earlier tomb of the deposed pharaoh Amenmesse while excavating the fourth corridor. The cartouches of Setnakhte were later plastered over and reinscribed with the name of Ramesses III.

Not wanting to waste the resources already put into excavation, Ramesses III resumed work on the abandoned tomb, realigning the axis to the right and extending the corridor. The tomb is one of the longest in the valley, measuring a total of 180 meters, or 262 feet. The relatively straight axis represented the sun god Ra’s western descent into the tomb and his ascension in the east. 

Scottish explorer James Bruce took some artistic license in his drawing of a scene from Ramesses III’s tomb in his series  Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Scottish explorer James Bruce took some artistic license in his drawing of a scene from Ramesses III’s tomb in his series Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Tomb of the Harpers

This tomb contains colorful well-preserved relief scenes, with the first two corridors depicting the 74 manifestations of Ra. Ramesses III added small side alcoves to the second corridor, one of which contains a relief of two blind harpists. Scottish explorer James Bruce drew attention to it with the publication of his illustrated five-volume Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, which features a beautiful but inaccurate take on the scene. Worried for his safety, Bruce quickly sketched one of the harpists and later drew it from memory, giving it a Victorian flourish and for a time, KV11 was referred to as the Tomb of the Harpers.

Just some of the 74 depictions of the sun god Ra seen in the tomb

Just some of the 74 depictions of the sun god Ra seen in the tomb

A narrow yellow ribbon runs through the center of the ceiling and contains additional spells and funerary texts from the Litany of Re

On the doorframe between the second and third corridors are symbols of a different kind: two knots of Isis with djed-pillars (the symbolic backbone of Osiris, meaning stability) and ankhs (symbolizing life) holding animal-headed was-sceptres (power). 

The fourth corridor rises to clear the underlying chamber of KV10, descends to a shallow well shaft and continues on to a pillared hall with another passage leading to a pair of anterooms and the burial chamber. 

On the wall here, Ramesses III offers incense before the seated god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. He holds three vessels, their contents spilling onto the platform on which the god sits. Behind the triple deity stands the goddess Isis. The pharaoh’s titles are listed in front of him: Ramesses the ruler of Heliopolis and his coronation name, which translates to the Justice of Ra, Beloved by Amun. 

The identification of Rameses III with the greatest of gods, Amun, ensured that he would experience endless regeneration, a necessity for his eternal well-being in the afterlife. 

In the fourth corridor is a scene from another funerary text, the Amduat, depicting a goddess with the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, standing in front of a guardian serpent with four legs and a human head. The narrative illustrates the nocturnal voyage of the sun god Ra-Horakhty, who travels through the underworld from the time when the sun sets in the west to when it rises again in the east. The underworld, as the Ancient Egyptians saw it, is divided into 12 hours of the night, each representing different allies and enemies for the pharaoh/sun god to encounter. The iconography and symbolism here is wonderful.

Some of the carvings depict the monsters and deities of the underworld

Some of the carvings depict the monsters and deities of the underworld

Adding elements of temple architecture, Ramesses commissioned a four-pillared hall decorated with scenes and texts from the Book of Gates that depict him and various deities on their nightly journey through the netherworld — the fifth hour on the left side and the sixth hour on the right side. Also on the right is a side chamber with scenes where Ramesses III is led by the gods Thoth and Horus and offers ma’at (the concept of justice and balance) to Osiris. A double scene on the rear wall immediately before the burial chamber shows the king making offerings to Osiris. 

In the burial chamber, the name of the king was inscribed within a disc formed by the entwined bodies of two serpents. By placing his name within this device, the king identified himself directly with the solar deity and joined his cyclical daily journey. 

Sadly, the quartz sarcophagus was removed by Italian explorer and former circus performer Giovanni Batista Belzoni and currently resides in the Louvre in Paris. Its lid is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. Prior to the establishment of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, it wasn’t uncommon for unregulated foreign excavators digging in the valley to ship statuary and crates filled with tomb friezes back to Europe, where they found their way into collections such as that of the Louvre or the British Museum. The empty burial chamber ends with an anticlimactic darkened hallway and gate.

themummykarloff.jpg

The Inspiration for Karloff’s Mummy

French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero is credited with finding a cachette of royal mummies, including that of Ramesses III. But it was actually discovered by accident, when a straying goat fell into a concealed tomb shaft in Deir el-Bahari. The unwrapped mummy is now on display in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, and its features were considered so unappealing that they found fame as the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film The Mummy. –Duke

 

The Singing Colossi of Memnon

The crumbling giants in Luxor are all that’s left of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple. 

These decaying statues were once guardians of one of the most impressive temples in Egypt

These decaying statues were once guardians of one of the most impressive temples in Egypt

There’s not much left to see, but that doesn’t stop most visitors to Luxor from making a quick pit stop at the Colossi of Memnon. 

Ravaged by earthquakes, looters and time itself, the crumbling statues you see today are nothing compared to their past glory. When they were first built, they were painted with bright white, red, brown, blue and even some golden gilding to set off key areas. 

At dawn, people would visit the statue to ask a question of it, trying to decipher an answer in its prophetic whispering.
Statues of Memnon at Thebes, During the Inundation  by David Roberts, 1846-1849

Statues of Memnon at Thebes, During the Inundation by David Roberts, 1846-1849

Amenhotep III’s Mortuary Temple

Amenhotep III (who ruled during the 18th Dynasty, from 1386-1353 BCE) sits on his throne, while smaller statues of his chief wife, Tiye, and his mother stand between his legs. Carved from single pieces of sandstone, the statues rise 60 feet into the air and weigh 720 tons. Situated on the West Bank of the Nile, they guarded the entrance to Amenhotep’s mortuary temple. 

The giants weren’t alone, though. Just beyond was another pair of colossi, and then another pair through the next pylon. Each pair got smaller than its predecessors, as you moved into the depths of the temple. 

One of the statues was thought to sing and prophesize back in Roman times

One of the statues was thought to sing and prophesize back in Roman times

This colossi were not only there to instill awe in viewers — they were also representations of fertility and the life-giving abundance of the River Nile. During the annual flood, the water would rush past the giants, flowing along the avenue of sphinxes and into the temple itself. Only the innermost sanctuary was protected, having been built on a slight elevation. 

After months of being partially submerged, the colossi would re-emerge as symbols of rebirth. 

Wally does one of his jumping pics in front of the 60-foot statue

Wally does one of his jumping pics in front of the 60-foot statue

While Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is in much better shape today, Amenhotep’s was originally much larger and more impressive. It was even said to rival the massive Karnak complex. 

Archaeological evidence shows that there were once hundreds of stone statues within the temple. These depicted not only the pharaoh but various gods that would protect him in the afterlife: Osiris, the lord of the underworld, Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess with healing powers, and sphinxes bearing the jackal head of Anubis, who oversaw the mummification process. (Learn how — and why — Ancient Egyptians created mummies.)

The temple would have been filled with priests worshipping the statues and offering food, drink and some of the finer luxury items the king was used to in this life and would want to enjoy in death as well.

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

The Singing Statue

For a while, the northern giant had been damaged in such a way that when the wind blew through, it made a whistling noise that some mistook for singing. People believed that it happened every morning at dawn and they would visit the statue to ask a question of it, trying to decipher an answer in its supposedly prophetic whispering. (Popular thought now is that it was dew drying in the cracks of the porous stone.) 

The Roman Emperor Septimus Severus visited the site but didn’t hear the singing. In a misguided attempt to curry favor with the oracle, he repaired the colossus in 196 or 199 CE. It’s a total bummer, but after the renovation, the colossus never again sang its quiet soothsaying song.

The Vocal Memnon  by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

The Vocal Memnon by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

A Case of Mistaken Identity

If these colossi depict Pharaoh Amenhotep III, why are they now called Memnon? During the Trojan War, Ethiopia’s King Memnon joined the side of Troy to battle the Greeks. He was killed by the famous demigod hero Achilles but was admired for his courage and fighting prowess. When Greek tourists visited this site, they mistook Amenhotep for Memnon — in part because they thought the singing might be that of Memnon’s mother, Eos, the goddess of the dawn, lamenting the loss of her son. The name stuck. 

An illustration from  Description de l'Égypte , 1809-1828

An illustration from Description de l'Égypte, 1809-1828

Sadly, all that remains of this once-stunning temple are the crumbling, now-silent colossi that stood guard out front. –Wally

 

The Serene Spirituality of Abydos Temple

This overlooked Temple of Seti I and Ramesses II is a heavenly day trip from Luxor.

Heavenly rays of light shine through the dark temple, making it feel even more spiritual

Heavenly rays of light shine through the dark temple, making it feel even more spiritual

Our guide, Mamduh, told us he has been all over Egypt and has explored all the major temples — and yet the only one that felt truly spiritual to him was Abydos.

Duke and I can understand this. Maybe it’s the cool, dark colonnades, with beams of sunlight shining through like a celestial cliché. Or perhaps it’s the fact that there’s not one but seven sanctuaries, each devoted to a different god. It all works together to create something eternal and sacred. The site is also off the main tourist track, and aside from one small tour group, we had the place to ourselves.

The earliest pharaohs were buried here, as far back as 3000 BCE.

Later, Abydos became a center of the cult of Osiris, the god of the underworld. People believed his tomb was here.
The clean lines of this holy site feel modern, even though the temple is 3,200 years old!

The clean lines of this holy site feel modern, even though the temple is 3,200 years old!

Burial Site of Osiris and the First Pharaohs

The location, in the Sohag Governorate of Upper Egypt, was known in ancient times as Abdju and has been held as sacred from the beginnings of the Egyptian state. It’s said to be the birthplace of the god Osiris, and it’s where his decapitated head was buried by his murderous brother Set.

Wally and Mamduh from Egypt Sunset Tours make the pilgrimage to Abydos

Wally and Mamduh from Egypt Sunset Tours make the pilgrimage to Abydos

Abydos is the holiest of necropolises; during pharaonic times, Ancient Egyptians wanted to be buried here, and at one point, everyone tried to make it here on pilgrimage at least once in their lives. (If that didn’t pan out, they often depicted the journey in their tombs. Better late than never.)

The earliest pharaohs were buried here, as far back as 3000 BCE. Later, Abydos became a center of the cult of Osiris, the god of the underworld. People believed his tomb was here, though evidence points to it actually being the final resting place of a First Dynasty pharaoh, Djer.

Ramessess II added a front section to his father’s temple

Ramessess II added a front section to his father’s temple

Temple of Seti I and Ramesses II

Abydos, like so many Egyptian temples, was really an ongoing construction project, with various kings adding structures here, repurposing materials there.

King Seti I built a large complex at Abydos some 3,200 years ago to show he honored the Egyptian pantheon (and to show that he, too, was divine). A belief in the old gods was especially important to prove after the radical pharaoh Akhenaten departed from centuries of tradition and enforced monotheism, celebrating a single deity known as Aten, the sun disk. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t go over well.)

You can tell the parts of the temple that were added by Ramesses II because the depictions are carved into the stone rather than being proper bas-reliefs

You can tell the parts of the temple that were added by Ramesses II because the depictions are carved into the stone rather than being proper bas-reliefs

As we approached the temple, we paused on the open terrace to admire the precise horizontal and vertical symmetry of its exterior, which, like Hatshepsut’s funerary temple, feels modern in its minimalism.

In the first courtyard, on the second pylon wall, are scenes of Ramesses II’s military victories, including the Battle of Kadesh, which is also shown at Abu Simbel. I use the term “military victories” loosely. This is an example of the pharaoh’s fondness for revisionist history: The Battle of Kadesh ended in a stalemate.

Farther in, the columns and walls of the Temple of Seti I boast of his deeds as well as those of his son and heir, Ramesses II.

Wally and Duke highly recommend adding Abydos to your itinerary

Wally and Duke highly recommend adding Abydos to your itinerary

Mamduh, who works with Egypt Sunset Tours, stopped in front of a wall covered with cartouches, oval carvings containing hieroglyphics that represent the names of pharaohs. “This is why we know all of the dynasties and the order of the pharaohs,” he told us. The names were a long list of Egyptian kings in chronological order, going all the way back to Menes, the legendary founder of the empire, credited with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, and continuing all the way to Seti I.

The Kings List depicts the cartouches of all the pharaohs, with some notable omissions, including Hatshepsut and Akhenaten

The Kings List depicts the cartouches of all the pharaohs, with some notable omissions, including Hatshepsut and Akhenaten

Known as the Abydos King List, the relief conspicuously skips over some problematic rulers: the century-long reign of the foreign invaders, the Hyksos; the female pharaoh Hatshepsut; and the heretical Akhenaten and his three short-lived successors. Again, we see that Ancient Egyptians made revisionist history a literal art form.

Abydos isn’t one of the more popular tourist destinations — which makes it all the more special to visit

Abydos isn’t one of the more popular tourist destinations — which makes it all the more special to visit

As we continued to wander through, Mamduh pointed out a set of unusual looking hieroglyphics carved into a lintel overhead. A mysterious set of symbols appear to depict a helicopter, a submarine and a dirigible-like airship. Did they predict the future?!

I’m not one to crush anyone’s conspiracy theory dreams, but these images are actually the result of surfaces that have been reused. Over time, bits of the lime plaster eroded, leaving a partially visible set of overlapping glyphs. The initial set of carvings were made during the reign of Seti I and were later altered with plaster and re-carved during the temple’s expansion by his son.

Seti I built this as his funerary temple. He chose a throne name that didn’t reference Set, the murderous god of chaos

Seti I built this as his funerary temple. He chose a throne name that didn’t reference Set, the murderous god of chaos

Most temples have a single sanctuary, or holy of holies — but Abydos has seven!

Most temples have a single sanctuary, or holy of holies — but Abydos has seven!

The Seven Sanctuaries

At the back of the second hypostyle hall are seven barrel-vaulted sanctuaries dedicated to different deities: Horus, Isis and Osiris, with the principle god Amun in the middle, then Ra-Horakhty, Ptah and the deified Pharaoh Seti I.

The lion-headed goddess of war, Sekhmet, is the wife of Ptah, god of architects and craftspeople

The lion-headed goddess of war, Sekhmet, is the wife of Ptah, god of architects and craftspeople

Anubis, the god of the dead, with Seti I

Anubis, the god of the dead, with Seti I

Most temples have a single sanctuary, known as the holy of holies. So perhaps the fact that Abydos has seven is a large part of what lends a spiritual air to this sacred space. Six have false doors to allow the ka, or soul, to pass through. The exception is the sanctum of Osiris, whose chamber has a doorway leading to a suite of rooms — as Mamduh pointed out, the god of the underworld can travel between both worlds.

Ancient Egyptians believed that a scarab, or dung beetle, pushed the sun through the sky

Ancient Egyptians believed that a scarab, or dung beetle, pushed the sun through the sky

Isn’t he getting a bit old for that? Horus suckles on his mother Isis’ breast

Isn’t he getting a bit old for that? Horus suckles on his mother Isis’ breast

Wooden ships known as barques, or solar boats, originally stood in each of the sanctuaries. They were believed to transport the deities across the heavens and were used to transport the image of the god in ritual processions.

When you see a boy with a braided side ponytail like this inside the temple, that’s Prince Ramesses II

When you see a boy with a braided side ponytail like this inside the temple, that’s Prince Ramesses II

The Osiris Sanctuary, just one of seven at Seti I’s temple at Abydos. Osiris is depicted with green skin

The Osiris Sanctuary, just one of seven at Seti I’s temple at Abydos. Osiris is depicted with green skin

Head out the back door to walk past the Osirion

Head out the back door to walk past the Osirion

Out back, behind the temple proper, are the ruins of a primitive-looking structure built in the form of a royal tomb. Known as the Osirion, the cenotaph (a fancy word for a monument to someone whose body is buried elsewhere) is thought to be for Osiris. It was closed when we were there — though it doesn’t look like we missed much, aside from sunken granite blocks surrounded by pools of toxic-looking green water.

The sunken ruins of the Osirion, a tomb to honor the god of the underworld

The sunken ruins of the Osirion, a tomb to honor the god of the underworld

We visited Abydos as a day trip from Luxor, pairing it with the amazing Dendera. These less-visited sites are often the most unexpected, special and spiritual.

Duke and I were fortunate to have Rasha from Egypt Sunset Tours arrange excursions that suited us so well. If you want to experience the magic of Egypt like we did, book your tours through them. –Wally

The strikingly modern visitors center works as a visual reference to the temple’s façade

The strikingly modern visitors center works as a visual reference to the temple’s façade

The temple at Abydos is seen in the distance

The temple at Abydos is seen in the distance

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut

Visit Deir el-Bahari to explore the funerary temple of the first female pharaoh.

The clean minimalism of Hatshepset’s funerary temple feels strangely modern, even though it was built 3,500 years ago!

The clean minimalism of Hatshepset’s funerary temple feels strangely modern, even though it was built 3,500 years ago!

Cleopatra might be more famous, but Hatshepsut, born a royal princess during the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt, was the first historically documented woman to rule the powerful empire with the complete authority traditionally only given to men.

While staying in Luxor, we hired a driver and guide through Egypt Sunset Tours, and as part of our West Bank tour, we visited the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

“They should make a movie about Hatshepsut,” our guide Mamduh said to us as we drove to the temple complex. “Maybe many movies.” It was obvious he had great respect for her.

To emphasize her authority, representations of Hatshepsut as a queen were replaced with gender-bending imagery depicting her in male pharaonic attire.

Mamduh went on to elaborate that Hatshepsut’s reign was a period of peace and economic prosperity. He told us how her ambitious building projects set a precedent for future generations of pharaohs, but that her greatest architectural achievement was the tiered mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. It was built in the mid-1400s BCE.

Admission to the site costs 100 Egyptian pounds (about $6).

More Than a Woman

Hatshepsut (Hat-shep-soot) was the eldest daughter of King Thutmose, and the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II, her half-brother. Thutmose Jr. reigned only briefly, and upon his death, Hatshepsut became the queen-regent of her stepson and successor, Thutmose III, who, at the time, was considered too young to rule alone. However, in her seventh year as co-regent, Hatshepsut officially assumed the role of King of Upper and Lower Egypt and ruled for more than two decades.

Once Hatshepsut took the throne, she reinvented herself and even took a new royal name, Maatkare, meaning Truth Is the Soul of the Sun. To emphasize her sovereignty, she opted for a complete gender transformation, depicting herself with a royal nemes headdress, short ritual shendyt-kilt and traditional false beard on her chin. Although standardized, her visage retained a few subtle feminine features, including a fullness of the face, widely spaced almond-shaped eyes and benign smile — though her breasts disappeared.

Fit for a Queen

Hewn from limestone, the linear geometric volumes of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple have an understated elegance, appearing as if they’ve always been part of the rugged desert landscape. Staggered terraces jut out from the imposing rock cliffs and a central ramp ascends from the temple base to its uppermost apex.

Construction lasted over a decade, the site chosen for its location in the Theban Necropolis. This region was long considered sacred to the goddess Hathor, who, among her attributes protected the dead on their journey to the great beyond. The temple’s axis was positioned to align with Hatshepsut’s Temple of Amun, the eighth pylon at Karnak across the Nile on the East Bank. In addition, on the east side of the Valley of the Kings, directly behind the complex is KV20, the tomb Hatshepsut commissioned for herself and her father.

Mamduh walked with us up the processional path leading to the temple and explained that originally 100 or so sphinxes bearing images of Hatshepsut’s head lined both sides of the avenue. Wally and I had previously seen one at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

We paused in the forecourt, which once held exotic myrrh trees and other specimens brought from the ancient land of Punt. You can see the withered and desiccated stumps encircled by a low iron fence and sign.

Hatshepsut’s name meant Foremost of Noble Women, and as a young princess, she was appointed the religious title of God’s Wife of Amun, a high priestess who served as a mediator between the chief god and the pharaoh. She would later use this title as the underlying principle behind her sovereignty, claiming that she was acting as a divine instrument under the will of Amun and that the god himself was her father.

Only stubs of columns remain in the courtyard of the top terrace

Only stubs of columns remain in the courtyard of the top terrace

Upper Court

Wally and I took the central ramp to uppermost terrace. Only a few of its columns still stand within the large open courtyard, and most of the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut (showing her depicted as the lord of the underworld) enclosed within its niches have been destroyed. The most sacred sanctuary, the holy of holies, is entered through a large granite gate in the center of the rear wall and was dedicated to the god Amun-Ra.

Wally stands in the granite portico leading to the sanctuary of the great god Amun

Wally stands in the granite portico leading to the sanctuary of the great god Amun

This terrace played an important role during the annual Beautiful Feast of the Valley festival, or Hab Nefer en Pa’Inet. A cult image of Amun-Ra was placed on a miniature ram-headed barque, or solar boat, and transported from the Temple at Karnak on the East Bank of the Nile to the temple of Medinet Habu, eventually coming to rest in the shrine here at Deir el-Bahri on the West Bank. Inside the sanctuary, the curved vaulted ceiling is decorated with celestial stars against a deep blue background. Niches, now empty, would have contained statues of Pharaoh Maatkare and most likely other members of the royal family.

We were amazed at the colors that have withstood the centuries, and particularly liked the star pattern on the ceiling

We were amazed at the colors that have withstood the centuries, and particularly liked the star pattern on the ceiling

The majority of the excavation, reconstruction and restoration work has been carried out by the Polish-Egyptian Archaeological and Conservation Mission, located at the site behind a wooden door that, I believe, once led to the chapels of Hatshepsut and her late father.

What a woman! Hatshepsut styled herself with a lot of the symbolism only male pharaohs had used in the past — including a false beard

What a woman! Hatshepsut styled herself with a lot of the symbolism only male pharaohs had used in the past — including a false beard

Middle Court

Among the impressive features of Hatshepsut’s temple are the colossal Osiride statues here. What makes these figures unique is that they are depicted grasping four symbols of royal authority and divine power, two in each hand: the ankh and flail in the right and the scepter and crook in the left.

Duke and Wally mimic the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut

Duke and Wally mimic the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut

A temple employee in front of some of the statues — note the reddish color on their faces

A temple employee in front of some of the statues — note the reddish color on their faces

At either end of the middle court are two chapels. To the south of the colonnade is the Chapel of Hathor and to the north the Chapel of Anubis.

The chapel to the goddess of fertility sports Hathor columns, topped with her head

The chapel to the goddess of fertility sports Hathor columns, topped with her head

A procession of soldiers carrying shields and spears

A procession of soldiers carrying shields and spears

In addition to her role as protector and travel companion to the dead, Hathor is the Egyptian goddess of sexual love, fertility, music, dancing and the sky. Inside, the now-roofless chapel includes a 12-columned hypostyle hall with four Hathor-headed capitals, resembling a super-sized sistrum, an Ancient Egyptian percussion instrument associated with the goddess, that rattles when shaken.

Colorful friezes in the Chapel of Anubis

Colorful friezes in the Chapel of Anubis

The god of mummification is one of Wally’s faves. Jackals were often seen around cemeteries, leading Ancient Egyptians to believe that Anubis watched over the dead

The god of mummification is one of Wally’s faves. Jackals were often seen around cemeteries, leading Ancient Egyptians to believe that Anubis watched over the dead

After visiting the Hathor chapel, Wally and I wandered over to the Chapel of Anubis. What struck me most was the abundant amount of natural light illuminating its interior. Inside walls depict scenes of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification, and Osiris. There were also a couple images of Hatshepsut, which sadly have been chiseled away.

Most temples in Ancient Egypt feature one or more colonnades like this one

Most temples in Ancient Egypt feature one or more colonnades like this one


Lower Court

The lower court contains two important sets of reliefs. To the south was the Birth Colonnade, which Wally and I must have somehow missed. I read that a relief and inscription within depicts the myth of Hatshepsut’s immaculate conception — the god Amun, in the guise of her father Thutmose I, impregnated her mother, Queen Ahmose, with his divine breath. Given Jesus’ similar birth centuries later, this method of storytelling shouldn’t seem so strange to us. At the time, it certainly wasn’t unusual for pharaohs to claim dvine birth.

The Punt Colonnade contains bas-relief scenes documenting the royally sponsored trade expedition to Punt, which was undertaken to export exotic goods, including cinnamon, ebony, ivory, gold, incense and myrrh, for the cult of Amun-Ra (and the pharaoh herself, of course).

A beautiful carving of a lion, one of the exotic animals from the expedition to the mysterious land of Punt — no one is quite sure where exactly it was

A beautiful carving of a lion, one of the exotic animals from the expedition to the mysterious land of Punt — no one is quite sure where exactly it was

Thutmose III, although not technically the king during Hatshepsut’s reign, was not sitting idle; he had been honing his military skills by leading the armies of Egypt on successful campaigns of conquest. However, it’s been speculated that after his step-mother (and aunt’s) death, he attempted to erase her legacy, ordering many of her images to be systematically chiseled off temples and monuments.

Additional damage to the temple occurred during the Amarna period, when images of Amun were removed by the so-called heretic King Akhenaten. Then, the ancient Copts reused the temple’s upper terrace and built a mud-brick monastery there, which gives us the name of Deir el-Bahari, Arabic for Monastery of the North.

Looking into the sanctuary of the Chapel of Hathor

Looking into the sanctuary of the Chapel of Hathor

Visiting these temples was a lifelong dream for Duke, who has been obsessed with Ancient Egypt since he was a kid

Visiting these temples was a lifelong dream for Duke, who has been obsessed with Ancient Egypt since he was a kid

Wally preferred other temples to Hatshepsut’s, but it’s still worth a visit

Wally preferred other temples to Hatshepsut’s, but it’s still worth a visit

Thanks to our knowledgeable guide Mamduh, Wally and I came away with a solid understanding of the amazing Hatshepsut and her mortuary temple before exploring it.

If you’d like to take a moment to recharge after — the Luxor sun can be brutal — there’s a café pavilion on the premises offering a spectacular view of the complex, along with ice cream treats. –Duke

The innovative terraced and columned Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in what was once the city of Thebes

The innovative terraced and columned Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in what was once the city of Thebes

 

Medinet Habu: A Reflection of Ramesses III’s Military Might

This Luxor temple depicts the victory over the Sea Peoples and includes carvings of severed penises. It’s also the site of the murderous Harem Conspiracy.

When in Luxor, be sure to visit Medinet Habu, an often-overlooked temple

When in Luxor, be sure to visit Medinet Habu, an often-overlooked temple

The temple wasn’t even on our itinerary, but it ended up being one of our favorites. We had some extra time after a morning wandering the cool tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. Rasha, who runs the highly recommended guide service Egypt Sunset Tours, suggested we add on the Tombs of the Nobles and Medinet Habu.

Admission to the temple costs a mere 80 Egyptian pounds (about $4.75), making this the cheapest of all the sites we visited.

The exterior wall is yet another sign that Medinet Habu was built to resemble a fortress

The exterior wall is yet another sign that Medinet Habu was built to resemble a fortress

On one hand, all the temples of Ancient Egypt begin to blur together, their elements similar: a heavy pylon entranceway, staggeringly tall colonnades, small, secret sanctuaries at the back.

But, in truth, each temple has its own distinct personality. Karnak sprawls, much of it in ruins, its piles of rubble evoking Ancient Rome. Dendera has a magical feel, with its turquoise blue ceiling painted with astrological iconography. Luxor’s colonnade is open to the sky, reveling in the light and warmth of the sun.

And Medinet Habu, too, has a unique design; it evokes a feeling of military might not found in other temples. This martial flair is fitting, for Ramesses III built the structure to celebrate the victory of a battle that threatened to end the Egyptian Empire for good.

Duke and Wally loved visiting the temple complex, which was quite deserted

Duke and Wally loved visiting the temple complex, which was quite deserted

New evidence revealed that Ramesses III did meet a gruesome end at the hands of his conspirators.

CT scans of his mummy found a deep slash across his throat.
The bas-reliefs on the pylon gateways depict Ramesses III’s victory over the fierce Sea Peoples

The bas-reliefs on the pylon gateways depict Ramesses III’s victory over the fierce Sea Peoples

Pirates of the Mediterranean: The Sea Peoples’ Slaughter

They came from the sea, though historians aren’t quite sure of their homelands. They were fierce, ruthless and mighty warriors. All around Ancient Egypt, neighboring empires fell under the Sea Peoples’ barrage. They even conquered the Hittites, Egypt’s sometimes-friends, sometimes-foes.

Some of the bas-reliefs were still works in progress

Some of the bas-reliefs were still works in progress

Chariots helped Egypt gain advantages in battle

Chariots helped Egypt gain advantages in battle

If you defeat warriors who were undefeated, you brag about it, like Ramesses III did

If you defeat warriors who were undefeated, you brag about it, like Ramesses III did

So when they finally came for Egypt in 1179 BCE, Ramesses III must have been worried. He staged the war on two fronts. One, a land battle at the delta of the Nile, was successful, but its lack of detail belies the probability that losses were severe (and therefore glossed over in the official record).

We know more of the second battle, which went more strongly in Egypt’s favor. This naval skirmish wiped out the Sea Peoples, beginning with a hail of arrows and ending with the capsizing of the Mediterranean ships.

Ramesses III turned his mortuary temple into a war memorial, calling it the Mansion of Millions of Years of King Ramesses, United With Eternity in the Estate of Amun. That’s quite a mouthful, so I’m glad the site now goes by its Arabic name.

The temple is infamous for being the site of the Harem Conspiracy

The temple is infamous for being the site of the Harem Conspiracy

Inside Medinet Habu

The imposing entrance pylon façade strikes the visitor immediately as severe, a brutal sand-colored monolith. This is the fortified gatehouse Ramesses III built and was modeled on Syrian migdol gates he had encountered on his military campaigns. Adding to the fortress feel was a high mud-brick wall that once enclosed the complex.

Upon entry, there are decaying statues of Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess of war

Upon entry, there are decaying statues of Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess of war

Aside from towering depictions of pharaohs, you don’t see many statues in temples

Aside from towering depictions of pharaohs, you don’t see many statues in temples

What deity did Ramesses choose to feature immediately inside the gate? Why, none other than Sekhmet, the fierce lioness-headed goddess of war.

It was in these rooms at the top of the structure where Ramesses III hung out with his many wives — and where he met his demise

It was in these rooms at the top of the structure where Ramesses III hung out with his many wives — and where he met his demise

Treason in the Harem

The top floor of the gatehouse was where Ramesses hung out with his harem. The carvings here show Ramesses III in intimate poses with various wives or relaxing in a chair playing board games.

But all wasn’t as idyllic as pictured. “There was something about the claustrophobic atmosphere that fed the bitter jealousies and personal rivalries of the king’s many wives,” writes Toby Wilkinson in The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. “With little to occupy their minds besides weaving and idle pleasures, the more ambitious concubines nurtured resentments, angry at the lowly status of their offspring and wondering how they might improve their own and their children’s fortunes.”

The Second Courtyard later became a Christian church in the 9th century

The Second Courtyard later became a Christian church in the 9th century

The statues were preserved because they were covered in mud by the Coptics

The statues were preserved because they were covered in mud by the Coptics

In 1155 BCE, one of the pharaoh’s secondary wives, Tiy, plotted to assassinate Ramesses III as well as his heir apparent, Prince Ramesses, and install her son, Pentawere, on the throne. The plot, known as the Harem Conspiracy, grew to include a mutiny in the army and a revolution in the countryside. But as the plan became intricate, more and more people became involved, and eventually someone blabbed.

The conspirators were arrested and tried at a tribunal. Found guilty, they were forced to commit suicide. Those who were involved to a lesser degree were horribly disfigured, their noses and ears hacked off to permanently mark them as convicts.

Not only was this a mortuary temple, it was also Ramesses III’s palace. It was very unusual to combine both of these buildings into one complex

Not only was this a mortuary temple, it was also Ramesses III’s palace. It was very unusual to combine both of these buildings into one complex

New evidence revealed that Ramesses III did meet a gruesome end at the hands of his conspirators, though. Researchers reexamined his mummy with CT scans and found a bone-deep slash across his throat that would have been fatal.

Medinet Habu is a beautiful structure — and the site of a pharaoh’s assassination

Medinet Habu is a beautiful structure — and the site of a pharaoh’s assassination

The underside of this gateway shows the winged sun amongst other paintings

The underside of this gateway shows the winged sun amongst other paintings

Like many other Ancient Egyptian temples, you proceed through a series of courtyards

Like many other Ancient Egyptian temples, you proceed through a series of courtyards

From Temple to Amun to Mortuary Temple to Christian Church

The temple within dates to 1490 BCE and was dedicated to Amun, the god of creation and fertility, by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. It was deemed a magical site, and even today, local farmers are said to believe in the protective powers of Medinet Habu.

Is Duke feeling the magic that Egyptians to this day believe is imbued in this holy site?

Is Duke feeling the magic that Egyptians to this day believe is imbued in this holy site?

Medinet Habu includes a larger version of the Ramesseum. Seems like Ramesses III had to one-up his father

Medinet Habu includes a larger version of the Ramesseum. Seems like Ramesses III had to one-up his father

Ramesses III chose this spot for his mortuary temple. It’s essentially a larger-scale version of the Ramesseum, Ramesses II’s mortuary temple — which makes me feel less bad that we skipped visiting that particular temple in favor of this. The pharaoh enclosed the temple within his own, larger complex.

The site functioned as the administrative center of western Thebes, and it was here that the workmen who constructed the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings went on strike when their payment was late.

The shaded parts of the colonnade still have blue paint visible

The shaded parts of the colonnade still have blue paint visible

These symbols were ankhs (representing life) with arms holding was scepters (power, dominion)

These symbols were ankhs (representing life) with arms holding was scepters (power, dominion)

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but Wally liked Medinet Habu better than Hatshepsut’s temple

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but Wally liked Medinet Habu better than Hatshepsut’s temple

After the Ramesside period, Libyans took control of Egypt, and Medinet Habu gained a dubious claim to fame. The Libyan rulers plundered the tombs of the pharaohs, taking all the riches to the state treasury, and unwrapped the royal mummies in the hunt for hidden jewels. Under the orders of Butehamun, the scribe of the necropolis, in 1066 BCE, the mummies were taken to Medinet Habu for processing and rewrapping before being unceremoniously dumped into the tomb of Amenhotep II.

Hundreds of years after Medinet Habu was built, in the 9th century, Rome’s dominion stretched into Egypt, and the Coptic Christians established the first church in the country. Its ruins remain, off to the right side of the complex. The monk cells behind the church were used for medical experiments, our guide Mamduh told us. Yes, there once was a time when religion and science were seen as compatible.

Look closely: In addition to hands, soldiers are presenting war trophies of chopped-off penises to claim their bounty

Look closely: In addition to hands, soldiers are presenting war trophies of chopped-off penises to claim their bounty

Chopped-Off Hands and Penises

In the first courtyard, there’s a window of appearances, where the pharaoh would greet his subjects and reward military commanders. This portico connects the temple to the palace. One of the bas-reliefs on the wall here shows soldiers collecting their bounty by presenting the severed hands of their enemies to the pharaoh. But, Mamduh told us, some of the soldiers tried to double up on their rewards by cutting off both of their victims’ hands. So the king decided to come up with another prize to collect. Gee, what’s portable, and something men only have one of? If you look at the carving, you’ll see that in addition to tossing out hands, the soldiers are also presenting severed penises.

A popular design element in Ancient Egypt was the lotus column, constructed to mimic the plant that symbolized Upper Egypt

A popular design element in Ancient Egypt was the lotus column, constructed to mimic the plant that symbolized Upper Egypt

Out back is the Great Hypostyle Hall, modeled after Karnak’s — again Ramesses III gained inspiration from his father, Ramesses II

Out back is the Great Hypostyle Hall, modeled after Karnak’s — again Ramesses III gained inspiration from his father, Ramesses II

Only the bases remain of most of the columns

Only the bases remain of most of the columns

There are four rose granite statues at the very back of the complex. They depict Ramesses III with Maat, the goddess of truth and justice, and Thoth, the god of wisdom

There are four rose granite statues at the very back of the complex. They depict Ramesses III with Maat, the goddess of truth and justice, and Thoth, the god of wisdom

This delightfully grisly scene is just one reason this temple, so rich in history, is well worth visiting. So don’t dick around — add this to your Luxor itinerary. –Wally

The design of Medinet Habu borrows from the military gatehouses Ramesses III encountered in Syria

The design of Medinet Habu borrows from the military gatehouses Ramesses III encountered in Syria