Archaeological discoveries

Ancient Egypt:in the New Kingdom, the sacred messages of the Valley of the Kings

Last updated:2022-07-25

Facing Luxor, on the west bank of the Nile, the pharaohs have prepared dazzling tombs for their last journey. Carved into the mountain, hidden from intruders, they are covered with bas-reliefs and splendid frescoes intended to ensure them the best of lives in the afterlife...

Funeral scene painted in the tomb of Ramose, vizier under Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV. The women represented are professional mourners, including a little girl, naked, probably in apprenticeship. 18th Dynasty, circa 1391-1337.

This article is from the Special Issue of Sciences et Avenir n°197 dated April-May 2019.

The journey taken by the body of the pharaoh bears little resemblance to the post-mortem journey imagined by the ancient Egyptians, described in particular in the Book of the Dead . At the end of this journey made of trials, dangers, monsters, pitfalls and insoluble enigmas, the deceased - supreme reward - can be reborn every morning thanks to the regenerated Sun. And Pharaoh maintain the cosmic order, because he is the guarantor of the permanence of things. Basically, the Egyptians have only one fear:that the sky will fall on their heads. And they dream that after death, nothing changes in this perfect world.

"They had many words to speak of time and eternity , explains Frédéric Servajean, Egyptologist, professor at the University of Montpellier III. In particular djet and neheh. Often joined in the texts, they have been translated as 'forever and ever'. For lack of anything better. Because, in fact, they designate different and complementary eternities. Djet is used for that which is immutable, the structure of the world, the sky, the mountain, etc. Neheh, on the contrary, designates a cyclical time, which changes, like the Nile with its floods, the stars which move in the sky, the vegetation which evolves according to the seasons. The divine, which is djet in essence, manifests itself to humans through what is neheh." However, the wish of the Egyptians is to become immutable. In this quest for stability, Pharaoh plays a key role, embodying the survival of a kingdom around which reigns chaos (the desert and its wild animals, the stranger, etc.). His death is conceived as a passage and his tomb as the place of the magical journey.

The pyramids were abandoned by the kings in favor of hypogea

Paradox:from the Old Kingdom, the tombs were almost systematically violated. The following generations never ceased to find a way to avoid depredations, and the looters to unearth the entrance to the tombs... The Valley of the Kings, near present-day Luxor, where from the New Empire the last residences of the sovereigns, constitutes an attempt to prevent them from doing so.

After the troubles of the late Middle Kingdom, two pharaohs, Kamosis (last king of the Second Intermediate Period) and Ahmose (first of the New Kingdom), set out to reunite Egypt. Their success marks the beginning of a period of prosperous stability. Thebes, where the sovereigns came from, acquired a major religious importance. And Amon, tutelary god of the city, becomes in fact that of the whole country, very early associated with Rê, in the form of Amon-Rê.

People look at the gilded and decorated wooden sarcophagus of the mummy of Pharaoh Ahmose on October 20, 2004. Credits:THOMAS COEX / AFP

It was also from this time that new funerary practices were put in place. The pyramids were abandoned by the kings in favor of dug tombs (hypogeums) in the mountain which stands on the other side of the river. "Does this change in architecture imply a new function, or is it simply due to the geography of an important region at this time? asks epigraphist Philippe Martinez, CNRS research engineer at the Molecular and Structural Archeology Laboratory (Sorbonne University). At the time of the pyramids, the political and religious centers were located in the north of the country, in a particularly flat landscape. To have a sacred mountain, it had to be built..."

Nothing has ever deterred looters

In Thebes, the mountain which dominates the left bank, and whose shape evokes that of a pyramid, is essential. Especially since it is already charged with sacred power. At its feet, Deir el-Bahari, a circle surrounded by cliffs, has long served as a necropolis. The site is linked to Hathor, goddess of sexuality who welcomes the dead, gives birth to them and breastfeeds them. The pharaohs of the 18th dynasty therefore found in this mythical and mystical landscape a natural eminence that would link their burial place to the divine, and arid and inhospitable wadis to - they hoped - prevent looting. They will even constitute a police force to protect this gorge:a royal guard made up of medjay , warriors of Nubian origin. However, the place will not only experience the hoped-for calm and silence. What is called the Valley of the Kings is, of course, sheltered from the floods of the Nile. But this wadi has been dug by rain torrents which, when they wake up, prove devastating. Many tombs, starting with those of Ramses II and his sons, were filled with mud. Worse still, no device has ever completely discouraged looters.

It is Amenhotep I (1525-1504) who is said to have inaugurated the Valley of the Kings. Although his tomb has not yet been identified with certainty, he and his mother, Ahmes-Nefertari, appear on the walls of the tombs of Ramesside notables, including those of royal craftsmen from Deir el-Medina. They are shown there, in procession, as the patrons of the necropolis. The first royal tomb of which we doubtless know the recipient is that of Queen Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1479-1457). Before being buried there, she installed the remains of her father, Thutmose I (1492-1479), the tomb dug for the latter remaining empty. Archaeologists believe they have unearthed it, without formal proof. "The Valley of the Kings was occupied according to a chronological organization, the tombs being arranged like a fan, observes Philippe Martinez. Thus come first those of Hatshepsut and her successors, Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV, etc. When this first loop is complete , Amenhotep III settles in another place, the West Valley." Amenhotep IV, future Akhenaten (1353-1337), also had a tomb dug in this same western valley before moving the court to Amarna. As for the pharaoh Aÿ, he was also buried there, in a tomb which it seems had been planned for his young predecessor, Tutankhamun. But Horemheb, general turned pharaoh, will return to the Valley of the Kings to have the most beautiful hypogeum in the wadi built.

Akhenaton, the cultural revolution… for personal ends. Abandoning the cult of Amon-Rê, the pharon Amenothep IV built in Karnak, on the bank opposite the Valley of the Kings, a temple to the god Rê-Horakhty manifesting himself in the light emitted by the solar disc. He imposes this god to the detriment of Amon but also soon of all the other deities. Then he renamed himself Akhenaton ("the profitable to the [solar] Disc") and founded, in Middle Egypt, the city of Akhetaton (the modern Amarna). This is where he will be buried, after seventeen years of reign. In the meantime, the country will have experienced religious, political and societal reform, the extent of which is difficult to measure.

But did he invent a monotheism, as some claim? "In reality, the great Egyptian cosmogonies have long spoken of a single demiurge god manifesting in different forms , explains Egyptologist Philippe Martinez. Therefore, it cannot be excluded that the deities of the Egyptian pantheon were already perceived as the avatars of the original god." In this case, how would this so-called Amarna parenthesis have changed the situation? "Few texts survive from this period , continues the Egyptologist. It is not even known whether belief in the Aten becomes obligatory. When Amenhotep IV-Akhenaton came to power, the elite was already engaged in religious speculation. From the reign of Thutmose III, a personal piety had developed. Hymns reproduced on the walls of certain funerary chapels in the Valley of the Nobles show that it was no longer the king who prayed for the deceased, but the latter who spoke directly to the solar gods, Rê-Horakhty and Amon-Rê. " No doubt perceived as a return to basics, this new religious paradigm would then have appeared as a way for Akhenaten to regain control. Not only by emphasizing the central role of a demiurge god, but by affirming his power, that of a pharaoh deified during his lifetime. "More than the emergence of a revolutionary idea, we are actually witnessing a form of reaction , says the researcher. A throwback to the glorious era of the 5th and 6th Dynasties, when the king was the sole interlocutor of the divine."

The proposed model is no longer that of a distant, underground eternity, but of an immortality that asserts itself in the present world. Thus, in Amarna, there are no mystical texts on the walls of the tombs, but scenes showing the deceased in contact with the royal family, on which eternity depends. As for the architecture of the hypogea, which until then included angles, the linear row of corridors and rooms became the norm, as if to facilitate the exit of the Sun once regenerated. The following pharaohs will hasten to rehabilitate Amun-Re, but the royal tombs will retain this linear layout. And the pharaohs will maintain the very earthly myth of their osmosis with the divinity.

From the 19th dynasty, the sovereigns again chose the main valley to build their tombs, in the spaces left free between the tombs of the pharaohs of the previous dynasty. Archaeologists have unearthed sixty-three, including twenty-four identified as royal. The Valley of the Kings indeed contains a whole series of private tombs belonging to members of the royal family and a few hand-picked relatives.

Post-Akhenaton marks not only a return to the Valley of the Kings, but also a change in the way of building the hypogea. Previously, they consisted of a succession of corridors and stairs whose axis changed once or twice. "As if the whole circumvents the residence of Osiris, the sovereign god of the beyond, forward Philippe Martinez. The hypogeum, in its descent to the underworld, sought to reach the 'hidden room' described in the text of the Am-duat . At the far end was the burial chamber where the sarcophagus was placed. Supported by pillars that hold up the sky, this room was seen as a small cosmos."

Akhenaten inaugurates in Amarna a linear structure that will preserve, in the Valley of the Kings, the Ramesside period. If some tombs still draw angles, it is only to avoid a large block of flint, as can be seen in that of Ramses IV. Another novelty of the New Kingdom:the funerary temple is transformed. This space, designed to worship offerings to the dead, used to be next to the royal tomb. The Valley of the Kings and its secure collection hardly lend themselves to these architectural deployments. The sovereigns therefore erected a religious building away, on the line separating the funereal aridity of the desert mountain from the living fertility of the cultivated land. If the vaults plunge towards the beyond, these immense religious complexes are places where the divine energy that animates royalty is celebrated. As part of celebrations, they take the name of "castles of millions of years".

A magical chrysalis enveloping the changing king

That of Ramses II, the Ramesseum, covers ten hectares on the west bank of the Nile. It is one of the best preserved of the fifteen that have been unearthed. Despite the fragility of this material, it retains many traces of the parts built in brick where the daily activity of the priests unfolds, whether they are high dignitaries responsible for reading the sacred texts or simple goatherds. In the center there are also vestiges of the worship space, built in stone for those who will live beyond earthly time:the gods, the deified king and the transfigured dead.

An aerial photo taken from a hot air balloon on September 10, 2017 shows the Ramesseum temple. Credits:KHALED DESOUKI / AFP

Because the castle of millions of years is above all the theater of a mystical epic:the transformation of the king into a deified being. All architecture is at the service of this metamorphosis, as the Ramesseum still testifies. First, an esplanade opening onto the valley. There, Pharaoh receives the most deserving men to reward them for their loyalty and allow them to be privileged witnesses of his magnificence. Then comes the solar court where the king, accompanied only by senior members of the clergy, is already no longer quite a simple human being:this is where the "Osiriac colossi" are erected. , in the words used by the 19th century French scholar Jean-François Champollion to describe these giant statues which show a figure as mummified. The researchers believe that this bandage does not represent a dead person, but a magic chrysalis which envelops the king in the process of metamorphosis. After the solar court opens the hypostyle hall, place where it will become one of the manifestations of Amon.

Like any temple, the castle of millions of years is built on an eminence. The more you progress, the more you climb, passing a series of thresholds. The ceilings are lowered. The last room (at the Ramesseum, it has disappeared), where the image of the god-pharaoh is, is organized around a small monolithic chapel, the naos . These gigantic temples actually housed a statue of barely fifty centimeters! However, these "castles" were not meant to last for millions of years. Terrestrial objects, they were subject to cyclic eternity, and therefore subject to transformations. In this respect, that of Amenhotep III is striking. It was built in a flood zone and largely of brick, a material sensitive to humidity. It was not a mistake:every year, the flood penetrated there, symbolizing the idea of ​​a relationship with the initial chaos, the natural decay of things and a rebirth. In addition, the stone parts were, in places, dismantled a century after their construction and the materials reused.

Mysterious disappearances in the Valley of the Queens. A hundred empty graves. Not the shadow of a mummy. This is the strange singularity of the Valley of the Queens, this parade of the Theban mountains intended to accommodate, in the Ramesside period, the remains of the royal wives, princesses and princes. Only two knee fragments were found there, in the burial of Nefertari, wife of Ramses II. To explain this anomaly, two opposing hypotheses. "All these tombs were looted, then almost all reoccupied from the Third Intermediate Period and in Roman times , advances Guy Lecuyot, researcher associated with the archeology laboratory of the École Normale Supérieure. Nefertari's remains show that her mummy was abused. The others must have met the same fate."

Christian Leblanc, head of the French Archaeological Mission of Thebes-West, keeps him hopeful. "Commissions of inquiry were set up after the desecrations in the 21st dynasty, he recounts. The priests of Amun brought out and restored the damaged mummies from the Theban necropolises, in shrouds, marked and replaced in new coffins." The priests then hid the royal remains in various hiding places. "That of Deir el-Bahari, found in 1871, housed about forty kings and a few queens, continues the archaeologist. The second, an annex to the tomb of Amenhotep II, in the Valley of the Kings, contained nearly of a dozen mummies. But information from the priests of Amun indicates that none come from the Valley of the Queens!" The mummy of Nefertari, whose tomb was one of the few never to have been reused, would have been placed in a third hiding place... which remains to be discovered.

The abandonment of a temple is inevitable. A few decades after the death of the pharaoh, it is gradually considered that he no longer fulfills his original function. The priests turn away from it and the domains he owns are recovered for the benefit of the project of a successor. When there are no more resources to maintain the cult, the building is abandoned. A little further on, another castle millions of years old shines in turn... Rare are the temples that have been completed. Sometimes because a premature end of reign forces resources to be redirected towards a new project. Most often, for a symbolic reason:"Because a finished thing emerges from cyclical eternity, from the possibility of living a tomorrow" , explains Philippe Martinez. Unthinkable!

A hundred years after the death of Ramses II, the Ramesseum thus fell asleep little by little. Two centuries later, in the kitchens as well as inside the temple, chapels of worship and tombs will be installed. This time, it is members of the royal family, but also subordinates, who will be buried there. "We thought that in this place, the direct relationship with the divinity was still possible" , summarizes Philippe Martinez. And that the dead who rested there could find themselves in contact with it. For eternity.

By Henri Morel

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