It's Christmas morning and there is no tree and no presents. Not a stocking was hung and there isn't a single flake of fallen snow. But there was no disappointment as we awoke to a cloudless sky and found ourselves in the secretive Valley of the Kings. Just as Saqqara and Giza were the burial grounds of the Old Kingdom, the Valley of the Kings served as the royal cemetery during Egypt's New Kingdom (1539 - 1075 B.C.). Tucked within the western banks of the Nile and across the river from Luxor, the valley is currently known to hold 63 tombs. However as entrances to new tombs have been discovered as recently as 2005 and 2008, it is easily conceivable that there may be more hidden tombs waiting to be discovered.
Still intensely sore from my escapade through the pyramids, I nearly cried when looking at the stairs and ramps leading down into the inner reaches of each tomb. But upon entering, nearly all pain was forgotten as I was awestruck by the amazing demonstration of human artistry and industry that each tomb revealed. On immense stretches of walls and ceilings were carved reliefs of mythological scenes, shedding light on some of the funerary rituals and beliefs held by the ancient Egyptians at that time. In the tomb of Ramses III (KV 11), the colorful paint on its sunken reliefs, though quite worn, is comparatively well preserved... which only made me wonder how much more stunning it must have looked at the time of its creation. As most of the tombs were opened and robbed in antiquity, these walls were usually the only indication of the splendor and opulence these tombs once held.
However, some of the tombs also showcased enormous stone sarcophagi. Not unlike the walls, each were beautifully carved and decorated. Merenptah was the 13th son of Ramses II who eventually assumed the throne after his father's incredibly long reign. Because his father lived for so long, all of his older brothers died before being able to succeed their father. Consequently, Merenptah was in his 60's when he finally became pharaoh. Having assumed the role at such an old age, he only ruled for 10 years before passing away. His body was originally buried inside not just one, but four enormously large stone sarcophagi made of granite and alabaster. Despite having the second largest tomb in the valley (KV8), the outer sarcophagus could not fit through the entrance and thus the gates had to be hacked away.
The tombs were probably the most protected sites we had encountered thus far on our trip. Glass screens shielded nearly all the walls and artifacts in each of the tombs we visited. While I was glad to see the precautions being taken to preserve these ancient artifacts, I was sorely regretful that this also meant that cameras were not allowed in the valley. Alas, the only shot I was able to get was that of Al-Qurn (above), the pyramid-shaped mountain peak that initially drew the pharaohs to use this valley as their burial grounds.
Our next stop was the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut, otherwise referred to as Deir al-Bahri temple (above). Built into an enormous limestone cliff, it is certainly one of the more dramatic looking sites in Egypt. And as it turns out, it has a history almost as dramatic as it's facade. I was particularly excited to visit this temple because it was built by one of the most intriguing figures of ancient Egypt, Queen or rather, Pharaoh Hatshepsut.
When her husband and half brother Tuthmosis II died, Hatshepsut assumed the role of regent for her stepson Tuthmosis III who was too young at the time to seriously assume the role of pharaoh. Eventually, she garnered enough political power to declare herself pharaoh and went on to rule for nearly 15 more years, during which time she brought peace and internal growth to Egypt.
During her reign, Hatshepsut commissioned many building projects, including her memorial temple. Many of these structures depict Hatshepsut as a man, even wearing a false beard (above). At the age of 22, Tuthmosis III regained control over the throne and proceeded to erase all record of his step mother. While his motives are still yet unclear, there is no question that Hatshepsut's name and image were removed from temples and many of her statues destroyed. Despite his best efforts however, evidence of Hatshepsut's legacy lives on as she is regarded as one of the most successful if not intriguing pharaohs of Egypt.
One enters the temple through the great court which is impressive for its expansiveness but must have been much more profound in the days of Hatshepshut when it was planted with exotic trees and led into by a causeway lined with sphinxes. The temple itself has three terraces. At the time of our visit, the lower terrace was closed for renovation so we immediately climbed up to the middle terrace where many well preserved reliefs could be seen. It is here that we came across the remains of the Hathor Chapel where a few Hathor-headed columns still stand (above). Hathor was the ancient Egyptian goddess of joy, motherhood, and love. She is often depicted as a cow or as a woman having cow-like ears.
On the upper terrace, we found the doorway leading into the Sanctuary of Amun (above), restored by a Polish-Egyptian team which has been working on the temple for the past 25 years.
We left Hatshepsut's Memorial Temple with the searing sun high in the sky. As our thoughts turned to lunch, we began to make our way back to the cruise ship... but not before making a brief pit stop at the Colossi of Memnon (above). This pair of faceless figures are all that are left of what was once the largest temple in Egypt. Each statue, carved from a single block of stone, rises to a height of 18 meters. The temple at which these statues once stood, was the memorial temple of Amenhotep III and is believed to have been even larger than Karnak. Amazingly, the temple has disappeared almost completely and all that remains are these two silent sentinels.
Back at the ship, we went below deck for some lunch. As we enjoyed our pickings from the buffet, our ship quietly embarked down the Nile river towards Edfu. We spent the rest of the day, lazily admiring the views from our balcony as upper Egypt and another day floated by.