The Valley of the Kings and nearby Valley of the Queens are two giant necropolises outside Luxor that contain the richly adorned tombs of pharaohs and nobles. It is one of the most visited and most impressive ancient sites in Egypt.
The Valley of the Kings contains tombs built over nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC. The Valley of the Queens is much smaller, with tombs that are usually less elaborate than those found in the Valley of the Kings, although several are notable: One example is the resting place carved out of the rock for Queen Nefertari of the 19th Dynasty.
As of 2008, 63 tombs had been excavated in the Valley of the Kings. These range in size from a simple burial pit for a noble to the most complex Pharaonic tombs ever built, several with more than 100 chambers each. There are only 20 royal tombs, the rest being for nobles and other favorites of a certain king. The royal tombs are, of course, the most elaborate and magnificent, decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology which give clues to the beliefs and funerary rituals of that period. All of the tombs seem to have been pillaged to a greater or less extent, but they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the rulers of their time.
Most archaeologists believe that the concept for the valleys followed the defeat of the Hyksos and the reunification of Egypt under Ahmose I, the beginning of one of the most powerful epochs in ancient Egypt. The tombs were intended way stations for a deceased Pharaoh on his journey into the eternal afterlife, and for some, a necessary process toward deification.
The tombs were constructed and decorated by the workers of the village of Deir el-Medina, located in a small wadi between the two valleys, facing Thebes (the ancient name for Luxor). The daily lives of these workers has been well documented, even including workers’ strikes.
The area has been a focus of concentrated archaeological exploration since the 18th century. The first written record of the valleys was in the 1st century BC by the Greek Strabo. The valley seems to have held special attractions to the Greeks who explored it continually for 300-400 years thereafter. It may have been a “tourist” destination for ancient Greeks, who despoiled many of the tombs with fatuous graffiti. After the 5th century the valleys were abandoned until the French renewed their interests in ancient Egypt in the early 18th century. The “search for Thebes” obsessed many Frenchmen, led by Father Claude Sicard in 1726. By the end of the 18th century, the French interest had spread across Europe, and a variety of explorers were documenting the valleys. In 1799 Napoleon commissioned the first scientific expedition which returned with good maps and floor plans of the known tombs. During this first scientific expedition, the Rosetta Stone was discovered and returned to France. In 1822 the Frenchman, Jean-FranÃ§ois Champollion, deciphered the first hieroglyphics from the artifact resulting in a renewed interest in ancient Egypt and the valleys in particular. Six years later he went to Egypt and unlocked many of the stories previously hidden in the tombs’ hieroglyphs. His expedition returned with a huge cache of ancient treasures, many of which remain displayed today in the Louvre.
Excavations are ongoing. Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922 by the American, Howard Carter. An American led team from the University of Memphis discovered an 18th Dynasty tomb in 2006.
Most of the tombs are not open to the public, and officials occasionally close those that are open for restoration. Photography is no longer allowed in the tombs. On most days an average of four to five thousand tourists visit the main valley. On the days that the Nile Cruises arrive the number can rise to around nine thousand.