Pathway to the Afterlife


Geology of the Valley

The Valley of the Kings (Wadi Biban el-Muluk; 'Gates of the King') is a secluded valley lying amongst the mountains that rise from the flat plain on the western side of the Nile across from Thebes (modern Luxor). The plain served as the location of the royal mortuary temples, while the wadi beyond provided the ideal site for the rock cut tombs. The wadi, which lies at the foot of the pyramidal peak of el-Qurn, consists of two branches - East Valley, where most of the royal tombs are situated, and the larger, but less used, West Valley.
Geology of the Valley of the Kings
The upper geology of the area consists of three layers of sedimentary rock - Dakhia chalk, the oldest of the three sediments, Esna shale, a 60m band of mudstone, and, overlying both of these, Serai (or Theban) limestone which, prior to pluvial erosion, must have been over 300m thick.

Erosion of the limestone has gouged out valleys, leaving tall limestone cliffs with rock strewn valleys lying at their feet. The limestone, although ideal for tomb construction, is extremely susceptible to water infiltration. Heavy rainfall in the surrounding area can, and does, lead to flash floods in the wadis, dumping tons of debris into the open tombs.

This flooding also leads to water penetration which makes the limestone expand. That, coupled with the subsequent uneven drying, can cause damage to the tombs and the surrounding rock.

Coming to the Valley

The Theban area had been used for royal burials in the First Intermediate Period (2134-2040BC) and also during the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640BC), but it was with the arrival of the New Kingdom, beginning with Ahmose in around 1550BC (after the defeat of the Hyksos and the reunification of Egypt), that the Valley of the Kings officially became the location of the royal necropolis.

Ahmose and his son Amenhotep I were more than likely interred in the Seventeenth Dynasty necropolis of Dra' Abu el-Naga. The first royal tomb definitely located in the Valley of the Kings was that of the successor to Amenhotep I, Thutmose I, whose architect Ineni notes in his tomb that he advised his king to place his tomb in the valley. For the next 500 years the Pharaohs of the 19th and 20th dynasties were buried in the valley.

The Falcon is Flown to Heaven

The funerary rites accompanying the death of a pharaoh were carried out to help the dead king pass through the obstacles of the afterlife, to be reborn with the morning sun. 'The Book of the Dead', a collection of spells, hymns and instructions, is the common name given to the ancient Egyptian funerary text known as 'Spells for Coming Forth by Day'. The name 'Book of the Dead' was first coined by the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius, who published a selection of the texts in 1842. To the Egyptians death was simply a transitional stage on the way to eternal life. They believed that everyone had three souls, the 'ka', the 'ba', and the 'akh'. To enjoy the afterlife it was considered essential for the body to survive intact to allow the physical and spiritual elements to be reunited.


Mummification was first used in the Old Kingdom, but not fully developed until the New Kingdom. It continued to be practiced until the demise of the ancient Egyptian religion.

Book of the Dead - Mummification All of the internal organs, except the heart, were removed. Since the organs were the first parts of the body to decompose, but were necessary in the afterlife, they were embalmed and put in canopic jars that were placed in the tomb at the time of burial.

The heart was believed to be the source of intelligence and emotion and was, therefore, left in the body. The brain, on the other hand, was considered to have no value and was discarded, having been liquefied and removed through the nose. The whole process involving the removal of the organs and dessicating the body in a mixture of salts called natron took about forty days.

The body was then wrapped in layers of linen strips, sealed to the body by tar or resin. Sacred charms and amulets were put in the folds and were believed to protect the body from evil spirits and help the soul on its journey through the afterlife. The entire process was completed in about seventy days.

Funerary Rites

The body was was then taken across the Nile by boat. From the far shore the funerary procession proceeded to the necropolis. Once at the tomb the body was re-animated, symbolically, by a priest who conducted the 'Opening of the Mouth' ceremony. This ceremony ensured that the mummy could breathe, speak and eat in the afterlife. The mummy was then placed within a series of coffins and then in a sarcophagus. In addition to the 'Opening of the Mouth' ceremony, mummies were provided with books of the dead to ensure safe passage.

Canopic JarsIncluded in the tomb were the Canopic Jars containing the internal organs of the deceased. These jars were made of clay or stone, closed with stoppers fashioned in the shape of four heads -- human, baboon, falcon, and jackal - representing the four protective spirits called the Four Sons of Horus. Also included in the tomb were objects to ensure the deceased's enjoyment of the afterlife: funerary figurines, furniture, cosmetics and models of daily life.

According to the Book of the Dead, the deceased was subjected to a demanding ordeal after death, requiring a sin-free heart and the ability to recite the spells, passwords, and formulae of the book.

In the Hall of Two Truths, pictured below, the deceased (dressed in white) has to appear before a panel of 14 judges (top left) to account for his deeds during life. The ankh, the key of life, appears in the hands of some of the judges. Thoth, the ibis-headed god of wisdom stands at the ready to record the outcome.

The deceased is then led to a set of scales where the deceased's heart is weighed against the Shu feather of truth and justice taken from the headdress of the goddess Ma'at (centre left). If the heart proves lighter than the feather, the deceased can pass on, but if heavier, they are devoured by the demon Ammit.

Book of the Dead - Rite of Passage

After the weighing of the heart, Horus, the god with the falcon head and ankh in his left hand, then leads the deceased to Osiris. Osiris, lord of the underworld, sits on his throne, represented as a mummy. On his head is the white crown of Lower Egypt. He holds the symbols of Egyptian kingship in his hands: the shepherd's crook to symbolize his role as shepherd of mankind, and the flail, to represent his ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. Behind him stand his wife Isis and her sister Nephthys who welcome the deceased to the underworld.

Stocking the chambers

From the earliest periods of Egyptian history, Egyptians were buried with goods which they thought necessary in the afterlife. Although most of the royal tombs were plundered long ago, the list of goods originally placed in them can still be reasonably reconstructed based on the evidence from the tomb of Tutankhamun together with remnants left in the tombs of Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV and Horemheb.

A Shabti FigurineThe evidence indicates that from the middle of the eighteenth dynasty onwards, the typical royal burial consisted of the mummified body of the king contained within several coffins nested one within the other. These coffins were placed within a stone sarcophagus surrounded in turn by a number of gilded wooden shrines.

A large range of other objects were placed in the burial chamber, intended for the eternal protection, use and sustenance of the deceased king. The internal organs, embalmed separately, were placed in canopic jars inside a canopic chest. These chests were first made of quartzite like the sarcophagus they resembled, but were later made from calcite. The canopic chest was often inserted in a small pit at the foot-end of the sarcophagus, or else stored in a separate niche or small room.

In the New Kingdom the deceased was provided with a small ritual figure, which the Egyptians believed would perform work for them in the afterlife. In later burials, the numbers of figures increased dramatically. Tutankhamun was buried with more than four hundred of these shabti statues.

Other ritual objects frequently found in eighteenth dynasty burials were 'Osiris-beds' - wooden trays planted with seeds which would germinate after the tomb was sealed, symbolising the continuation of life after death.

Although a great deal of material buried with the deceased was ritualistic, a huge range of everyday objects were also placed in the tomb. Objects left typically included personal clothing, jewelery, perfumes and cosmetics, games, musical instruments, weaponry, heirlooms and other personal mementos, furniture, pottery and glass and a plentiful supply of food.

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