Cairo has the pyramids, and aside from King Tut, they seem to get the lion’s share of the attention when one reads about Egypt. But here in Luxor it’s the tombs and temples that tell the story. In comparison to the temples, the pyramids seem so simple; I can almost grasp the magnitude of their construction and function. But with the temples and tombs I’m left with a bigger picture of the complexity of this ancient culture. The sheer number and size of them overshadow my memories of the pyramids. This was a grand place and time in Egypt’s history. For our first excursion out Jane took us to one lesser-known pharaoh and two noble’s tombs. We later visited the temple of Seti I.
We taxied our way over to the Valley of the Kings, and instead of heading up the well touristed canyon of the famous boy pharaoh, we drove further back a lonely, desolate wash to the tomb of Ay, the man who became pharaoh after Tut. Along the way we picked up the tomb guardian (the man with the key) and a tourist-police officer for our protection. The terrain here is amazing; I would visit here just to look at the rocks and hillsides. At a bird’s eye view it’s easy to see these canyons as old washes. In a past geologic age (and now when it rains once in every fifteen years or so) huge quantities of water must have run down this mountainside. Judging by the looks of the land now, you would never guess that water ever touched this soil. It looks a bit like a mix between Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, and the Moon. It is a place of death.
Ay’s tomb is at the back of the wash and is reached by walking down a series of steep stairs about 130 feet into the side of the mountain. The nice thing about visiting this tomb is that it is almost identical to Tutankhamen’s tomb but without the crowds. We had the tomb to ourselves for about 45 minutes. Jane talked us through the story of Ay’s brief pharaohship. It is a great story, one that I have been following over the years. Tut was only nine when he became pharaoh. His father, Akhenaten had changed the religious focus to the worship of Aten, and in so doing offended the religious establishment and power structures. Ay, who was an official in Akhenaten’s court and uncle to young Tut, no doubt held great sway on the young pharaoh’s decisions. Tut’s main accomplishment during his reign was restoring Egypt’s traditional religion. I don’t believe this was Tut’s decision. Tut was born Tutankhaten not Tutankhamen. His name was changed after his father’s death and the re-establishment of the traditional beliefs. I may be totally off, but I believe that Tut was an Aten worshipper to the end. There are many images of him bathing in the rays of Aten from his royal treasures; even his thrown has him and his sister/wife, Ankhesenamun (born Ankhesenaten), enjoying the presence of Aten. At any rate, it is believed that Ay more than likely killed or had Tut killed. In order to gain the thrown, he needed to marry Ankhesenamun. Apparently she was not too keen on this and wrote letters to the Hittite king (a long time enemy to Egypt) asking for him to send her a prince to marry. In the letter she wrote that she was loath to marry a commoner, a pretty clear reference to Ay who was not a royal and his intentions. After a couple of letters the Hittite king sent a son to marry Ankhes, but he was murdered on the way somewhere along the border of Egypt. There is further evidence that Ay married Ankhes, a ring showing both their cartouches together. Shortly after the Hittite letters all reference to Ankhes is lost. When Ay dies three years after the death of Tut, it is Ay’s first wife Tiy who is painted on the walls of this tomb. In order to gain the thrown Ay may have murdered Tut, the Hittite prince and Ankhesenamun. My son Sam thinks that Ay may have murdered Akhenaten as well. Power, corruption, murder, intrigue, sounds like a great novel. (Photos of tombs in the Valley of the Kings is strictly forbidden. These photos from Ay's tomb are from the Tour Egypt website, a great resource on Egyptian culture and history)
On this day we also visited the tombs of Roy and Shuroy. Both of these are in an area known as Tombs of the Nobles. Shuroy was chief of the incense burners in Karnak during the 19th dynasty. His tomb was built for he and his wife Wernefer. It contained examples of apprenticeship painting: simple, unfinished or misshapen pictures, some left in their rough draft red paint or with little detail. Next door was the tomb of Roy, a royal scribe to King Horemeheb (18th dynasty after Ay) This tiny tomb was also meant for both he and his wife, Nebtawy. The ceiling is not smooth like those of the kings, but is rolling (it’s not easy smoothing out solid limestone) and painted like a carpet. There are many interesting scenes of the couple from their daily life as well as preparing for their journey into the afterlife.
The last place we visited this day was the Memorial Temple of Sety I. Sety was father to Ramses II and unlike his famous pharaonic son appears to have been rather humble. Of the numerous shrines dedicated to gods in this complex, the shrine to Sety is relatively small, in the back, and only accessible by exiting the main structure. By this placement, perhaps Sety is making a statement as to his importance in the greater picture of life. It was here that we reinacted (with costumes even! -thanks Jane) what it may have been like for the Pharaoh Sety I to greet visitors at his window of appearances. I got to be Pharaoh and Megan, my queen. Jane was the royal handmaiden, Leah a Hittite princess, Sam a royal keeper of the zoo, Sarah Jane a priestess of Amun, and Emma (what do you know?) the Barbarian Chief! These are all scenarios that really happened and can be found recorded at other temples in Luxor. In ancient times, a canal connected this temple to the Nile. During a celebration known as the Beautiful Festival of the Valley processions traveled this canal by boat across the Nile to Karnak a couple of miles away. Like many of the temples around here there is a hypostyle hall (a hall with papyrus bundle stone columns simulating a papyrus thicket - the center of the Egyptian creation story). While there are many incredible reliefs, the site is suffering from water erosion at an alarming rate. Farmers can and do farm year round; this has raised the water table tremendously. The absorption of water and salts into the limestone is easily visible. While we were there we witnessed several register pieces in the dirt around the pedestal of a sphinx that had eroded recently. Sad. Something needs to be done. Maybe regulation of agriculture in areas of ancient sites? Development of better water drainage in these areas? Difficult questions to address since so many in this area make their living on agriculture.