The best tombs in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt
You may think that the pyramids were the greatest monuments of the ancient Egyptians. Certainly today we look at them as works of genius.
But there was one enormous problem with the pyramids – and the pharaohs learned their lesson quickly and stopped building them relatively quickly.
The problem with the pyramids was that they were too big and too impressive. They were built as tombs for the pharaohs, and when pharaohs were buried, with them were buried enormous troves of treasure.
So, for grave robbers who wanted to find this loot, it wasn’t very hard because there was an enormous stone monument rising up from the desert, marking the exact location!
After all of the tombs in the pyramids had been robbed, it didn’t take long for the Ancient Egyptians to start laying their kings to rest in secret places instead. Rather than have a grand building denoting the spot where a pharaoh and his treasure were buried, their tombs where dug down into the ground and the entrances covered over with sand and rock, so that they would never be found by grave robbers.
The best example of this is at the Valley of the Kings near Luxor. The first underground tomb wasn’t dug here until about a thousand years after the Giza Pyramids were built. So, there are lots of other tombs of pharaohs across the country. But there’s no single place with such a rich density of burials.
The kings and other nobles of Ancient Egypt were buried here for about 500 years, from the 16th to the 11th century BC. So far, 63 tombs have been discovered. I say “so far” because you never know how many more may be hidden.
The Valley of the Kings is one of the most famous sights for visitors to Egypt. It’s maybe not as iconic as the Giza Pyramids or Abu Simbel because it’s much harder to depict in an image. After all, from above it just looks like a dirty pile of sand and rocks.
But the Valley of the Kings has become one of the must-visit places on a tour of Egypt particularly because of its most famous resident, Tutankhamun.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb here in 1922 was one of the most important moments of the study of Egyptology.
Finding an underground burial chamber still full of treasure was amazing. After all, even though the tombs of the pharaohs and nobles had been hidden, they were all robbed – probably not too long after they were sealed off. It’s assumed by archaeologists that normally the guards were bribed to show the robbers where the entrances were.
But the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb are now all in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and so there’s not much to actually see in the tomb. It is one of the smallest in the Valley of the Kings and also one with the least decorations.
It means that, when it comes to planning a visit, there are some other parts where you’ll find the best tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Visiting the Valley of the Kings
A standard ticket to the Valley of the Kings allows you to visit three tombs (aside from a few special ones, which I’ll mention shortly) so you need to choose carefully.
Although there are 63 tombs in total, there are only 18 that are ever open to the public. And, even then, never all of them at the same time. The authorities change things regularly to help preserve them.
When I visit on my G Adventures tour of Egypt, for example, there are eight general tombs and three special ones that are open.
This is another one of the times when I’m glad to have a guide with us. Our G Adventures guide, Adi, has seen all the tombs (many times) and so knows which of the open ones are the best for us to visit.
The three he recommends are the tombs of Ramses IV (KV2), Merenptah (KV8), and Rameses IX (KV6). I’ll tell you a bit more about them shortly.
There are three special tombs that you can also visit. You can’t use your general ticket for any of these and you need to buy an extra ticket.
There’s the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) which costs 250 EGP (US$15). I choose not to buy the ticket because I know there isn’t much to see, it’s really just about being able to say that you went inside the most famous one.
There’s the tomb of Seti I (KV17) which is said to have the most spectacular decorations. But the ticket costs 1000 EGP (US$60) and I decide that’s a bit too much to spend.
The other one of the tomb of Ramses V and Ramses VI. It also has spectacular decorations but a ticket only costs 90 EGP (US$5.50) so I decide to see it, as well as the three included with the general ticket. (Our guide, Adi, highly recommended it too, which helped.)
Seeing just four tombs on a visit to the Valley of the Kings may not seem like much when you think about how many rulers were buried here over the course of 500 years – but it’s actually just about the right amount.
It can take up to 30 minutes to see each tomb if you go slowly and look carefully at all the paintings on the wall. And, although each is different, there’s enough similarity in the tombs that you don’t really feel like you need to see anymore.
But let me now tell you a little bit about each of the tombs that I did see and share some of the photos I took.
Tomb of Ramses IV (KV2)
There’s an interesting story about Ramses IV. His father, the pharaoh, was said to have been killed by one of his wives (not Ramses IV’s mother) so she could put her son on the throne. But Ramses IV still managed to become pharaoh and killed the murderer and her son. The mummy of the son, Pentaware, looks like he is screaming and so there’s a theory that he was mummified alive.
Anyway, that aside, the tomb of Ramses IV is impressive. It is 88 metres along and has three connected corridors that descend gradually until you reach a large room with a sarcophagus in the centre, and then a burial chamber beyond that.
The decorations on the walls are generally well-preserved although there’s a fair amount of graffiti from ‘tourists’ who came here centuries ago.
Tomb of Merenptah (KV8)
Merenptah was not a particularly famous pharaoh, even though he was the son of the greatest ruler, Ramses II. That was probably the problem, though. He was at least 60 by the time his father (and 12 of his older brothers) had died, so he only ruled for about a decade before he passed away himself.
Still, his tomb is relatively long and there’s a steep incline to get down into it. The paintings that have survived on the walls of the corridors are quite beautiful, although they get simpler the further you go, suggesting they were done in a hurry as the pharaoh neared death.
There are a few side rooms on the way down that would have held important items, but the most important is the unique burial chamber at the end, with a set of four sarcophagi and several annexes coming off the sides.
Tomb of Rameses IX (KV6)
This tomb is quite an easy one to explore. Although it’s 105 metres long, the descent isn’t particularly steep. Along the way, there are colourful paintings on the walls and the ceiling. It’s only at the very end that there’s a short set of stairs that lead down to the small burial chamber.
The first corridor has the most intricate of the decorations so it’s assumed that these were done during the pharaoh’s lifetime. Some of the ones further down the tomb may have been completed after an unexpected death. There’s even a theory that the burial chamber was supposed to be a corridor and was converted.
But, having said that, he did reign for 18 years so there was enough time to make a tomb that is probably the most vibrant of the three general ones that I see.
Tomb of Ramses V and VI (KV9)
There are two names associated with this tomb because it originally made for Ramses V but his uncle, Ramses VI, took it over and they are both buried here. As soon as I go in I can see why you pay extra to visit – and it is definitely worth it.
The tomb is 117 metres long and the colours of the wall paintings are the brightest that I have seen. They cover the corridors and really pop out as you walk along. There’s also a good variety to them and you feel as if you’re moving through a story as you walk along.
But the highlight is the burial chamber at the end, which feels like it’s been decorated for a movie. There’s an unfinished pit on the floor, and wonderful scenes of Ramses VI and various gods painted on the walls, columns, and ceiling. In the middle, a broken sarcophagus helps to create a perfect scene.
I think this is one of the best tombs in the Valley of the Kings and I would highly recommend you pay the bit extra to visit. The bonus is that the extra price keeps the crowds away and you may even have it to yourself, like I do for a few minutes.
Photography in the Valley of the Kings
I hope that, as well as my descriptions, you have enjoyed my photos from the Valley of the Kings. I was pleased to be able to take them because photography used to be banned. But I do think it’s a bit outrageous how much extra you have to pay to use a camera.
To get a photo ticket costs 300 EGP extra, which is almost US$20 on top of the entrance fee. To me, this seems like a really large amount at a time when everyone has a camera on the phone. Some people may just want to snap a couple of quick shots on their phone but they have to pay the 300 EGP to do that.
If you think you can just sneak a photo, think again. The guards are really strict and they spend more time looking for people using a camera than they do guarding the precious tombs. This is because, if they catch you, they’ll demand you give them some money.
Ultimately, it’s a bit of a scam. There’s no need to charge people to take photos at all – that’s just a cash grab from the authorities. And then the guards go along with it so they can get some extra money from people who didn’t pay the fee.
The guards are actually really annoying because they’ll constantly be asking you for tips to be allowed to climb up where you shouldn’t, or they’ll try to claim you’re doing something wrong and then demand you pay them.
It’s a pity that the people who are supposed to be protecting these tombs are just looking for ways to make some extra money themselves. But, then again, that’s what the guards were doing thousands of years ago when they were taking bribes from the grave robbers too. I guess not much has changed in that respect.
I travelled to Egypt with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Egypt.