Choosing your Valley of the Kings tombs

It seemed completely right that we visited both The Valley of the Kings and The Valley of the Queens on the day of the dead. We saved it for our last day in Luxor—anticipating that exploring the tombs would be un-toppable. And I have to say, our assumption held right. On the list of things not to miss in Egypt, this, definitely, is number one.

Visiting the Valley of the Kings

Before we get into which tombs you should visit, a few words of advice. BUY A PHOTO PERMIT. In the old days, you’d bribe the guards with a bakshish (a small tip in Egyptian pounds). Now they have a photo permit for purchase at the main gate, which lets you take unlimited photos in the three main tombs. You can only purchase it at the entrance, so make your investment up front—in 2018, it cost about 10 USD, and you will definitely want a few snaps of these incredible spaces. We saw one couple taking photos without a permit who tried to bribe the guard to let them shoot anyway. When he refused, they got really rude with him, and he told them to hand over their SD card. So, just pay the ten bucks.

And more importantly, don’t expect every Egyptian to take your bribe. Offer it with a smile, but if they refuse, don’t push your luck or turn ugly. It will not work out on your favor.

That’s a good lesson for this experience in general: be respectful to both the living and the dead. The ancient Egyptians treated these as sacred spaces; think of them as akin to small churches and approach with the same respect. Take the time to read the placard outside and learn who rested here. If you’ve seen the Royal mummies at the Egyptian museum in Cairo, you know that most of that rest was pretty rudely interrupted. I love Indiana Jones, but after seeing some of the photos of the wrecked tombs, I’ve got to say tomb raiding seems much fouler in practice than in the movies. Lucky for us, we were just visiting them!

Which tombs should I visit at The Valley of the Kings?

Ramses III

Located near the front of The Valley, the tomb of Ramses III was decently crowded. I got the feeling that a lot of your choose this one so they don’t have to go to deep into The Valley. Which is not to say the tomb isn’t amazing in its own right. Architecturally, it features an interesting twist—there’s a weird dogleg tunnel where builders ran into another tomb and had to shift the whole operation over about three meters.

The walls are covered in exquisite paintings, with the paint still thick and vibrant in many places. The tomb has lots of smaller antechambers decorated for the offerings they contained: food, imports, foreign gifts. The ceiling was my favorite: black as pitch and covered in thousands of five-pointed stars.

Siptah

Tucked away in the back, the tomb of Pharaoh Siptah wasn’t busy. And after we read the placard outside, we realized it wasn’t completely his, either. This tomb has a pretty complicated history, but as we understood it, Twosret, served as the queen regent to the Siptah, and then stole the throne from him to reign as Pharoah herself. Throne first, then tomb—she was buried in a giant sarcophagus in the heart of the tomb. Ironically, the tomb was then stolen from her at least once, by Pharaoh Setnak.

We had the space more or less to ourselves, exploring the two burial chambers, one of which was very painted and preserved, the other one starker and less decorated. Ramses III’s tomb didn’t have a sacrophasgus on public view—I have to confess when we saw the one in Twosret’s tomb, it gave me immediate goosebumps. The tomb features astonishing arched ceilings with massive paintings in gold, and a wide array of god paintings: The Lonely Planet guide pointed out that this is one of the few tombs where you can see the priests, identifiable by their panther skin robes. I really liked the sub-chamber which showed the mummification process, led by Anubis, in sharp relief.

Merenptah

The tomb of Merenptah was the last we saw on our general admission ticket—the rest of this list cost a little extra (or in one case, a lot extra). Merenptah is tucked behind King Tut’s tomb. It’s the second-longest tomb in The Valley, and you feel the temperature change as you head down a steadily steep decline. It features of a lot of carvings, but the tomb has flooded a few times and a lot of them have been damaged. For the most part the paint holds up, but there are some places where a lot of the details have faded.

This was the tomb where the photo-happy couple was really ugly to the tomb keeper. After the incident, we went and apologized on behalf of tourists everywhere, and started chatting to the guide. The tomb was empty—he gave us a long look, and then pulled up the barricade, pulling us into the tomb to step inside the mammoth sarcophagus. It was an unforgettable moment.

Tut ankh kahmun

The much lauded tomb of the boy king Tut anhk kahum was, ironically, the simplest tomb we saw. It featured a simple hallway linked to a large chamber with just two walls painted. But! That said, the tomb still features his mummy and his golden sarcophagus—and this sight will steal your breath. The sarcophagus is surrounded by a brilliant mural painted with the gods on one side and a series of baboons on the other, all on a shining gold background. It’s definiftely worth the extra XX pounds to visit—and most people will. We slotted this tomb into the early afternoon, after the big tours had left, and had it all to ourselves.

Ramses V/VI –

The tomb of Ramses VI was actually actually begun by Ramses V and then taken over by Ramses VI. It’s a stunning space—with color still vibrant on the walls and detailed hieroglyphics with painted shading inked linework unklike any other we saw in the Valley. It ends in a gigantic, magnificent burial chamber, whose highlight in unfortunately the sarcophagus ruined by tomb raiders.

We also had this tomb to ourselves, and though our photo permit technically didn’t allow us to shoot inside this space, the guide allowed us to take some photos. I loved the details and artistry of the craftwork inside this tomb—which featured the most vivid colors of any tomb we saw in the Valley of the Kings except for…

Seti I

Seti I. Opened in 2016, the tomb of Seti I incurs a significant entrance cost—50 euros. We initially didn’t purchase a ticket, thinking that there would be enough in the Valley of the Kings to sate our curiosity. After we’d seen all of the tombs, however, we were hyped enough to go back to the entrance and purchase the additional (steeply priced) ticket. And boy was it was worth it.

The tomb of Seti I is the largest in the Valley of the Kings, and the steep entrance price (50 USD at the time of writing in October 2018) keeps many from visiting. Thought photography is technically not permitted, even with a photo permit, we offered a bribe to the guide assigned to us and were allowed not only to take photos, but also shown additional antechambers that were off-limits to the rest of the public.

It was stunning. Deep blacks and sharp ochres, cobalts, golds, and emeralds paints. Detailed drawings and carvings of the process leading the afterlife. And a jaw-dropping arched burial chamber that features an ornately painted ceiling in black and gold. It seemed to go on for miles underground—Tim and I stepped through each chamber in awe, descending deeper and deeper into the Theban mountains. And when, eventually, we re-surfaced, we knew one thing for sure—spending the money was absolutely worth it.