Valley of the Kings.
The name alone evokes a sense of splendor, doesn’t it? After three days in Cairo, we hopped on a plane to Luxor (about one hour, with many options on EgyptAir) for 4 nights/3 days in Ancient Thebes. I mentioned this when talking about Cairo but it’s worth noting when planning your itinerary that the real riches historically are in Luxor. If your focus is Ancient Egypt and you’re debating how to allocate your time, skew towards time in Luxor. I’ll share our itinerary for three days there shortly, but I’ll briefly summarize it by saying we visited The Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut’s Palace, Luxor Temple, Luxor Museum, Karnak Temple, and other sites on the East Bank. Those are the traditional tourist highlights but there’s much more to see beyond that so you could genuinely spend 5 days in Luxor and enjoy new sites every day, no question. It really becomes more a matter of your stamina and ability to take in that much without having it lose its luster a bit. Luxor had a slew of highlights for me, but the Valley of the Kings takes the cake.
Logistics + Basics
If you’re starting to research a bit on where to stay and what to see, you’ll see that Luxor is divided into East Bank and West Bank. In Ancient Egypt, palaces and temples were often built on the East Bank (where to sun rises), and tombs and funerary sites were built on the West Bank (where the sun sets). You’ll see this reflected throughout Egypt with sites scattered on either side of the Nile.
In Luxor most of the hotels you’ll find, including the Winter Palace where we stayed, are on the East Bank. There are options on the West Bank as well but the options are fewer for accommodations and dining as compared with the East Bank. There are two options for getting from the East Bank to the West Bank: a boat across the Nile River (in years back prior to the building of the bridge, this was the only way); or a drive across the bridge. The drive takes around 40 minutes. On the day we visited, we hired a private guide through Emo Tours to help us explore, and our tour went beyond the Valley of the Kings to also include the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Colossi of Memnon, which seem to be typical add-ons for this tour. The price of our guide (around $35 per person) included a driver, which made the process a breeze. I’ll get to this more below, but I would strongly suggest hiring a guide to visit the Valley of the Kings. Not only will you want guidance in choosing the tombs to visit, having a guide also helps with keeping the haggling at bay. We found the harassment quite noticeable in Luxor: we couldn’t step out of our hotel without someone offering us a cab ride, a ride on their kalesh (the horse-drawn carriages), etc. Often people would follow us through town until we were stern enough or finally gave in. From our experience, a guide helped make the experience more enjoyable from that perspective, too.
Temple of Hatshepsut
First stop on our journey: the Temple of Hatshepsut, a temple that has a shape uniquely its own. Any traveler can appreciate the story behind this temple and this pharaoh but female travelers in particular are going to feel some a sense of connection here. Hatshepsut was one of the more famous pharaohs with a peaceful reign of 22 years during the 18th dynasty. The part that wows me? Hatshepsut was a female pharaoh. There was technically one confirmed before her but Hatshepsut had a much longer and impactful reign.
I don’t know about you but looking around in 2018 at the struggles being made by women worldwide, including many places where women are still not afforded basic rights, I couldn’t help but be a bit awe-inspired by the fact that a woman led the most powerful civilization on the planet 3500 years ago. Talk about setting the stage! And if, like us, it’s your first stop on the West Bank, you’ll be wowed by the colors and carvings in the temple.
The Valley of the Kings
You’ll find that your knowledge of Egyptian history increases hundredfold when you start exploring Egypt. You can’t take in the sights without learning more than you ever thought possible. Ancient Egypt is broken into dynasties which are separated into three kingdoms: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom. During the Middle Kingdom, Thebes (now Luxor) came into prominence and served as the capital of Egypt. Where the pharaohs in the Old Kingdom had been building tombs in pyramids around the old capital of Memphis + Giza, etc., the Middle Kingdom had pharaohs building more discreet tombs in on the West Bank in Thebes. A pyramid is a pretty obvious tomb, and for grave robbers it’s the ultimate target. The tombs in Thebes were a contrast to this; a sea of individual pharaonic tombs built at different depths and sizes along this desert landscape. They were hidden from the outside but inside they’re spectacular: scenes from the afterlife, carved or brightly painted with a burial chamber and other storage rooms along the way.
The tombs were built during a pharaoh’s reign: from the time s/he came into power until the time of death, so tombs vary immensely in size and grandeur. The length of reign doesn’t necessarily correlate with how grand a tomb is either. We went into one that took 6 years and was insanely beautiful; while another that took decades was relatively simple by contrast. Some of the final product also depended on the artists employed and how well people were paid. So, what does this all mean for your visit to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor now?
You’ll be buying a ticket to enter the Valley of the Kings which grants you entry to three tombs. At any given time there are around seven open, but the open tombs rotate for sustainability. It can be hard to plan on which tomb you’d see when you’re there since it’s hard to be sure of which is open. And, like I mentioned, picking tombs that correspond to the longest reigning pharaohs doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see the most spectacular tomb. This is where your guide comes in and proves invaluable. Our guide took the guesswork out of this for us and chose three tombs to visit: Ramesses III (KV11), Merneptah (KV8), and Ramesses IV (KV2) . Each tomb will have a KV# associated with it; this is the order that the tombs were discovered (Tut’s is 62, for example).
Also worth noting, you’ll have to buy a ticket for photography (300 EGP). Even with this ticket I had guys inside the tombs trying to get me to fork over some baksheesh for the opportunity to photograph but I stood firm on this one. To be honest, I was just incredibly annoyed at that point since I had just paid the mandatory fee to be able to use my camera and presented the ticket when asked. I generally approach all travels with this all people are good and no one wants to rip me off mentality (it’s more for the sake of staying positive and giving everyone a chance) but tipping is ingrained into the culture in a serious way in Egypt. People want to be tipped for literally everything so be prepared so it doesn’t come off as too abrasive. To be fair, I was prepared for that, and I still found it overwhelming in Luxor. Someone literally asked to take a photo with me and then asked me to tip them for the opportunity to take a photo with them…. whaa? Okay, back to the tombs. Photo overload to follow so apologies in advance!
We started with Ramesses IV, which was a stunning start to our sightseeing. Even with the harassment regarding photography, I was utterly wowed by everything. The tomb has gorgeous carvings and beautiful color. Up to that point, it was the most vibrant color I had seen. As I mentioned above, the tombs are at all different depths and lengths so you’ll find some go further back while some go deeper down, etc. This one didn’t have much of a decline but as you continue further back you’ll see the colors increase in vibrance. Without being exposed to sun they’ve managed to stay intact in a way that’s absolutely unbelievable.
And guys, if I haven’t emphasized this enough on Instagram and in my posts, this is all authentic. There’s no retouching here. At most, some tombs had some glass protective barriers but there’s nothing that’s been rebuilt or restored.
Not that any tombs are lackluster because come on, we’re in the Valley of the Kings after all, but of the three tombs we saw Merneptah’s was the least wow-worthy. Less color, less intricate all around, and the tomb involves a decline down into the tomb which makes it a bit steamy inside. This tomb had the sarcophagus though, which the others didn’t, so that gave us something new to admire. If you’re reading now and planning your own trip and journey to the Valley of the Kings, I wouldn’t put this one at the top of your list. That being said, both of the others here I would revisit.
Ramesses III was the absolute KING from the tombs we explored. Ramesses IV was a close second place, but this tomb was stunningly impressive in every way: the colors, the depth of the carvings, the size of the tomb, it was all jaw dropping from the start.
This was the only tomb that had protective glass on the lower part of the walls, but the colors and stone are still in such great shape that it’s no wonder that the authorities are doing what they can to protect their national treasures. Also, can you even imagine being the person who discovered this tomb? The scenes are pictures that we saw in many tombs throughout – they’re all similar at least, with cartouches that show the name of the pharaoh along with images of gods, goddesses and the afterlife.
The two photos above show some more of the colors and paintings and how well-preserved they are. The paint was generally made from minerals sourced in the region and painted using glues that were made to help the color adhere.
King Tut’s Tomb
Lastly, we visited King Tut’s Tomb, which is available for an additional fee (around $10). To be fair, the tomb isn’t as grand as the ones before it. The bit you can explore is rather small but the mummy is still in the tomb, which is a draw. More of a draw is just being in the tomb which housed such a historic discovery. King Tut was relatively unimportant in terms of his contributions and he ruled as a boy from about 9 – 19 or so. It was the fact that his treasures were still in the tomb when it was discovered that wowed the world, and really has people wondering, if there was this much in Tut’s tomb, how much would have existed in the other tombs?!
Worth mentioning: we didn’t visit the other tombs that had a supplemental fee. You’ll have the option of visiting the tomb of Seti I, widely considered the best preserved tomb of all, but it’s an additional $50 (US dollars, yes) for the entry. The same is true with Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of the Queens. Photos are not allowed – you can’t even pay for a photo ticket – in Seti I.
You know how I mentioned that you can many spend days in Luxor? This is a prime example. We visited three tombs. You may want to visit all of the tombs over a couple of days – you can do that with multiple tickets. There’s also Seti I tomb mentioned above, The Valley of the Queens (and Nefertari’s tomb), the Valley of the Nobles and the Valley of the Artisans. I’ll soon be sharing an itinerary for three days in Luxor and the rest of our sightseeing so stay tuned!
Is Valley of the Kings on your bucket list?