permanence of Egyptian entombment is a legacy that continues
to fascinate historians, archeologists, and antiquarians.
So entrancing are the efforts of the ancient Egyptians
that they capture the imagination of even the most casual
Everyone recognizes the almost superhuman task of constructing the Pyramids, the lives sacrificed in their construction, and the agonizing slavery that made this corner of history so indelible and continuously fascinating. As exotic and elaborate as they are, the fact that they hold the dead also plays a role in casting their timeless spell. The tombs conjure up words and images that are familiar to us all: mummy, sarcophagus, amulet, scarab, hieroglyphs, and many others.
The tombs of the pharaohs attract the most attention, of course. The Pyramids at Giza still inspire awe in anyone who gazes at them. The Valley of the Kings is perhaps the most majestically named area in the world. Who would not quake with trepidation upon entering so royal a conclave?
Even kings and queens die, though, and disposition of the body took on great importance for a people much concerned with the afterlife. The Pyramids of the Old Kingdom are the most sumptuous. Later dynasties learned that during periods of political upheaval and vacant thrones, the more opulent became targets of raids and pillage. Experience of these turbulent times convinced later kings to fashion more modest tomb exteriors yet still be able to be buried amid regal splendor. While the temples erected to the dead kings remained conspicuous, the tombs retreated further inside the hills along the Upper Nile.
Once the kings gave up the pyramid as an appropriate tomb, rich commoners took it up, though on a necessarily smaller scale. Whole villages were given over to tomb-building, displaying once again the importance of preparation for the afterlife. The construction of long entry chambers and foyers helped minimize the risk of theft, since after the first few feet the burial chamber became impenetrably dark. The resting place of the body could often only be reached after following a disorienting maze, helping to insure that the dead rested in peace. This atmosphere easily engendered myths and legends inflicting apocryphal curses upon those who dared to disturb the tombs.
Items that brought joy to people on earth escorted them to entombment, providing them with continued pleasure. For the royal family or for those merely rich, these accompaniments proved too enticing over the centuries, and treasures of priceless value are lost forever, scattered beyond collection. What could not be taken away, however, are the tombs themselves. Rich in detail and wall paintings, they offer exquisite architectural examples to the historian. Because the kings were identified with the sun-god Re, the walls were covered with the religious texts retelling the story of Re and his journey through the underworld at night. Wall paintings and sculptures are relatively constant among all royal tombs, though the relief changed from sunken to raised during the New Kingdom. Minerals such as carbon, iron oxide, and azurite provided the color for inks. Planning for the wall decoration was meticulous, as one draughtsman would succeed another, guaranteeing adherence to the sacred text.
Despite the undeniable magnificence of the tombs, they are a small part of the spectacle of Egyptian tombs. Mummy cases, amulets, funerary objects, and the mummified body are integral parts of this spectacle.