The deep history of Egypt offers many wonders — temples, pyramids, the Sphinx. But oft-forgotten are the tombs of countless pharaohs and their servants; these well-preserved sites offer an intimate look inside the culture and customs of ancient Egypt, giving us a clear sense of the region’s history. If you want to make the most of your trip to North Africa, be sure to visit these three Egyptian tombs:
Valley of the Kings
The resting place for more than 65 Ancient Egyptian royals, the Valley of the Kings first gained prominence in 1907 when the tomb of King Tutankhamen was uncovered by archaeologist Howard Carter. The tomb contained thousands of ancient artifacts — many now housed in the Cairo Museum — including the world-famous Tut face mask, gilded with gold and decorated with semi-precious stones. Today, the tomb is a state of near permanent restoration; sometimes, it is open to the public, though often tourists will find it closes for fixes or repairs. The latest restorations were supposed to be completed in 2018, but it seems they are still ongoing.
King Tut is only one draw in the Valley of the Kings, however. Most of the tombs are on the west bank of the valley and while there are numerous ones available to the public, they are not all open at the same time. Whichever ones you visit, be sure to take in the artwork; some of the most impressive is featured in the Tomb of Ay, the Tomb of Setnakht, and the Tomb of Horemheb. The simple drawings within tell rich stories about life, death, and the afterlife. (Interesting note: Most of the mummies buried in these tombs were gone by the time archaeologists discovered them. Why? Well, it was fairly common for thieves to abscond with bodies, only to secure the jewelry with which they were interred.)
Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa
Alexandria — a city influenced by many cultures through the centuries — is home to several underground tombs. These descend some three levels below the ground and evince a clear intermingling of cultures (Romans and Greeks were known to bury their dead underground in this fashion). As evidence, pay close attention to the dress of the statues; while generally Egyptian in form, they often sport Roman or Greek clothing.
Visitors can enter the catacombs via a spiral staircase and wander freely on the top two levels; the third is off-limits as it’s almost always under water. Among the features in the catacombs are thick stone coffins which excavators have not been able to open, prompting the puzzling question: How did the ancients get their dead in them if they are too heavy for us to open?
You can also step inside the Hall of Caracalla where the dead from a brutal massacre in 215 CE were buried. The bones have been removed, but the sheer size of the hall will give you a sense of how many victims there were.
Tomb of Pennut
Back along the Nile, you’ll find the less-visited Tomb of Pennut. Nearby are two temples of the venerable Rameses II — both of which are very popular with tourists — but if you follow the simple path nearby that leads away from the temples (you’ll recognize it when you see it), you’ll soon come upon the tomb of the erstwhile Viceroy of Kush, who served during the reign of Ramses VI.
Inside, you’ll find an altar — a nod to Pennut’s role as both viceroy and priest — as well as a number of inscriptions and paintings. The viceroy’s mummy was not found (another BCE theft, no doubt), but the presence of Ramses loyal servant can be felt nonetheless.
Not surprisingly, there are many other tombs you can visit in Egypt, and the best way to enjoy most of them is via a guided tour; these provide an opportunity to explore open tombs yourself, so you don’t need to worry about being stuck in a drawn-out history lesson.
For more information about tomb tours — and the tombs themselves — visit Egypt Tours Plus.