It was to the West, where the Sun-god at the end of each day began his nocturnal journey through the underworld, that man also gained admittance to the hereafter. Life after death was a concept most deeply rooted in the minds of the ancient Egyptians. Since the earliest times they had seen the passing of the mortal body not as an end but as a beginning. Belief in the hereafter was the focal point of their outlook. It stimulated their thought, their moral principles and their art.
|Necropolis in Luxor|
Even in pre-dynastic times the dead, laid to rest in simple oval pits surmounted by a pile of rubble, were covered with a protective animal skin and surrounded by pots containing food and drink, a few primitive weapons and ornaments. Each slow development from these crude pit burials through the mastaba development to the pyramid proper, and its ultimate abandonment in favour of rock- hewn tombs, was a battle to preserve the body. When a stone superstructure was placed atop a tomb in place of the rubble, this was because it was a stronger safeguard against the elements. When, in place of skin, linen cloth was used to swathe the body, this was because it afforded better protection.
Mastabas, low rectangular bench-like brick structures, were tombs. The earliest comprised a single burial chamber hewn deep in the ground, in which the deceased, placed in a wooden sarcophagus, lay surrounded by pottery jars filled with food, drink and ointments, and chests of weapons and jewellery. In the funerary room built in the superstructure there was a false door through which the ka could join the world of the living. In front of it was an offering table where relatives and friends could place food and drink to sustain the deceased in the hereafter.
Since tombs were regarded as the places where the deceased would dwell, they closely resembled contemporary houses both inside and out. Naturally, increased prosperity meant a better life and, since a man’s good fortune led to an increased concern to take it all with him to the hereafter, the mastaba underwent transformation. It became larger and more complex, constructed to fit each individual’s special requirements. The sarcophagus, still laid in the central chamber of the substructure, stood on a platform. Other chambers were constructed for the funerary equipment. Abundant food and drink meant more sustenance for the body. Perfected furniture meant more eternal comfort. Ointments, weapons, games, clothing, all meant a better after-life. And since it was desirable to be surrounded by loved ones, chambers were sometimes constructed for the wife, sons and daughters of the deceased.
But larger tombs and richer funerary equipment led to increased risk of violation by robbers. It is somewhat ironical that, whereas mummification was to be perfected and art and architecture were to rise to a high degree of sophistication, no secure method of hindering the robber was ever found. During fifty centuries tombs were violated, their contents taken and the bodies exposed to the elements.
The burial chamber and adjoining rooms for the funerary equipment were originally constructed first and then, after the superstructure was raised, the deceased and his belongings were lowered through the roof of the mastaba, down the pit and straight into the burial chamber. With bigger and more elaborate tombs, however, an easier means of entry had to be devised. Access was thenceforth made via a stairway from a point outside the superstructure and leading directly underground to the tomb chamber. It was hoped that robbers would be deterred by an elaborate system of blockings.
In many mastabas dating from the latter part of the 4th Dynasty a special room was constructed in the superstructure, separated by a wall from the other rooms. This was the statue house, now known by the Arabic name of serdab or cellar, where a statue or statues of the tomb’s owner were placed. It was considered as the seat for his ka and there were slits in the intervening wall which enabled the ka to see the light of day, watch the offering ceremonies and enjoy the scent of the burning incense. The slits themselves were known as the eyes of the ka-house. In this way the deceased, lying underground in his tomb chamber, had his ka supervising the offering ceremonies on his behalf. But how could he be sure that future generations of his relatives would continue to bring him food and drink? To ensure continued nourishment he had himself represented on the tomb walls in the act of receiving sacrificial offerings. These representations of food and drink were believed to serve him in place of the real thing. Not surprisingly this was only one step away from believing that anything depicted on the walls of a tomb was as good as the real thing: a well-stocked farmyard, healthy cattle, a large house and garden, numerous servants.
Royal tombs were originally large brick mastabas. In fact the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, the first stone building in history, started as a mastaba and grew to its characteristic proportions as a result of successive additions. Thenceforth the tombs of the head of state steadily surpassed the tombs of the people in size and magnificence. In time the steps were filled in and the outer casing was made smooth until the full pyramid form developed. These vast stone structures, designed in geometrical simplicity, represent a great technical achievement. To the east of each pyramid was a mortuary temple where a priesthood conducted rituals and maintained the tomb complex. A covered causeway connected it with a valley temple which stood at the foot of the plateau.
The pyramids, of which the great 4th Dynasty Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) at Giza is the most famous, failed to safeguard the bodies of the Pharaohs. Though some of these vast structures stand as imperishable landmarks, they were probably robbed as early as the uncertain period following the fall of the monarchy at Memphis in the 6th Dynasty. Yet, surprisingly, for over six centuries, until Thutmose I came to the throne in the 18th Dynasty, the pyramid continued to be the tomb constructed for the royalty of Egypt-
Amenhotep I was the first Pharaoh to break with the ancient custom. He saw that the durable pyramids had failed to safeguard the bodies of his ancestors, that blind alleys and hidden chamber never fooled a robber. Now he attempted secrecy to give him eternal security he craved. For his tomb he chose a site high on the hills south of the Valley of the Kings and built his mortuary temple in the Valley. His successor, Thutmose I, followed his innovation of separating the burial chamber from the mortuary temple, being the first Pharaoh to construct his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. His architect Ineni excavated it through solid rock across a precipitous valley, and recorded for posterity on a stele in his tomb that he carried out his Pharaoh’s request ‘no one seeing and no one hearing’. His mortuary temple was built at the edge of the verdant valley on the west bank of the Nile. Thus, he believed, could his cult be continued while his actual resting place was unknown.
This precedent was followed. The Pharaohs that succeeded Thutmose I in the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties continued to dig their tombs deep in the sterile valley which is now known as the Valley of the Kings. Royal consorts and children from the 19th Dynasty were buried at a separate site, the Valley of the Queens. Noblemen had their tombs dug at various cemeteries among the foothills of the range.
This is the Theban necropolis, the City of the Dead. It was not always as lifeless as we see it today. At one time beside each mortuary temple there were dwellings for the priests and stables for the sacrificial animals. Nearby were the guardhouses and granaries each with its superintendent. Surrounding or in front of each temple were lakes, groves and beautifully laid-out gardens.
Beside the mortuary temples there were also large palaces where the pharaohs took up temporary residence, to supervise the progress on their monuments. Such palaces have been excavated beside the mortuary temples of Seti I at Kurna, the Ramasseum of Ramses II and the temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu. The largest and best preserved of these is the latter, which lies to the south; it comprises a complex of state chambers, living quarters and storerooms. While the pharaoh was in residence on the necropolis, he undoubtedly also watched the progress being made on the excavation and decoration of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and on his funerary furniture and equipment.
A large community of labourers and craftsmen, who resided near the temple of Deir el Medina, were engaged on this work. The French Institute of Oriental Archeology have completed a unique 50-year study of this village. From some 40,000 pieces of pottery and scraps of papyrus, they have been able to trace the family histories of each of the inhabitants throughout a span of nearly three centuries: their daily activities, religious ceremonies, marriages, pride in their work, and even their antagonisms and jealousies. The village comprised about eighty families, each possessing a small, uniform and sparsely furnished house. They worked under a strict system of administration and the people were classified according to their work. The designers and scribes were considered superior to the artists, painters and draughtsmen. The quarrymen and masons naturally came above the porters, diggers and mortar mixers. At the bottom of the scale were the watchmen and refreshment carriers. At the top, in charge of the whole community, were the Director of Works and the various foremen immediately under his control.
Attendance was strictly marked and an absent worker had to account for himself. The written excuses have survived the centuries. One had to ‘visit my mother-in-law’. Another had to get urgent supplies from the market. Illness was a frequent excuse. The scandals, quarrels and complaints of the workers were all recorded- On one occasion a complaint reached the authorities that a chair, a box and a mirror were missing from the tomb of a worker. He described them in detail. A check was made. Nothing was found. Rut when Bruyere, leading the French Egyptological Expedition, was excavating the area he found the three described pieces in one of the small tombs in the surrounding cliffs where the dead of the village were buried!
There were also complaints or a more serious nature, as for example the backlog of salaries which led to the famous Revolution of the 20thl2ist Dynasties, written on papyri and recording that the authorities failed to give allowances to the people of the village for two months. Payment normally came regularly each month in the form of charcoal, dried meat, fish, bandages and cloth, along with materials for their work. When the caravan failed to turn up the villagers staged a revolt and attempted to send representatives in protest to Thebes. They were stopped from crossing the river. However, they did finally send the Omdah (headman) of the village to speak on their behalf and were consequently promised their salaries within a week.
The men of the village were all skilled workers. Those that toiled in the Valley of the Kings for ten day stretches slept in make-shift shelters in a mountain pass above the village until their term of work was over. On their return they had ample time to enjoy sculpting at leisure, making jewellery, household objects and statues of their own guardian deity, Hathor, to whom they built a small shrine. One village resident, Kha, a draughtsman who rose to the position of architect, placed in his tomb a selection of furniture which appears unused. It is doubtful whether he actually enjoyed these luxuries in his home. They were evidently placed in his tomb that they might ensure him a better after-life.
It is strange to note that nowhere on the Theban necropolis have t e ruins of a mummification centre yet been found.