After four years of restoration, the tomb of King Ramses II’s beloved son Merenptah in the Valley of the Kings is open to the public. Nevine El-Aref entered down its very steep ramp
Luxor has been called the world’s greatest open-air museum, not only for its unique ancient Egyptian monuments, which stretch along the Nile Corniche and dominate the desert on the west bank, but for its agreeable weather and picturesque pastoral and natural scenery. Indeed, Luxor has it all.
Regrettably, however, it sometimes appears that the curse of the Pharaohs has cast its spell over the town.
Although Luxor’s Governor Ezzat Saad announced two weeks ago that tourists were flowing back to Luxor and that the town was slowly returning to normal, with hotel booking rates indicating that the catastrophic downtown in the Egyptian tourism industry was nearing an end, the town is quieter than usual. The airport is empty except for a very few passengers that can be counted on two hands. Luxor residents work in or depend directly or indirectly on the tourist industry, which has been in the doldrums since the 2011 revolution owing to the uncertainty and the lack of security that accompanied the revolution, and they are suffering financially. A stroll along the Corniche and through the bazaars reveals how desperate felucca (boat) owners, hantour (carriage) drivers and shopkeepers have become as they solicit passers-by to buy from them or take a carriage ride.
What happened? Why is Luxor empty apart from its residents and the revolutionaries camped in the Midan Abul-Haggag Mosque in the core of the city?
A top official at Luxor governorate who required anonymity told Al-Ahram Weekly: “It’s bad luck.” He said that just as international tourists had started to return to Luxor — peaking at almost 90 per cent of pre-revolutionary numbers on 22 November — the call to destroy the Sphinx and Pyramids made by Morgan Al-Gohari, an Islamist leader who served two jail sentences under former president Hosni Mubarak for inciting violence, as well as the constitutional declaration by President Mohamed Morsi, had dampened every effort to clean up Egypt’s tarnished safety image and had led to the cancellation of all current bookings. Tourism in Luxor is now at zero, and Luxor’s high tourist season is almost over.
“Political decisions are taken haphazardly without studying their advantages or disadvantages on other industries in the country,” the source said.
The same scene is mirrored on Luxor’s west bank. The Valley of the Kings, which is usually buzzing with visitors to its snaking valleys and royal tombs, is completely empty. The sound of silence is overwhelming. I hear only the sound of my own footsteps; I am the only visitor to the ancestors.
I headed for the tomb of Merenptah, beloved son of Pharaoh Ramses II, which recently opened to the public after four years of restoration. The official opening was carried out by Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim, Minister of Tourism Hisham Zazou and Governor Saad as part of the attempt to provide more tourist attractions as a step to encourage Egypt’s tourism industry.
The opening coincided with the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by British Egyptologist Howard Carter, who also discovered the tomb of Merenptah in 1903.
Merenptah was the 13th son of Ramses II by his second wife, Isis-Nofret. His elder brothers were dead and he was already 60 years old when he came to the throne on his father’s death. Although his reign lasted only a decade, he succeeded in maintaining the peace that his father had pledged with his neighbours. During the 10th year of his rule, Merenptah was forced to carry out several military campaigns including battles with the invading Libyans and an uprising in Nubia.
Merenptah’s tomb (KV 8) lies not far from his father’s (KV 7) in a small lateral valley on the northeast flank of the Valley of the Kings. To reach the tomb’s corridors and Pharaoh Merenptah’s burial chamber, I had to make my way down a very steep wooden ramp, newly installed to facilitate the visitor’s path. The walls lining the ramp are painted with scenes showing the king in different positions before several deities.
The tomb is quite straightforward, lined with eight chambers, a colonnaded hall and the burial chamber. There are also three initial corridors, the first leading to the rituals shaft, while the second has a stairway. The decorations in the first corridor show the king in the presence of the god Re-Hurakhty and the Litanies of Re. The second and third corridors have religious texts and scenes from the Imydiwat book.
The rituals shaft is a colonnaded hall with a double pillar annex decorated with scenes from the Book of the Gates. A vestibule decorated with scenes of the Book of the Dead leads to the king’s burial chamber, where the anthropoid alabaster lid of the king’s sarcophagus lies under a vaulted astronomical ceiling.
Mohamed Beabesh, chief archaeological inspector for Luxor’s west bank, told the Weekly that Merenptah’s tomb was the second largest in the Valley of the Kings, second only to the tomb of Seti I. It is almost 165 metres in length, and it was well known up to Graeco-Roman times. Graffiti in Greek and Latin left by Greek and Roman travellers on the tomb’s entrance indicate that the tomb was visited, at least as far as the first pillared hall, until the Roman period. However, floods that hit the area have accumulated sand and debris in a large part of the tomb and have totally blocked the burial chamber and some of the halls so that they were no longer accessible.
Beabesh said that the tomb once had four sarcophagi, three carved in granite and the fourth in alabaster. During excavation work carried out by Carter and American archaeologist Edwin Brock, as well as the archaeological mission from the Louvre and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), a number of fragments of the four sarcophagi had been found.
In collaboration with a mission from the Royal Ontario Museum, he continued, Brock succeeded in studying and replicating the box of the first sarcophagus in red brick, and in painting it in a similar colour to the original and placing on it the authentic fragment of the sarcophagus. In order to give visitors a complete view of the details of the sarcophagus, Brock continued the scenes by drawing them on the brick box.
“Merenptah is the only king whose name was associated with Israel,” said Mansour Breik, supervisor of Luxor antiquities. In the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square there is a famous stela, the Stelae of Victory, bearing the text: “Israel has been destroyed and their women no longer conceive.”
“This is the only ancient Egyptian artefact that mentions the word Israel,” Breik said. He explained that the restoration work aimed at counteracting the deterioration of the architectural features and decorations of the tomb resulting from natural causes and misuse by past visitors. The walls were reinforced, cracks removed, reliefs and colours consolidated. New wooden stairways, flooring, lighting and special ventilation systems have been installed. Glass barriers that cover the tomb reliefs have been cleaned or replaced by new good ones.
Breik said that the mummy of Merenptah was removed by priests from the tomb during the 20th Dynasty and was taken to the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep II along with dozens of other royal mummies in order to preserve and protect them from tomb robbers. These royal mummies were recovered in 1898 and were taken to Cairo to be studied and then placed on display in the mausoleum of mummies on the second floor of the Egyptian Museum.
I also paid a visit to the small, newly-restored Ptolemaic temple-chapel of Qasr Al-Agouz, which is located about 200 metres to the southwest of Medinet Habu temple on the west bank. The Ministry of State for Antiquities has completed a restoration project so that it can reopen in mid-December.
Breik said the paintings and decoration of the temple had suffered deterioration, with a great many cracks appearing all over the walls. Restoration work was carried out by Marc Bloch University of Strasbourg, France, in collaboration with the French Archaeological Institute (IFAO).
Now, he continued, all the cracks had been mended, the walls consolidated, paintings cleaned and the floor restored.
In spite of being architecturally almost intact and thus being of great interest, the temple is not well known to visitors. Dedicated to the Ibis-headed god Thoth, it dates back to the reign of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes and consists of three oblong halls two of which are decorated with religious paintings.