See a list of chapters.


The Valley of the Kings

Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
In The Valley of the Kings

The guardian of the dead, Anubis, appearsKing Amenophis II has resumed his receptions, which he found himself obliged to suspend for three thousand, three hundred and some odd years, by reason of his death. The gatherings are very well attended, court dress is not insisted upon, and the Grand Master of Ceremonies is not above taking a tip. The great Pharaoh holds them every morning in the winter from eight o'clock, in the bowels of a mountain in the desert of Libya. If he rests himself during the remainder of the day it is only because, as soon as midday sounds, they turn off the electric lights.

Happy Amenophis! Out of so many kings who tried so hard to hide for ever their mummies in the depths of impenetrable caverns, he is the only one who has been left in his tomb. And he makes the most of it every time he opens his salons. (Tutankhamen also resides in his tomb down the road, unknown to the author in 1905)

Anubis and Bai Prepare Mummy It is important to arrive before midday at the dwelling of this Pharaoh, and at eight o'clock sharp, therefore, on a clear February morning, I set out from Luxor, where for many days my dahabiya sailboat had slumbered against the bank of the Nile. It is necessary first of all to cross the river, for the Theban kings established their eternal habitations on the opposite bank. They found their final palaces far beyond the green plains of the river shore, right away in those mountains which bound the horizon as with a wall of intense rose color. Other canoes, which are also crossing, glide by the side of mine on the tranquil water. The passengers seem to belong to that variety of Anglo-Saxons which is equipped by Thomas Cook & Sons (Egypt Ltd.), and like me, no doubt, they are bound for the royal presence.

We land on the sand of the opposite bank, which today is almost deserted. Formerly there stretched here a regular suburb of Thebes - and the hall of the preparers of mummies, artists with natron and oils, which preserve the bodies from corruption.

And it was to the neighboring mountains that the products of so many careful wrappings were borne for burial. That chain of living rocks that rises before us, colored each morning with the same rose, as of a tender flower, is literally stuffed with dead bodies.

We have to cross a wide plain before reaching the mountains, and on our way grain fields stretch out on both sides. Behind us extends the old Nile. On the opposite bank we see Luxor, whose gigantic Pharaonic colonnades are lengthened below by their own reflection in the mirror of the river.

As we draw nearer to the chain of Libya, where the king awaits us, we traverse fields still green with growing grain. Sparrows and larks sing around us in the impetuous spring of this land of Thebes.

The Giant statues of Memnon.
Photograph by Antonio Beato, 1862

And now two menhirs become gradually distinct. Of the same height and shape, alike indeed in every respect, they rise side by side in the clear distance in the midst of these green plains. They wear the headgear of the Sphinx, and are gigantic human forms seated on thrones--the colossal statues of Memnon. We recognise them at once, for the picture makers of succeeding ages have popularised their aspect, as in the case of the pyramids. What is strange is that they should stand there so simply in the midst of these fields, which reach to their very feet. They are surrounded by these humble birds we know so well, who sing without ceremony on their shoulders.

They do not seem to be scandalised even at seeing now, passing quite close to them, the tracks of a playful little railway belonging to a local industry, that is laden with sugarcane and gourds.

The chain of Libya, during the last hour, has been growing gradually larger against the profound and excessively blue sky. And now that it rises up quite near to us, overheated, and as it were incandescent, under this ten o'clock Sun. We begin to see on all sides, in front of the first rocky spurs of the mountains, the debris of palaces, colonnades, staircases and pylons.

Headless giants, swathed like dead Pharaohs, stand upright, with hands crossed beneath their shroud of sandstone. They are the temples and statues for the numberless kings and queens who had their mummies buried hard by in the heart of the mountains, in the deepest of their secret galleries.

Tomb of Thothmes III
Hand colored photo from Elysian Fields.

And now the fields have ceased; there is no longer any herbage-- nothing. We have crossed the desolate threshold, we are in the desert. We tread suddenly upon a disquieting soil, seemingly half sand, half ashes, that is pitted on all sides with gaping holes. It looks like some region that had long been undermined by burrowing beasts. But it is men who, for centuries, have vexed this ground, first to hide the mummies in it, and afterwards, and until our day, to exhume them.

Each of these holes has enclosed its corpse, and if you peer within you may see yellow-colored rags still trailing there. Some lean Bedouins, who exercise the office of excavators and sleep hard by in holes like jackals, advance to sell us scarabs, blue-glass trinkets that are half fossilised, and feet or hands of the dead.

And now farewell to the fresh morning. Every minute the heat becomes more oppressive. The pathway that is marked only by a row of stones turns at last and leads into the depths of the mountain by a narrow passage.

The pyramid shaped mountain standing above the Valley, known today as el Qurn,
was Meretseger, an important god in the New Kingdom.
Lithograph by Ernst Weidenbach, 1845.

AnubisAnubisWe enter now into the Valley of the Kings, the place of the last rendezvous of the most august mummies. The breaths of air that reach us between these rocks have become suddenly burning, the site seems to belong no longer to Earth but to some rocky planet which had forever lost its clouds and atmosphere. This Libyan chain, in the distance so delicately rose, is positively frightful now that it overhangs us.

It looks what it is--an enormous and fantastic tomb, a natural necropolis, whose vastness and horror nothing human could equal. It is an ideal storehouse for corpses that wanted to endure for ever. Nearly no rain falls from the changeless sky. The limestone looks to be in one single piece from summit to base, and betrays no crack or crevice by which anything might penetrate into the sepulchres. The dead could sleep in the heart of these monstrous blocks as sheltered as under vaults of lead.

And of magnificence the centuries have taken care. The continual passage of winds has scaled and worn away the face of the rocks, so as to leave only the denser veins of stone. Strange architectural fantasies have appeared such as Matter, in the beginning, might have dimly conceived.

Subsequently the Sun of Egypt has lavished on the whole its ardent reddish patines. And now the mountains imitate in places great organ- pipes of yellow and carmine. Outlined upon the excessive blue of the sky, the summits, illumined to the point of dazzling, rise up in the light. They are like red cinders of a glowing fire.

We seem to be walking in some valley of the Apocalypse with flaming walls. All is silence and death, beneath a transcendent clearness. It was such surroundings as these that the Egyptians chose for their necropolis.

Stark, desolate, the Valley of the Kings appears.
The Valley of the Kings, West Thebes
by David Roberts, 1839.

The pathway plunges deeper and deeper in the stifling defiles. The Sun, now nearly meridian, grows each minute more mournful and terrible. We expect to come upon a dread silence at the end of this Valley of the Kings.

But what is this? At a turning at the bottom of a sinister looking recess, what does this crowd of people, this uproar mean? Under awnings to protect them from the Sun stand some fifty donkeys, saddled in the English fashion. In a corner an electrical workshop, built of new bricks, shoots forth black smoke. All about,coming and going, making a great stir and gabbling, continuously gabbling, are a great number of Cook's tourists of both sexes, and some even who verily seem to have no sex at all.

They have come for the royal audience; some on donkeys, some in jaunting cars. Some, the fine ladies who have grown short of wind, come in chairs carried by the Bedouins. From the four points of Europe they have assembled in this desert ravine.

Here and there the hidden palaces reveal their dark, square entrances, hewn in the massive rock. Over each a board indicates the name of a Pharaoh--Ramses IV, Seti I, Thothmes III, Ramses IX. All these Pharaohs, except Amenophis II, have recently been removed and carried away to Lower Egypt, to people the glass cases of the museum of Cairo. Still, their last dwellings have not ceased to attract crowds. From each underground habitation are emerging now a number of perspiring Cooks and Cookesses. And from that of Amenophis, especially, they issue rapidly. Suppose that we have come too late and that the audience is over?

The Valley of the Kings.
Tombs known in 1820.
The ceremonial entrance is at the right.
by G. Belzoni.

And to think that these entrances had been walled up, had been masked with so much care, intended to be lost for the centuries! And of all the perseverance that was needed to discover them, the observation, the gropings, the soundings and random discoveries!

But now they are being closed. We loitered too long around the colossi of Memnon and the palaces of the plain. It is nearly noon, a consuming noon, which falls perpendicularly upon the red summits, and is burning to its deepest recesses the valley of stone.

At the door of Amenophis we cajole, beseech. By the help of a gratuity the Bedouin Grand Master of Ceremonies allows himself to be persuaded. We are to descend with him, but quickly, quickly, for the electricity will soon be extinguished. It will be a short audience, but at least it will be a private one. We shall be alone with the king.
Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924


Image is from La Description de l'Egypte, 1809
enter the tomb

Anubis, the wolf-like guardian

wings of the Sun.

Countless beautiful 19th century images of ancient Egypt
and 75 pages of architecture, art and mystery
are linked from the library page:

The Egyptian Secrets Library

Grand Nile Tour