medina valley

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Deir-El-Medina, ancient Egyptian village once populated by workers and administrators who had been gathered together for the purpose of building the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings (ca. 1550–1080 BC). 

They were a community of craftsmen, painters, masons, scribes, and sculptors, together with their families. 

Images taken by Paul Beckers

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051817-Castroville, Texas-028 by Junga

Architecture (Part 4): Egyptian Rock-Cut Tombs

During the Middle Kingdom (2134-1786 BC), private tombs shifted from using the mastaba design, to rock-cut tombs hewn directly out of the hills along the Nile.  The pharaohs soon adopted the practice, too, for security reasons.  The rock-cut tombs reached their peak during the New Kingdom (1570-1085 BC), built by craftsmen supported by the pharaoh.

Rock-cut tombs near Aswan.

The Valley of the Kings is situated on the west bank of Thebes, and this decision may have been because of the natural pyramid shape of the Western Mountain.  These tombs continued to imitate domestic building design, with many chambers for funerary goods as well as the deceased’s body.  They were decorated with bright colours, with subjects ranging from scenes of daily life to high ritual, the gods, and funerals.

Western Mountain.

Beni Hasan is a cemetery site that was used mostly during the Middle Kingdom (there are also some Old Kingdom burials).  There are 39 Middle Kingdom tombs, built mostly during the 11th and 12th Dynasties for provincial officials.  The entrance faced the rising sun, and the portico were like those of domestic houses, as we can see from the models of houses included in funerary goods.

Middle Kingdom tombs.

Tombs of Wahkare Khety (9th/10th Dynasty) Baqet III (11th Dynasty).

Amenemhet’s tomb (12th Dynasty).

The entrance to the Beni Hasan tombs was flanked by two pillars. Inside, a rectangular-shaped chamber was supported by four columns, and a niche was cut into the back wall.  The ceiling was flat or slightly vaulted, and there was no light source apart from the entrance.

As can be seen above, the columns had large, flat, circular base stones.  This would become the standard form of column base throughout Egyptian architecture (with a bit of modification).

The columns were cut into either an octagonal, or fluted 16-sided form.  This may have been an entirely aesthetic decision, to soften the square structure’s appearance.  The columns narrow slightly up to the top.  They have no capital, just a square slab or abacus.

Security measures included pits, false floors and dummy chambers.  A false floor led the trespasser to an empty dummy chamber, while the real burial chamber was hidden beneath him.

The Beni Hasan tombs, like those of that time, were relatively simple.  So were the royal tombs.  But by the 19th Dynasty (second dynasty of the New Kingdom), the royal tombs had developed into an elaborate series of chambers, linked by corridors and stairways.  They were built by specialized teams of workmen from the village of Deir el-Medina, and were decorated with raised reliefs.

Floor plan.

Aerial view of Deir el-Medina.

Tombs in the Valley of the Kings was built & used during the New Kingdom.  The entrances were cut into the bedrock to try and hide them – quite a change from the attention-grabbing pyramids.  The construction of a later tomb actually buried Tutankhamun’s tomb, which wasn’t rediscovered until 1922.

Tomb entrance of Ramesses XI (20th Dynasty).

Inside the highly-decorated burial chamber was the sarcophagus – a large stone coffin, often carved from solid blocks of granite, which held the mummy.  It was decorated with hieroglyphics.

Tutankhamun’s burial chamber (18th Dynasty).

Sarcophagus of Thutmose III (18th Dynasty).

Sarcophagus of Ramesses III (20th Dynasty).

Egyptian Ostrakon, 19th or 20th Dynasty, 1292-1070 BC

From Deir el-Medina, painted on limestone, depicting an acrobat. An ostrakon is a piece of pottery (or stone), usually broken off from a vase or other earthenware vessel.

The ancient workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina is nestled in a small wadi north of the Valley of the Queens on the Theban west bank. The village was founded during or before the reign of Thutmose I (1504–1492 BC) and flourished until the end of the 20th Dynasty (c. 1070 BC). It was home to the workmen responsible for constructing the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.