“Place of the Beautiful Ones”
When Egyptian Queens Got Elaborate Tombs of Their Own
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A sudden, dramatic change in Egyptian queens’ burials occurred at the beginning of the 19th Dynasty (1292–1190 B.C.). On the west bank of the Nile at Thebes, a Y-shaped valley that had served as a cemetery for male officials was adapted as a burial place for royal women. The necropolis was then re-named the Place of the Beautiful Ones (Ta Set Neferu),1 echoing the site’s modern name: the Valley of the Queens.
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Now Egyptian queens had their own tombs, separate from pharaohs’ burials in the Valley of the Kings. The new tombs tended to be larger and more architecturally complex than the spaces allotted to earlier New Kingdom royal women, and they no longer had to be shared with relatives or co-queens. Most striking of all, the new tombs were decorated with paintings and funerary texts that often depicted the deceased women interacting with the gods. During the 19th and 20th dynasties (1292–1075 B.C.)—also called the Ramesside period because of the predominance of pharaohs named Ramesses—Egyptian royal women apparently became much more important, at least in the afterlife.
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Previously, during the 18th Dynasty (1539–1292 B.C.), royal women were sometimes given their own undecorated burial chambers within the tombs of pharaohs (the deceased’s husband or son). The tomb of Amenhotep III (1390–1353 B.C.) in the West Valley, for example, contains two small complexes for the burials of the pharaoh’s chief royal wife, Tiye, and his daughter-wife Satamun.
Other 18th Dynasty royal women were buried—singly or in groups—in undecorated tombs in or near the Valley of the Kings. Among these are the tomb of Ahmose-Nefertari, sister-wife of Ahmose (1539–1514 B.C.) and mother of Amenhotep I (1514–1493 B.C.); the tomb of Merytamun, sister-wife of Amenhotep I; the first (or “queenly”) tomb of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (1473–1458 B.C.);a and the tomb of Tiaa, mother of Thutmose IV (1400–1390 B.C.).
In the Valley of the Queens, 18 tombs from the 19th and 20th dynasties have been attributed to royal women. These tombs can be grouped into three clusters situated in the south, north and west flanks of the valley. The tombs in each cluster are roughly contemporaneous and similar in architecture and decoration.2 The tombs on the south flank date to the reigns of the first two pharaohs of the 19th Dynasty, Ramesses I (1292–1290 B.C.) and his son Seti I (1290–1279 B.C.),3 though one of these tombs, belonging to an anonymous royal woman, may date to the reign of Ramesses II (1279–1213 B.C.). The tombs on the north flank of the valley belonged to three generations of royal women related to Ramesses II by blood, marriage or both—such as his mother, Tuy, his most prominent chief royal wife, Nefertari, and one of his daughter-wives, Merytamun.
The last-built cluster of tombs, on the west flank of the Valley of the Queens, belonged to 20th Dynasty queens named Tyti and Isis. Although both of these queens have been identified as wives, or daughter-wives,4 of Ramesses III (1187–1156 B.C.), only Isis’s identity as wife of Ramesses III and mother of Ramesses VI (1145–1137 B.C.) can be established with some confidence.5
My research on 15 of the queens’ tombs suggests that they, like kings’ tombs, functioned as a kind of “document” revealing the cosmography of the netherworld.6 In other words, the tombs show how royal women were believed to experience regeneration in the afterlife.
Generally speaking, the architecture and decoration of Ramesside royal tombs work in tandem to create a three-dimensional representation of the Duat (the ancient Egyptian term for the netherworld). For all intents and purposes, ancient Egyptian tombs were the Duat in miniature, just as Egyptian gods’ temples embodied the cosmos.b The tomb thus provided a ritually effective setting for the deceased’s regeneration and afterlife—enabling him or her to cross into the netherworld, become revitalized, emerge from the tomb, and return daily to the world of the living as a ba-spirit (the mobile aspect of the deceased person’s identity that can leave the tomb during the day).
The tomb’s various architectural components (chambers and corridors, for example) evoke different aspects of the Duat. For example, the sarcophagus chamber of a tomb not only houses the deceased’s body and sarcophagus, but it represents the depths of the netherworld—where Osiris, king of the netherworld, dwells.7 Architecturally, the netherworld depths were replicated by making the sarcophagus chamber the lowest-lying point in the tomb, and the sarcophagus chamber’s decoration pictorially reinforces this notion with scenes portraying the netherworld’s depths and its supernatural inhabitants.
Although the tombs of both Ramesside kings and queens represent the landscape of the netherworld, they do so in ways suited to their different roles and functions. Perhaps most importantly, only kings’ tombs contain decorative programs that explicitly depict the perilous journey of the solar deity through the netherworld and his eventual rebirth and re-emergence into the world of the living at dawn. Like the sun god, Egyptian kings expected to achieve immortality through this kind of death and rebirth.
The representations of this journey in the kings’ tombs are taken directly from New Kingdom royal funerary texts, such as the Litany of Re, the Amduat (That Which Is in the Netherworld) and the Book of Gates (see box). The Litany of Re associates the sun god, Re, with Osiris; lists Re’s numerous forms; and includes a passage in which the king identifies himself with the souls (ba) of both Re and Osiris. The Litany of Re supplied the decoration in the first two corridors of kings’ tombs during most of the Ramesside period.8
The Amduat and the Book of Gates, which are similar in content and structure, are divided into 12 sections (corresponding to the 12 hours of the night) and show the events that transpire during the sun’s daily netherworld journey, from sunset to sunrise. These texts decorate much of the rest of the tomb, with the Book of Gates usually adorning the walls of the sarcophagus chamber.9
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Architecturally, the king’s netherworld journey is represented by his tomb’s long corridors, which suggest the dynamic, directed movement of the king in the afterlife from “dusk” to “dawn.”10 The kings’ tombs thus combine architectural elements that stress highly directed movement with pictorial scenes and texts that reinforce the sun god’s (and the deceased king’s) temporal and spatial progression through the netherworld.
The queens’ tombs, on the other hand, are abbreviated versions of the kings’ large, winding, corridor-filled tombs.11 Both the architecture and decorative programs of queens’ tombs suggest a more static and placid netherworld, and the movement through space and time is less rigidly structured. Many queens’ tombs, for example, lack internal corridors, and when they do appear, they are fewer in number (usually only one corridor linking the antechamber to the sarcophagus chamber), much shorter than the passageways in kings’ tombs, and usually decorated with offering scenes or representations of deities.
The queens’ tombs tend to consist of square or rectangular chambers that represent specific regions or aspects of the netherworld. The well-preserved tomb of Nefertari is a good example. The tomb—oriented north-south, with its entrance at the south—has an upper level (consisting of an antechamber and eastern annex) that represents the Akhet (a buffer zone adjacent to both the eastern and western horizons, where the sun rises and sets); a lower-lying sarcophagus chamber that represents the depths of the Duat; and a descending corridor that acts as a conduit between these two areas.
Instead of being decorated with episodes from the Litany of Re, the Amduat or the Book of Gates, Ramesside queens’ tombs were painted with vignettes from the Book of the Deadc and scenes showing the queen interacting with deities (as both a recipient of favors from the gods and as a cultic performer who gives offerings to the gods). Although deceased royal women are frequently equated with both the sun god and Osiris in tomb texts, the decorations in the queens’ tombs, unlike those in the kings’ tombs, do not include scenes depicting the more hazardous and terrifying aspects of the netherworld. Their tombs contain no pictorial representations of the sun god making his dangerous journey through the dark and being threatened by the serpent deity Apophis; nor are there violent images of rebellious enemies being tortured and undergoing a “second death” in the afterlife, as one sees in kings’ tombs.12
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The afterlives of kings and queens, it appears, were shaped by their formal roles in life. Reigning pharaohs were expected to exercise aggressive force in battling the evil of the world and the chaos of the universe. Perhaps the most time-honored ancient Egyptian image shows the pharaoh preparing to smite an enemy with a weapon.d Pharaohs repelled foreign invaders and conquered foreign lands, maintained order within their realm, and even commanded the power of nature. Thus the afterlife of the pharaoh was as obstacle-ridden, as heroic, as his real life (that is, his idealized and romanticized “real” life).
Queens, on the other hand, tended to perform supportive and sacerdotal functions. The queen was envisioned as the feminine half of the androgynous ideological construct of kingship, and so her most important roles were protector of the male aspect of kingship (as embodied in the reigning king),13 performer of religious ritual, and agent for the sexual arousal and generative potential of the king (and, as “god’s wife,” of male deities, too).
The afterlife of royal women, like that of kings, was associated with the journey of the sun god, who traveled through the sky during the day and the dangerous realm of the netherworld at night, ultimately to enjoy renewal and rebirth every morning at dawn. This cyclical journey had a sexual component: The sun god was reborn via intercourse with the sky goddess, who was his daughter and consort as well as the mother of his regenerated aspect, since she gave birth to him each morning14. In both kings’ and queens’ tombs, this process is rendered textually and pictorially: The sun disk enters the body of the sky goddess, gestates and then emerges, regenerated, from her body.15
The afterlife of Ramesside queens also emulated that of the god Osiris, who dwelled permanently in the depths of the netherworld and ruled over its inhabitants. Osiris achieved nightly rebirth and renewal through a temporary union with the sun god.16 In Egyptian funerary belief, Osiris and the sun god become a single being for a brief but critical moment in the midst of the netherworld. They experience a transitory symbiotic relationship, in which each god partakes of and absorbs the unique regenerative power of the other—effectively recharging both deities’ capacity for rebirth and renewal.17 This unified form of the two gods is frequently depicted in royal mortuary art as the ram-headed and mummiform Re-Osiris.
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The postmortem regeneration of the dead queen involved her identification with both Osiris and the solar deity—notions that are explicitly expressed in texts on the tomb walls. The queen’s identification with both modes of regeneration forced her into a seemingly impossible position: As a female, how could she carry out the activities of the two male gods, Re and Osiris? The Egyptian solution was ingenious: The queen assumed a fluid postmortem sexual identity that included a temporary masculine aspect.18 In the decorative programs of the women’s tombs, the queen’s gender fluidity is conveyed both in writing and pictorially. In the texts of some of the tombs, the masculine grammatical gender is used to refer to the queen. Pictorially, this same notion is expressed by painting the otherwise feminine-looking images of the royal women with skin tones usually reserved for male figures—red-brown and orange-brown flesh tones—in contrast to the canonical “feminine” yellow skin tones (which are consistently employed in images of goddesses throughout these same queens’ tombs).e
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During the Ramesside period, then, royal women were believed to have a rich afterlife, where they even became gods. Such beliefs about the status of Ramesside royal women after death suggest, in turn, something about the status of royal women prior to death. Indeed, during the Ramesside period queens began to take the title wrt xnr (referring to the leader of a special musical group that performed during cult activities), suggesting the convergence of the roles of queen and priestess.19 Another sign of the importance of queenship at this time is the frequent use of the title mwt-nTr (“mother of the god,” a common epithet for Isis during the New Kingdom) to refer to the queen.20
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In Ramesside-period art, queens are often depicted with attributes formerly reserved for goddesses, and goddesses are often depicted with attributes formerly reserved for queens. For example, queens adopt the iconography of Hathor,21 and representations of the goddess Isis frequently show her wearing the vulture crown and double-feathered headdress of queenship.22 One example from the tomb of Nebettawy, a daughter-wife of Ramesses II, depicts the goddess Selket wearing the flat-topped “platform” crown, regularly worn by Ramesside queens, instead of her usual scorpion emblem.
Undoubtedly we will learn more about the lives and afterlives of Ramesside queens as their tombs in the Valley of the Queens are fully investigated and published. Perhaps we’ll even find more tombs.