Explain what tomb architecture and decoration reveals about royal afterlife beliefs

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Elham Tahzib

Year 12 Ancient History

Explain what tomb architecture and decoration reveals about royal afterlife beliefs.
Royal tombs have been an important source of evidence throughout Egyptian History. Changes in the style and decoration of the tombs reflect the changes in the political and religious beliefs of Ancient Egyptian society. The architecture and decoration of royal tombs changed over time, and this reveals much about royal afterlife beliefs. The burial rituals, decoration and architecture for the Pharaohs were driven by the belief in the Afterlife and attempts to preserve the Pharaoh for it and to provide for him.

Early in the New Kingdom, a major change in royal burial customs took place. After the expulsion of the Hyksos , “the Theban rulers of the 18th Dynasty continued the tradition of burial at Thebes, ‘the Great Place’, but began to build tombs of a new style commensurate with their status as kings of all Egypt”1. Unlike the kings of Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, Early New Kingdom Pharaohs chose to be buried away from public sight, with their mortuary and valley temples located elsewhere, away from their burial site. Furthermore, a change in religious allegiance and the increasing significance of Amun, ‘he who is hidden’, allowed a different form and tradition in burial architecture and decoration to rise which symbolically represented the pharaohs close connection to Amun and their journey to the afterlife.

For the Osirian re-birth in the afterlife, it was essential for the Pharaoh’s body to remain intact and undisturbed; therefore the new site for the burial of the Pharaohs, the Valley of the Kings, and the architecture of the tomb ensured that the Pharaoh participated in his journey to the afterlife successfully. The only hope of concealment for New Kingdom tombs was in the concealment of the entrance itself.
Another architectural feature common in 18th dynasty royal tombs was the inclusion of passages with varying axis of descent. Though this feature may have existed for practical reasons, Egyptologist Karl-Joachim Seyfried suggests that the choice of a sloping passage can be best understood in terms of beliefs concerning the tomb of Osiris and the Beyond, “but above all in terms of the fourth hour of the Amduat which depicts the descent of the corpse of the Pharaoh into the fields of the Beyond, the descent illustrated with sloping passages2”. Another common feature of 18th Dynasty royal tombs was the four passages, known as the “passages of god” found after the entrance at the cliff face. These four passages equipped the Pharaoh with his very own passage of the sun to the netherworld.
Royal afterlife beliefs can also be derived from the unique wall decorations in the tombs, which are arguably “the most singular aspect of the tomb monuments, for not only do they distinguish the tombs from the sepulchers of non- and lesser royalty, but also provide a more detailed visual map or model of the Beyond” than is found anywhere else in the Egyptian record.3 It is particularly the Amduat, the Book of What is in Duat (the Netherworld), the oldest book of the underworld used that “provides a deep insight into the concept of the nightly journey of the Sun God through the realms of the underworld.” Its use in the tombs of royalty was of great importance, and according to royal afterlife beliefs, it ensured “the occupant of the tomb participated in this journey, and like the deity, regenerated himself in an eternal cycle”4

The Amduat served as a description of the journey of the Sun God through the 12 hourly divisions of the underworld, beginning on the western horizon and reappearing as Kehpri, the newborn sun in the East. It was believed that this journey was undertaken by the deceased Pharaoh, and having scenes of the Amduat in ones tomb aided the process; as stressed in the opening section of the Amduat, to possess knowledge of something was to have power over it. The need for Maat is also stressed in the hours of the Amduat, with the goddess Maat appearing to emphasize that law and justice rule even in the afterlife.

The expectations of afterlife journeys were different for royals and non royals, and this is reflected in the differing tomb decorations which display these beliefs. While non royals could only hope to attain the presence of the God Osiris in their afterlife, royals however attempted, through their tomb decorations, to become a God and to join Re in the netherworld. According to the Amduat, the deceased Pharaoh would travel through the netherworld, which is depicted as an idealized version of the Egytpian world, overcoming many obstacles. The Amduat is the first religious treatise to insert the king consistently into the daily course of the sun. Direct reference to the deceased king is made only in the sixth hour, at the crucial moment when the ba of the sun unites with the pharaoh's Khet5. The use of these scenes exclusively in royal tombs assisted the Pharaoh on his journey.
In the early 18th dynasty, only the burial chamber received decoration – this taking the form of unrolled papyrus of the Book of the Amduat. However, from the time of Tuthmosis III, various deities were also shown on the walls of the antechamber and the well.6 In the tomb of Tuthmosis III, references to the king are constantly inserted into the text of the book. Scenes such as the king being suckled by the tree-goddess Isis depicted on the pillar in the burial chamber of Tuthmosis III reflect the royal belief that the Pharaoh would be protected by the Gods when he entered the realms of the afterlife. Moreover, the embracing figure of the goddess Nut on the underside of the Pharaoh’s sarcophagus indicates that the deceased would be welcomed into the afterlife and would receive salutation. The stars that are inserted in each case indicate the desired ascent of the king’s ba into the heavens. His cartouche-shaped burial chamber is unique, with the first complete version of the Amduat and the earliest version of the Litany of Re.

The Litany of Re, which depicts the different forms of the Sun God Re and prayers in which the Pharaoh assumes various parts of nature and various deities, praises the king for his union with the Sun God and other deities.

Furthermore, a scene from the tomb of Tuthmosis IV depicted the Pharaoh receiving the gift of life in the form of the symbolic Ankh from a welcoming goddess Hathor. This scene emphasizes the belief of renewal and rebirth in the netherworld. Holding an ankh to the Pharaoh's lips is considered to be the offering of "The Breath of Life".Another tomb scene, depicting Tuthmosis IV as a sphinx trampling Egypt’s enemies while under the protection of the war-god Montu, indicates the belief that the king will become an all-powerful entity in the afterlife.
It is clear, that the burial rituals, decoration and architecture for Royals were driven by the belief in the Afterlife and attempted to preserve the Pharaoh for it and to provide for him. The unique architecture of 18th dynasty royal tombs and the decoration of the tombs using the Amduat clearly reveal the Pharaoh’s expectation to participate in the nightly journey of the Sun God , and like the deity, regenerated himself in an eternal cycle.

Hodel-Hoenes, Sigrid. Life and Death in Ancient Egypt: Scenes from Private Tombs in New Kingdom Thebes. Cornell University Press, 2000
Reeves, Nicholas and Wilkinson, Richard. The Complete Valley of the Kings, Tombs and Treasures of Egypt’s Greatest Pharaohs, Thames and Hudson, 1996
Schultz, Regine, Egypt the World of Pharaohs.
Horning, Erik. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, Cornell Paperbacks, 1999
Siliotti, Alberto, Guide to the Valley of the Kings, Barnes and Noble Books, 1996
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