There are dozens of tombs to visit in Egypt, with countless more off-limits to the public. With their colorful artwork and interesting statues, ancient Egyptian tombs are a highlight for many visitors to the land of the pharaohs. But many can’t help but wonder: What do the scenes on the walls really mean? And why did Egyptians go through such great lengths to look after their dead?

In the following guide, we’ll be covering a diverse range of topics related to ancient Egypt and death. After covering the Egyptian views of the soul, afterlife and the practice of mummification, only then will the tombs and their artwork begin to make sense.

We’ll also include basic summaries of the major funerary texts, along with some interpretations of common scenes found in tombs of the nobles.

This is guide merely serves as an introduction to Egyptian funerary practices and only scratches the surface of all there is to know. If you’re yearning to learn more, check the end of the article for a list of recommended sources.

Death in Ancient Egypt

In this section, we’ll be going over the Egyptian conception of the soul, the mummification process and common funerary rites. During your travels around Egypt, be sure to dedicate ample time to its museums, as this is where most important funerary objects are now being kept.

The Soul

The Egyptians viewed what we simply refer to as the ‘soul’ as a complex, multifaceted entity. According to the Egyptians, each person has both a ka and a ba. And both were taken into consideration during tomb construction, mummification and death rituals.

The ka was the animating principle or life force, akin to the prana of the Hindus or qi of the Chinese. Without ka, a person can’t go on living. But ka lacks an individual essence of its own.

Under normal circumstances, the ka simply departs upon death, traveling elsewhere throughout the cosmos to reanimate another living being. But if preparations were carried out correctly, an individual’s ka could be sustained after death thanks to offerings left in his or her tomb.

The ka was often symbolized by a pair of outstretched arms. Some Egyptian temple art also showed the creator god Khnum crafting what appears to be a set of twins. This is actually the king and his ka, who appears as his double.

The ba, on the other hand, was a person’s unique individual essence. It was depicted as a human-headed bird, implying that the Egyptians saw it as something that could travel from place to place. Interestingly, it’s a reverse of the how Egyptian deities were shown with human bodies and animal heads.

Essentially, the main goal after death was to unite one’s ka with the ba, forming what’s known as akh.

By accomplishing this, one experiences unity with the gods. And such a transfigured soul, it was believed, can even influence events on earth. This likely explains why so many dead people continued to be worshipped for centuries.

Mummification, funerary rites and tomb artwork were all intended to help facilitate this spiritual process. The purpose of entombing a person with their possessions and burials, for example, was likely done to make sure the ba did not stray too far away from the mummy. 

Ka Statue of Pharaoh Hor Cairo Museum
The ka statue of Pharaoh Hor, 13th Dynasty
Tomb of Inerkhau (TT359)
A person's ba was sometimes depicted in his tomb ...
Ba Bird
... or on the side of a sarcophagus

Funerary Rites

Tomb of Ramose

Funeral rites could vary greatly depending on the deceased’s position and status. But thanks to artwork placed in the tombs of high-ranking officials, we have a good idea of what a typical nobles’ funeral looked like.

After death, the corpse was placed in a coffin which was taken outside in a procession of mourning relatives. The deceased male was identified with Osiris, and there were always two mourning women symbolizing the sisters of Isis and Nephtys.

The coffin was placed on a barge and then taken to a purification chamber and embalming house. Then the embalming and mummification process would take place, which took over two months (more below).

Once the mummy was complete, it would be returned to the family, after which a second funerary procession would be held. The mummy was placed on another barge and taken to the west bank of the Nile. As the west was synonymous with the setting sun (and therefore completion and death), nearly all Egyptian tombs were built on this side of the river.

During the procession, priests would mime parts of the Osiris myth. And once at the tomb, special meals were offered to the deceased while cattle were slaughtered and sacrificed. 

Furthermore, special ceremonies involving song and dance were carried out in honor of the deceased and his upcoming journey through the underworld.

OPENING OF THE MOUTH: From very ancient times, the Egyptians carried out a ceremony meant to restore consciousness to the deceased. The ritual allowed the mummy to act as a vessel for the dead person’s ka and ba.

Interestingly, references to the ritual always emphasized an iron hook being used, despite iron rarely being used by the Egyptians.

Mummification

Mummification is one of the most mystifying (and to many, off-putting) aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization. Throughout world history, most cultures have either buried or cremated their dead. But ancient Egypt was a rare exception.

Not only did each mummy require a tremendous amount of time and effort to make, but the Egyptians felt so strongly about the practice that they kept it up for thousands for years.

While a person’s body, of course, acted as the home of his ba during life, the mummy was intended as a receptacle for the ba even after death. This gave the deceased unlimited time to work on merging their ba and ka together in the spirit realms.

The Egyptians were clearly quite advanced in chemistry and they also had extensive knowledge of human anatomy. By the New Kingdom era, they’d mastered the art of mummification, and many ancient mummies remain perfectly intact to this day. 

There was likely a specialized group of workers trained in the art, working out of embalming houses situated throughout the country. In total, each mummy took around 70 days to complete.

Egyptian Mummies
The blonde-haired mummy of Yuya, father-in-law of Amenhotep III
Embalming Table
An embalming table
Anubis Mummy

The first step of preparing a mummy was removing the brain. A rod was inserted through the nostrils or via incision in the top of the skull. Once the brain was liquified, it was extracted through the nose. The skull was then filled with special resins to slow down decomposition.

Next, an incision was made to remove the visceral organs, which were placed in canopic jars (more below). The body was then sterilized, dehydrated and coated with molten resin.

The body was then filled with natron, a composite of bicarbonate, carbonate and sodium sulphate. The body was also covered with natron and left that way for around 40 days.

The natron was then removed and the limbs were packed with sand or clay, and the rest of the body with resins. The exterior of the body was oiled and covered in additional resins. Finally, the mummy was complete!

For those especially interested in mummification, there’s a dedicated Mummification Museum in Luxor not far from the Luxor Museum. It requires its own entrance ticket but is also included in the Luxor Pass.

ANUBIS: The jackal-headed deity Anubis played multiple roles in rituals and beliefs related to death.

In the Osiris myth, Anubis was responsible for embalming and mummifying Osiris upon his death. As such, he was long revered as the god of embalming, and scenes of Anubis with the deceased’s mummy were commonly placed in New Kingdom Tombs.

Canopic Jars

CANOPIC JARS: The Egyptians did not dispose of the visceral organs, but placed them in a set of four stone vessels we now refer to as canopic jars. Typically made of alabaster, the jars represented the four sons of Horus. The set was often placed in a specially-made chest.

The liver was associated with Amset and the direction of west, the lungs with Hapi and east, the stomach with Duamutef and north, and the intestines with Qebsennuf and south.

The exact purpose of preserving these organs remains a mystery. But they played a role in the peculiar phenomenon of ‘double burials.’ Early in Egypt’s history, it was fairly common for a mummy to be buried in one tomb and its organs in another!

Coffins & Sarcophagi

Important individuals were often placed in multiple coffins which were nested within one another. Coffins of the elite could be quite stylish, with what are known as ‘anthropoid coffins’ painted to resemble the individual.

While most tombs open for tourists lack their coffins, there are a countless number of them on display at the Cairo Museum and elsewhere.

Elites and royals took things a step further by having their coffins placed within elaborate stone sarcophagi. As they were incredibly difficult for thieves to carry off, many of them are still resting in their original tombs.

Ancient Egyptian Coffins
Ramesses VI Tomb Valley of the Kings Guide

SARCOPHAGUS STYLES: Some sarcophagi were were styled after the individual, much like the anthropoid coffins they contained. Other sarcophagi, meanwhile, were adorned with scenes of popular funerary texts.

But the most mysterious sarcophagi of all are those without any decoration.

Khafre’s sarcophagus in Giza, for example, was found to be perfectly flat and square, carved to the same level of precision one would expect from a modern manufacturing company!

The precision-cut sarcophagus of Senusret II beneath his pyramid at El Lahun

The Afterlife

Proper burials required a complex and drawn-out collaboration between priests, embalmers, tomb builders and artists. But why did the Egyptians go through such great lengths to entomb their dead?

It all starts to make sense once we consider the trials and tribulations the ba would have to go through upon death.

Ancient Egyptian Funerary Texts
Weighing of the Heart

According to Egyptian belief, a deceased person would have to traverse a realm called the Duat, roughly translated as the underworld. The Duat could be likened to a long river with all sorts of obstacles and adversaries blocking the way. But there were plenty of benevolent beings to offer a helping hand as well.

The Duat was presided over by Osiris, the primordial king of Egypt who was betrayed and murdered by his brother-in-law Set (learn more here). And once a person successfully traversed the Duat, they would come face to face with Osiris and his 42 assessors.

The deceased would have to deny various wrongdoings such as theft, murder or causing others great distress. These are known as the ‘Negative Confessions’ and were sometimes written on tomb walls.

Next, they’d need to pass a test known as the Weighing of the Heart, a ritual presided over by Anubis. The heart was weighed against a feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and cosmic harmony. 

Those whose hearts were filled with guilt, regrets and other negative attachments would fail the test. And their souls would be devoured by the serpent Ammut, never to be reborn again.

Ancient Egyptian Funerary Texts
Seti I Tomb Book of Gates

APOPIS: The main adversary of the Duat, Apopis represents Osiris’s rival Set. The giant serpent would have to be dismembered before the ba of the deceased could continue its journey.

However, Apopis could never be permanently vanquished, and he would be regenerated after each defeat.

Ancient Egypt Shabtis

SHABTIS: Shabtis were small figurines commonly placed in tombs. Their purpose was to aid the tomb owner with work in the Aaru, or Field of Reeds. 

They were inscribed with Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead, a particular spell that allowed the owner to call upon their shabtis for help.

But those with a balanced heart would end up in a realm called Aaru, or the Field of Reeds. It was a pleasant world full of mountains and rivers, not unlike our own. But it wasn’t merely a paradise where the dead could just sit around. They still had to plow the fields and farm.

It’s not totally clear if the Egyptians perceived Aaru as some place permanent. Perhaps it was a temporary astral realm where imperfect souls would go to work out their remaining karma (if we’re to use Hindu terminology).

It’s also unclear if the pharaohs were believed to end up in Aaru as well. But judging from the language used in the royal funerary texts (more below), it would seem that Egyptian royalty had an even loftier goal after death – eternal union with the divine in the realm of the gods.

Types of Ancient Egyptian Tombs

In Egypt’s Early Dynastic times, kings and nobles were buried under what we now call mastabas, an Arabic word for ‘stone bench.’ These were typically flat-roofed rectangles made of stone or mudbrick, under which burial chambers were dug.

In the 3rd Dynasty, a pharaoh named Djoser and his architect Imhotep experimented with stacking multiple mastabas on top of one another. This resulted in the world’s very first pyramid, now known as the Step Pyramid. Djoser was entombed within an elaborate underground tunnel system dug out beneath the structure.

Western Cemetery Giza
A mastaba at Giza
King Djoser's Step Pyramid
Valley of the Kings Guide
A rock-cut tomb in the Valley of the Kings

Later kings then experimented further, creating the smooth-sided ‘true pyramids’ like those of Dahshur and Giza. These pyramids had burial chambers built into them rather than directly underneath.

While the 4th Dynasty pyramids of Giza would never be surpassed, kings of the 5th and 6th Dynasties continued entombing themselves in pyramids – albeit much smaller and cruder than those of their predecessors.

All the while, mastabas remained popular for most royal family members and nobles. And occasionally, some Old Kingdom pharaohs would even choose to build mastabas for themselves instead of pyramids.

The underground burial chamber of Mastaba 17
Tomb of Horemheb Saqqara
The 'Temple Tomb' of General Horemheb

Pyramid tombs remained popular throughout the Middle Kingdom era, along with mastabas for the elite. Additionally, rock-cut tombs started to become popular as well.

During the New Kingdom, nearly all tombs constructed for pharaohs and non-royals alike were of the rock-cut variety. One site in Luxor, known as the Valley in the Kings, was home to pharaonic burials for over 500 years!

There were some exceptions, however, such as the ‘Temple Tombs’ of New Kingdom officials in Saqqara. As the name suggests, they appear at first glance like a typical Egyptian temple instead of a tomb.

The Funerary Texts

The Egyptian funerary texts acted as instruction manuals for the soul after death. Carved or painted onto the tomb walls of the deceased, they were there to guide the soul through the Duat, providing the necessary spells and information to overcome various obstacles.

With the exception of the Book of the Dead, most Egyptian funerary texts were strictly reserved for pharaonic tombs only. Nevertheless, non-pharaonic tombs were adorned with scenes which, while unassuming at first glance, contained similar symbolic messages.

The Pyramid Texts

The first funerary text developed by the Egyptians is simply known as the Pyramid Texts. This is because they first appeared in the pyramids of the late 5th and 6th Dynasties, though they likely existed in oral form long before that. (The famous 4th Dynasty pyramids of Giza lack any writing or decoration whatsoever.)

Visitors to Saqqara can see the funerary texts along the walls of the pyramids of Unas and Teti. In contrast to the colorful and evocative art adorning later pharaonic tombs, the Pyramid Texts were simply inscribed as hieroglyphs with no accompanying diagrams.

But what do they say? The Pyramid Texts make use of highly symbolic language to describe esoteric phenomena related to the soul and resurrection. 

The texts are incredibly difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs, but they’re meant to help the deceased king unite his ba and ka, becoming one with Re for eternity. The emphasis is the transcendence of the flesh into spirit.

The Pyramid Texts directly inspired New Kingdom texts such as the Am Duat, which were presented in a highly visual manner. As such, one can start to get a feel for what these original texts were about by studying the later ones.

Pyramid of Unas
The Pyramid of Unas
Pyramid of Teti Pyramid Texts
The Pyramid of Teti

The Coffin Texts

Before the visual tomb texts of the New Kingdom were developed, Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom era utilized what we now call the Coffin Texts. 

They essentially carried the same message of the Pyramid Texts, along with spells the deceased could use in the underworld. 

As the name suggests, the texts were written inside of coffins instead of on tomb walls. Notably, they were not exclusive to pharaohs only. Like the later Book of the Dead, parts of the Coffin Texts were utilized by various high-ranking officials.

Coffin Texts
A fragment of the coffin texts

The Am Duat

The Am Duat, or the ‘Book of What is in the Duat,’ was the standard funerary text used during the New Kingdom (16th-11th centuries BC). All but a just a few tombs in the Valley of the Kings have it, though often in tandem with some of the other texts mentioned below.

The text portrays the Duat, or underworld, divided into twelve distinct hours. The Egyptians claimed that the once the sun set every night, it would traverse the underworld before rising again the next morning.

As with the Pyramid Texts, the Am Duat is essentially an instruction book for the soul after death, with the ultimate goal of ensuring life in eternity.

Throughout the text, a ram-headed being rides a solar barque across the Duat. The being both represents the solar principle (Re) and the king’s ba. In addition, numerous other beings are depicted, many of them strange creatures that appear nowhere else in Egyptian art.

To make matters more confusing, the text is typically divided into three registers. The middle register represents the celestial river and features deities who encourage the passage of the barque.

The upper and lower registers, on the other hand, show the banks of the river and the beings trying to disrupt the barque’s voyage.

Am Duat
1st Hour

THE 1ST HOUR: Uniquely, the 1st hour of the Am Duat is divided into four instead of three registers. Here various beings are introduced, many of which likely represent different aspects of the self.

Snakes possibly represent disintegration or dissolution. The sisters of Isis and Nephtys are depicted as twin serpents, representing magic along with will.

Am Duat 6th Hour
6th Hour
Am Duat 10th Hour
10th Hour
12th Hour

In the deepest and darkest hours of the night, the ba/solar principle is unified with Osiris. Osiris is both lord of the underworld and a deity commonly associated with regeneration.

Later, the passengers of the barque must defeat and chop up the great serpent Apopis, a form of Set, and a being who represents opposition and adversity.

Eventually, making it out unscathed, the king and the solar principle are depicted as a scarab beetle named Khepri, a symbol of resurrection and the morning sun. We also see Khepri transforming from an egg into a winged insect, implying that the king can ascend to the heavens (as Horus) and unite with Re.

Importantly, the text states that the knowledge it contains is not just useful for the dead, but also for the living!

The Book of Gates

The Am Duat directly inspired later texts such as the Book of Gates. Interestingly, however, despite its similarities with the Am Duat, the Book of Gates was not seen as its replacement. 

Rather, both the Am Duat and the Book of Gates commonly adorned the walls of a single tomb! But sometimes only select portions of the Book of Gates were chosen. 

One would think that this would only confuse the king’s spirit. But then again, if the mummification was successful, there was unlimited time to figure it all out.

Like the Am Duat, the Book of Gates also depicts the solar principle riding a solar barque. But there are several visual aspects which clearly set it apart.

Ramesses IV Tomb Book of Gates
1st Section
A Gate

Again, the Duat is shown divided into twelve sections, but this time each new area is blocked by a gate.

And each gate has its own guardian, while also being protected by a fire-breathing serpent.

In contrast to the Am Duat, the solar barque is only manned by two beings, ‘Mind’ and ‘Magic.’ 

The ba is in the middle, entrapped within the coils of a serpent (Mehen). Mind must ask each guardian to let them through, implying that the trip requires conscious effort.

Aside from the gates themselves, the text is recognizable on tomb walls for its numerous depictions of serpents and of bound prisoners. They represent those who failed to act in accordance with Maat (cosmic harmony).

Seti I Tomb Book of Gates
Section 3
Ramesses IV Tomb Ancient Egyptian Tombs
Section 4
Section 5
Seti I Tomb Book of Gates
Ramesses VI Tomb Book of Gates
Section 9
Ramesses VI Tomb Book of Gates
Section 12

THE 5TH GATE: Section 5 is particularly interesting. We see a series of deities holding serpentine cords representing time and space. Later, there’s also a scene of Osiris judging the dead. 

While similar scenes are part of the Book of the Dead, the Book of the Gates is the only tomb funerary text to depict a judgment scene.

The Book of Caverns

The Book of Caverns is among the latest of the funerary texts. It first appeared in the Osereion, the mysterious granite structure at Abydos that many believe could be the tomb of Osiris himself.

While the structure is likely much older, the Book of Caverns was added by Pharaoh Merenptah of the 19th Dynasty. And It only became common in the Valley of the Kings during the later reigns of the 20th Dynasty Rammesside pharaohs.

Section 1
The Tomb of Ramesses VII
Section 2

As opposed to the Am Duat and the Book of Gates, both of which emphasize sections of the Duat, the Book of Caverns focuses on the theme of punishment and reward – particularly regarding the enemies of Osiris.

It could be said to have more of a psychological focus than the other texts, and it places a particularly strong emphasis on death and dissolution. 

Ramesses VI Tomb
Section 3
Ramesses VI Tomb
Section 5

The Book of Caverns is divided up into six sections, with the solar barque only appearing near the end. The number of registers varies from scene to scene, making it especially confusing to follow.

Notable images include the beheaded enemies of Osiris, various beings entrapped within sarcophagi resembling pods, and giant depictions of Nut, the sky goddess.

The Book of the Day & Night

During the Rammesside period of the 20th Dynasty, two additional texts began appearing on tomb ceilings. 

The Book of the Day and Book of the Night both have a cosmological and astronomical focus, depicting the sun passing through Nut, the sky goddess. She swallows the solar disk in the night and then gives birth to it in the morning.

Unlike the texts mentioned above, the Book of the Day uniquely follows the sun’s journey during the daylight hours.

Ramesses VI Tomb Valley of the Kings Guide
Ramesses VI Tomb

RAMESSES VI TOMB: One of the texts’ most famous depictions is in the burial hall of Ramesses VI. Up on the ceiling, ‘Day’ Nut and ‘Night’ Nut are displayed back to back. Starting from the east, the solar disk emerges from the womb, being supported by Khepri. Nut is then pregnant and is attended to by Isis and Nephtys and supported by Shu (air).

The disk is then transferred from the barque of night to the barque of day, with ‘Will’ and ‘Mind’ controlling the rudders. Later, the entourage passes through the Aaru, where we see scenes of reaping and harvesting. The banks are guarded by jackals, while the solar disk ultimately gets swallowed by Nut.

The Book of Aker

Only found in a few tombs, such as those of Ramesses VI and IX, the Book of Aker is centered around a double-headed sphinx who can see both forwards and backward in time. Aker also appears in the Book of Caverns, as do some other characters from his text.

The text’s theme is the spiritual exaltation of the king, who is depicted as a pair of uplifted arms holding the sun disk

Book of Aker Ancient Egyptian Tombs

The Litany of Re

When visiting the Valley of the Kings, the first text you’ll typically encounter at each tomb is the Litany of Re. It was almost always placed right near the tomb entrance. 

But when picturing the tomb from the perspective of the pharaoh’s disembodied spirit, it would be the last text they’d encounter before making their exit.

Litany of Re Ancient Egyptian Tombs
Litany of Re Ancient Egyptian Tombs

The text lists the 75 different names of Re, helping the king’s spirit understand and identify with the deity. In ancient Egypt, knowing something’s true name was to understand its essence.

You’ll commonly see large images of the pharaoh presenting offerings to Re, in addition to a scarab beetle next to Re’s ram-headed form.

The Book of the Dead

Book of the Dead
Tomb of Nefertari
Several chapters of the Book of the Dead appear throughout the splendid tomb of Queen Nefertari

While now commonly known as the Book of the Dead, this text was officially titled the Book of Going Forth by Day. 

In contrast to the funerary texts listed above, it functioned more as a compilation than as a structured narrative with a beginning, middle and end.

Its overall purpose, however, was largely the same. The Book of the Dead contained various spells that the deceased could use to traverse the Duat. And it also provided tips on what to say to pass the Final Judgement.

Like the Coffin Texts before it, the Book of the Dead was used more democratically than the other funerary texts. Queens, princes and even nobles were allowed to have some of its scenes painted on their tomb walls.

But while it does make appearances in numerous ancient Egyptian tombs, the Book of the Dead was much more commonly written down on papyrus scrolls. Additionally, certain spells would also be painted on mummy wrappings.

Visiting Non-Royal Tombs

From a religious perspective, the tombs of high-ranking officials served the exact same purpose as royal tombs. But as non-royals were prohibited from using the Pyramid Texts or the Am Duat, their tombs take on a very different style.

Many visitors to Egypt prefer these tombs. Unlike the pharaonic tombs, each nobles’ tomb had its own personal flair depending on the life and character of the deceased.

With that said, many non-royal tombs share a lot of subject matter and imagery in common.

Tomb of Amenemope
Tomb of Inefert False Door

STATUES: Many noble’s tombs contained statues of the deceased and his family members. In ancient Egypt, statues were not merely decorative elements but served as spirit vessels for individuals or even deities. 

A person’s ka could travel from its mummy in the burial chamber to absorb offerings left in the tomb chapel.

The statues could also be used as a handy backup for the deceased’s ba should something go wrong with the mummy!

FALSE DOORS: Egyptian tombs commonly featured false doors which acted as a portal between worlds. 

They were typically placed within a tomb’s offering chamber facing west. In front was an altar where family members could leave offerings, providing nourishment for the ka of the deceased.

Old Kingdom Tombs

The best place to find non-royal tombs from the Old Kingdom era (27th-22nd centuries BC) is in Saqqara. Additionally, there are a few notable tombs in Giza and even in Aswan. Interestingly, non-royals started the practice of elaborately decorating their tombs long before the pharaohs did.

At first glance, the non-royal tombs of Saqqara appear to function as something akin to photo albums for the dead. They feature scenes of everyday life in addition to depictions of the deceased and his family.

But were these merely charming images to help dead people remember the good times on earth? While this may have been true to a certain extent, non-royal tombs are much richer in symbolism than first meets the eye.

HIPPO HUNTING: Scenes of the deceased hunting hippos and crocodiles were featured at most non-royal tombs of the Old Kingdom. While many nobles likely hunted in their free time, these scenes were undoubtedly symbolic.

Hippos and crocodiles were both aspects of Set, the enemy of Osiris who also sets forth the serpent Apopis in the Duat. These scenes, then, represented overcoming Set’s obstacles in the underworld (and also while still alive). 

Tomb of Idut Saqqara
Ancient Egyptian Tombs
Bull Tying

BIRD CATCHING: Depictions of the deceased catching wild birds are common throughout Old Kingdom tombs. And it remained prevalent for thousands of years. 

Much later, at temples such as Esna and Edfu, the theme was repeated on temple walls. In the reliefs, even deities participate in the bird netting, revealing that such scenes were always religious in nature.

The birds likely represent one’s untamed, wild thoughts and impulses. The scenes might also remind one to not let their ba stray too far away from their mummy.

WILD BULLS: While bulls were tied up and sacrificed during various Egyptian rituals. But their frequent portrayal in tombs likely had a double meaning.

Bulls probably represented untamed energy, particularly of the sexual variety. Attaining mastery over one’s primal instincts and urges is emphasized by all major religions.

Ancient Egyptian Tombs
Ancient Egyptian Tombs

Many tomb scenes depicted some kind of process, whether it was shipbuilding, winemaking or agricultural work. Such scenes likely represent the long process of self-improvement and spiritual advancement. 

And reaping and sowing, in particular, was one of the activities the dead would need to carry out in Aaru (see above).

Of course, these scenes and others have also provided us with important information regarding how the Egyptians went about certain daily activities.

Ancient Egyptian Tombs
Ancient Egyptian Tombs

Many scholars continue to take non-royal tomb scenes at face value, arguing that they’re simply memories for the dead to take into the afterlife. But the theory does not explain a number of strange and unusual tomb scenes depicted throughout Saqqara. 

One fairly common scene is that of hyenas getting their tongues ripped out. Could the animals have represented blasphemy or slander?

We also occasionally see village elders being punished for tax evasion. Who’d really want to think of tax collectors for eternity, if not for educational purposes? 

Perhaps it’s meant to remind the deceased of the need to pay one’s dues, at least in the metaphorical sense. Other peculiar scenes show animals being force-fed.

Ancient Egyptian Tombs
Ancient Egyptian Tombs

Each tomb also had artwork depicting the deceased and his relatives, in addition to the funeral procession. There are also a multitude of depictions of offerings as well as sacrifices that were carried out at the time of the entombment.

The ka was something that could be ‘fed’ by offerings provided by the living. As Egyptians believed that drawing something was to immortalize it in another realm, the drawn offerings likely served as a placeholder should the real food offerings cease to be delivered some day!

Middle Kingdom Tombs

There are few Middle Kingdom (21st – 18th centuries BC) tombs that are currently open to the public. One of the best places to see them is a site known Beni Hassan in the center of the country, not far from the city of Minya. A couple can also be visited in Aswan.

Many of the popular tomb scenes from the Old Kingdom continue to make appearances during this era. We see the deceased hunting, fishing and catching birds. But other Old Kingdom scenes, like the force-feeding of animals, have vanished.

Ancient Egyptian Tombs

Middle Kingdom tomb art is largely synonymous with wrestling scenes. At Beni Hassan, at tombs such as that of Khety, dozens of  wrestling maneuvers and holds are depicted along the walls. 

It seems like some kind of instruction manual, but why would the deceased need to know so many holds? Unless there were wrestling tournaments in Aaru, the scenes likely symbolize the eternal struggle of light against darkness.

Dancing and gymnastics also take special prominence in Middle Kingdom tombs.

Ancient Egyptian Tombs
Ancient Egyptian Tombs

New Kingdom Tombs

Non-royal New Kingdoms tombs can be found in abundance throughout Luxor. There are also a number of ‘Temple Tombs’ in Saqqara as well. 

Additionally, visitors can also go and see the tombs of Akhetaten in current-day Amarna. These were built during the reign of the ‘heretic king’ Akhenaten. As such, the Amarna tombs abandon many of the traditional elements of ancient Egyptian tombs.

Ancient Egyptian Tombs

While only featured at several tombs, detailed crafting scenes were introduced during the New Kingdom. The Tomb of Rekhmire in particular shows workers performing all sorts of tasks. The art has revealed a lot about basic Egyptian building techniques (though little about how the temples or pyramids were constructed).

Symbolically speaking, they could be likened to the winemaking scenes of the Old Kingdom, representing the spiritual process.

Ancient Egyptian Tombs
Ancient Egyptian Tombs

Another motif that sets non-royal New Kingdom tombs apart is depictions of the deceased in the presence of deities. We see nobles making offering to beings like Re, Anubis and Osiris – something never seen in earlier tombs.

Ancient Egyptian Tombs

Fascinatingly, many of the Old Kingdom scenes mentioned above maintained their prominence throughout the entire New Kingdom era, which began some 1,000 years later. Clearly, these scenes held a deep and sacred importance in Egyptian society.

But while many Old Kingdom tombs more or less share a similar style, New Kingdom tombs can vary greatly in their presentation. The New Kingdom tombs of Luxor take on a wide variety of artistic styles and color schemes, so you never quite know what you’re going to get.

Additional Info

If you’re looking to get deeper into the topics of ancient Egyptian tombs, mummification and funerary rites, here are a few sources I’ve found helpful.

The Traveler’s Key to Ancient Egypt is an out-of-print guidebook by John Anthony West, author of Serpent in the Sky. Though first published in the ’80’s, the tombs that are currently open for tourists are more or less the same as what was open decades ago, so the book holds up surprisingly well.

West goes into great detail about all the major tombs of Saqqara and Luxor, along with detailed descriptions of each funerary text.

He provides fascinating insight into tomb symbolism and also the ancient Egyptian mindset in general. Despite the high price, it’s well worth picking up before your trip to Egypt. No other travel guide book on the market discusses Egypt from the symbolist perspective.

The web site Osiris Net is entirely dedicated to ancient Egyptian tombs. It contains comprehensive historical and architectural information on just about every tomb in the country. While not intended for the casual tourist, it’s worth a look if you really want to know more about a particular tomb you enjoyed.

The web site Tour Egypt also provides a great rundown of the various funerary texts.

Additionally, we have numerous guides on visiting most of the major ancient Egyptian tomb sites:

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