There are two groups of rock-cut tombs at el-Amarna situated at the north and the south ends of the cliffs encircling the city of Akhetaten. These are the tombs of favoured officials of the court of Akhenaten, containing many scenes depicting the royal family in the distinctive style of Amarna art. Between the north and south tombs lies the entrance to the Royal Wadi (Wadi Abu Hasa el-Bahri) in which the king’s own tomb was constructed.
The entrance to the Royal Wadi is often said to take the form of the hieroglyphic symbol of the horizon, the akhet in the centre of which the sun rises each morning. It was perhaps this natural shape which determined Akhenaten to site his new city here on the wide sandy plain on the east bank of the Nile. Until recently the wadi has been a fairly inaccessible place with a narrow boulder-strewn track leading to the Royal Tomb. Akhenaten’s tomb lies in a small side valley off the main wadi – which used to entail a tough walk of 6km each way from the mouth of the wadi. However, since 2004 there is a new tarmac road going all the way up to the Royal Tomb, making access for visitors much easier. There is a generator to provide lighting in the tomb, which is currently undergoing restoration. Although much of the decoration once carved into the plaster over poor quality limestone walls is now destroyed, the tomb itself is a very evocative place.
The Royal Tomb began with similar proportions to the earlier tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. However, several chambers for subsidiary burials of members of the royal family were cut after the early death of the king’s second daughter Meketaten. Was the king ever buried here? This is a question which is impossible to answer with certainty, although fragments of Akhenaten’s sarcophagus and a great number of shabti figures belonging to the king were discovered, suggesting that the king was interred here after his death, probably in year 17 of his reign. When the tomb was first found in the 1880s by locals it was already plundered and badly damaged.
The entrance to the Royal Tomb is at the level of the valley floor and faces east, suggesting that it may have been designed to allow the sun’s rays to illuminate the tomb each morning. Alternatively, it may have been the king’s intention that divine energy flooded out of the tomb at sunrise to awaken the temple and the city. A steep flight of stone steps, with a central ramp to allow access for the sarcophagus during construction, leads down into a wide sloping corridor. At the far end of the corridor is a large square chamber with remains of two square rock-cut pillars on a raised platform – the king’s burial chamber. The chamber originally had four pillars, but two were probably cut away when extra space was needed for the sarcophagus of the king’s mother, Tiye, fragments of which were identified in recent years. A small chamber was also begun in the upper right-hand wall, but left unfinished.
Fragile traces of decoration at ceiling level can still be made out, giving the names and titles of the Aten, Akhenaten and Nefertiti, but little else now survives. The scenes which once decorated the walls of the royal burial chamber were of offering ceremonies to the Aten at which the royal family officiated. A well was constructed in front of the king’s burial chamber, a feature which was to appear in many later royal tombs at Thebes. The walls which form a chamber at the top of the well shaft were once plastered and decorated with reliefs of the royal family.
Beyond the well, back towards the tomb entrance, at the top of a short flight of stairs, a doorway leads to a series of three apartments. Since their discovery they have been known as chambers alpha, beta and gamma and were identified as the funerary chambers of Princess Meketaten. The central chamber (beta) is undecorated, but the two other rooms were decorated with carved and painted scenes of the royal family making offerings to the Aten. In chamber alpha there are important scenes depicting the king and queen mourning the death of a woman on a funeral bier. Behind the royal couple a nurse carries an infant in her arms and the presence of a fan-bearer suggests that the child was also royal. The assumption is that the death represents a mother after childbirth. Although better preserved than other chambers in the Royal Tomb, the scenes in chamber alpha are damaged and the woman is not named, but a similar death-bed scene in chamber gamma names the deceased as Princess Meketaten. This gives rise to the idea that all three chambers belonged to the king’s second daughter, who probably died in childbirth. This assumption has been recently challenged and it is now suggested that the body represented on the walls of chamber alpha may have been another royal lady – possibly the king’s lesser wife Kiya, who is a candidate for the mother of Tutankhamun, or even another daughter. Details of the reliefs in these chambers were copied by French epigraphists in 1894 at a time when the scenes were still almost complete, and without these drawings we would know even less than we do about the mysterious occupant of these apartments.
Further along the main corridor towards the entrance another doorway opens into a further winding corridor leading to a series of chambers. It is suggested that this may have been a secondary royal tomb intended for the burial of Queen Nefertiti, or the reinterment of Amenhotep III, but it was left unfinished and undecorated.
The mysteries of the Amarna Royal Tomb seem only to increase with time and with each new investigation. Several other tombs had been quarried in the Royal Wadi, both in the main wadi and in the northern and southern side-valleys, but all of them were left unfinished. Many artefacts have been found over the years in the area of the Royal Tomb, leading to diverse theories about the history of the royal family, but we are still left with very little real evidence from this enigmatic period of history.