The Egyptian tomb is a central key that unlocked many of our mysteries. It helps us piece together our history as well as the beliefs and religious practices we held thousands of years ago. The tombs were built with such care that they stood the test of time, and we're still discovering more and more of them!
The richer the deceased the more elaborate the tomb, and the more elaborate the tomb the bigger the chance of passing into the afterlife smoothly. And as you know, the afterlife was of utmost importance to the ancient Egyptians.
This is the reason why the tombs were built to last; filled with goods and treasure and inscribed with prayers and spells... they became the Houses of Eternity for the dead.
At first, ancient Egyptian tombs were just plain sand pits where the bodies would be placed along with goods (usually vessels of food) as a provision for the long journey. The bodies were then covered with sand and left. And in fact, the sand proved to be quite a powerful preservative!
After that, the Egyptians thought of lining the sand pits with some kind of hard material like mud-bricks, and also wrapping the body in animal skin or putting it in a clay container... Then those were developed to have different chambers – helping to store even more treasure and provisions for the deceased.
Next came the intriguing Mastabatombs of the Old Kingdom. These are the earliest glimpses of where the Egyptian pyramids came from. A Mastaba is the Arabic word for "bench", and the reason these tombs were called that is because they kind of look like benches.
Basically the ancient Egyptians just started building walls and structures above the burial pits, after the burial had taken place.
The bodies were still buried under the earth, but not in sand.
But then a new trend started to emerge – family members wanted to be buried together in the same Mastaba tomb. So they started building the Mastabas with entrances so the newly deceased could be placed with their beloved family members.
The strange thing is that although in modern Egypt we no longer believe that we can take our possessions or physical bodies with us to the afterlife, our cemeteries reflect the ancient Mastaba tombs. They are built like small houses with entrances, and when you go inside you have a door on the floor that opens to some stairs that take you to the burial chamber underneath.
The bodies are placed, wrapped in white cloth, on slabs of stone. And the newly deceased is usually buried in the same chamber with his/her family members – usually from the father's side. I find this amazing because Mastaba tombs are not the "usual" practice of other largely Muslim counties. It's a practice that dates back to our ancient ancestors.
King Djoser wanted something more... and he had Imhotep as his architect. With great minds like that, something amazing was bound to happen.
Looking at a Mastaba, it's flat and square or rectangular in shape. What if you put a smaller Mastaba on top of the larger one, and a smaller one on top of that one?
And the story goes to tell that the first Egyptian pyramid was built... the Step Pyramid of King Djoser. A milestone on its own, but it also became the first purely-stone structure to be built in the world.
And the pyramid race began, with the evolution of the step pyramid into the True Pyramid with smooth sides. That time of the Old Kingdom was called "The Age of the Pyramids".
I won't get into detail here about the pyramids because I cover that subject in the pyramid section.
In the Middle Kingdom, the trend completely changed and the Mastabas and Pyramids were no more. The ancient Egyptian tomb was now dug inside a mountain or cliff, with chambers and compartments inside and a colonnade outside. The entrance to the tomb was through a courtyard that the family of the dead used for visiting and giving offerings.
The burial chambers were still kept underneath though.
The problem with all of the above burial methods was tomb robbery. Thieves could easily identify their locations, and depending on the size and quality of the tomb, they could also determine just how rich their owners were. The royal and elite ancient Egyptian tomb was at high risk!
So some officials started trying something new: making underground tombs in the middle of the desert – as inconspicuously as possible. This is a huge change from the big shows they used to put on to flaunt their status and wealth. This is how the tombs in The Valley of the Kings are structured.
This technique proved to be very effective and was used till the end of the Pharaonic period. And this is also why we still keep on discovering tombs; they are so well-hidden and well-preserved!