- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

Egypt's Valley of the Kings is one of the most unpromising pieces of real estate on Earth and possibly the moon. Yet, at one time, it held most of the treasures of Egypt, making it one of the richest places in the world.
Its story is told entertainingly by TLC in "Journey Through the Valley of the Kings," an hourlong exploration of the wonders that even today fascinate visitors.
The valley became important about 3,500 years ago when the rulers of Egypt realized that building a pyramid as a tomb was the equivalent of drawing a big X on the sand and writing "treasure buried here."
It was decided that hiding burials in a remote spot and posting loyal guards was perhaps a better alternative, according to archaeologist Kent Weeks of the American University in Cairo.
Mr. Weeks has gained much acclaim for re-excavating what had been thought to be a modest and ramshackle tomb until he discovered a doorway that led into an enormous burial complex that is still being explored. Mr. Weeks is one of several specialists who take viewers into this remarkable manifestation of a culture obsessed with surviving death.
The valley, isolated even today, is on the west bank of the Nile, across from what was then Thebes, the center of government, religion and culture for this powerful empire. Guards stationed on the surrounding cliffs would have been able to see anyone approaching, let alone entering, the valley.
Bob Brier of Long Island University points out that only one relatively intact tomb has ever been found that of King Tut, a minor ruler who died young. Its treasures, including the almost universally known mummy mask, continue to awe visitors.
Imagine, Mr. Brier suggests, what would have been buried with a major figure such as Seti I, who died in 1279 BC. Seti's final resting place, cut deep in the limestone cliffs of the valley, had been begun 15 years earlier, and Mr. Brier uses its wonders to explain the general topic of tomb-building.
Using illustrations from the tombs as a guide, actors re-create scenes of workmen employing bronze chisels to cut into the relatively soft limestone of the valley's cliffs. With nothing more than a carpenter's square, a plumb bob and a length of string, these workers managed an impressive piece of engineering, and in near-darkness at that.
The documentary drives home these difficulties with its re-creations. Oil lamps flicker as men use brute force to break and move the rock. A viewer instinctively worries about fingers and toes.
The magic comes later.
Mr. Brier explains that the tomb was "almost more important than the palace" because it held everything Seti would need to be comfortable and cared-for in the afterlife. The walls of the tomb are covered with inscriptions to secure the safety of the soul as it travels among the monsters awaiting the unwary.
Cutting these inscriptions correctly was literally a matter of life and death, according to Nicole Douek of the University of London. As she points out, a misspelling might be enough to doom the wandering soul.
So first came draftsmen to lay out the panels on the wall of the tomb, which had been smoothed with tools and covered with plaster. Then came the foreman to correct the work. Next there were artisans who created the illustrations in relief. Finally, painters colored the scenes and inked in the inscriptions.
All this work had better be finished in time because the tomb would be sealed 40 days after its owner's death.
(A visitor to the valley today can see several tombs where the inscriptions have been cut but the coloring ends abruptly, unfinished. The 40 days were needed for the ritual of preparing the body and were essential for the well-being of the soul. When the 40 days were up, the body needed to be in the tomb and the tomb needed to be sealed.)
An effort is under way to use lasers to map every inch of every tomb so its wonders will be preserved even if the tomb is lost. Can a tomb be lost? Egypt deserves its reputation as an arid country where only the Nile is a reliable source of water. But it does rain in Egypt, usually in late winter, and every several hundred years the Valley of the Kings becomes the Lake of the Kings. Water rushes down the long corridors and fills the chambers, carrying sand and muck with it. Visitors can see evidence of water damage.
In addition to visiting the tombs, this documentary explores the nearby village of the workers who built them. This small town is remarkably intact and has yielded a trove of information about everyday life. Like the earlier documentary on the workers who built the pyramids, "Valley" provides a look that makes these people come alive with help from actors, of course.
Western civilization long has been fascinated with the ancient, obsessed culture of Egypt. Careful work by specialists in numerous sciences is yielding information that brings the culture alive once again. "Valley of the Kings" makes use of the latest knowledge and techniques to feed that fascination.
Grab the young ones and sit with them for an entertaining, painless lesson in history, geography and our shared humanity.

WHAT: "Valley of the Kings"
WHAT: The Learning Channel
WHEN: 9 p.m. tomorrow
Judith Kreiner is an editor at The Washington Times who has been fascinated with ancient Egypt since she was 10. She has visited the Valley of the Kings.

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