The Tombs of the Nobles spread over an area of about two square miles from Dra' Abu el-Naga' in the north to Deir el Medina in the south. There are well over three hundred. All belong to the officials who wielded power, to a greater or lesser extent, in the New Kingdom.
Who were these people, these aristocrats of the age? Perhaps their position is best understood by stressing first of all that the Pharaoh of Egypt was no mere figurehead. His position was supreme and he took an active part in all affairs of state. He was concerned with matters ranging from the height the water rose during the inundation of the Nile in any year, to the recruitment of troops, whom he personally led into battle. He participated in public ceremonies and dedications, supervised the planning and construction of an edifice or a state thoroughfare and even had the final say in the judgement of a petty crime. It can be readily appreciated
therefore that this was far too much for a single pair of hands and the Pharaoh's vizier took a share of the responsibility. Along with the chief treasurer, he headed the main government departments.
The vizier provided the liaison between the departmental heads and the Pharaoh, just as the departmental heads provided the liaison between the workers and the vizier. In Thebes all the affairs of the state capital filtered through the hands of the vizier before coming to the attention of the Pharaoh, including the annual taxation from officials and recording of tributes from conquered lands.
The viziers held a powerful position and the growth of this power can be traced in their tombs from the days of Thutmose III , when the monarch could afford to be liberal with his loyal and trusted subordinates, giving them gifts and honors in recognition of their services, to the era following Akhenaten's breakaway government when the vizier became the power behind the throne and, taking advantage of a weakening line of monarchs, ultimately gained the supreme position for himself.
These then are the tombs of the grand vizier and of those under his control : the army general, the superintendent of granaries, the overseer of gardens, the scribe of the fields,etc. The majority of tombs were uniform and simple, designed in two parts. There was a wide open court leading to a hall which was sometimes supported by pillars or columns. Directly center-back of this hall was a long corridor leading to the offering shrine which had niches for the statues of the relatives of the deceased. The walls, due to the poor
quality limestone rock, were covered with a layer of clay and then a coat of whitewash. These were painted. There are sculptured reliefs on only a few. The walls of the main hall usually bore prayers for the deceased to the right and a record of his career to the left. The back corridor usually carried the various funerary rites.
The tombs of the nobles differed from those of the Pharaoh in one important respect. Where as the royal tombs were only burial places, the tombs of the nobles were funerary rooms and burial places combined. The Pharaoh was divine and joy and plenty were automatically assured to him in the hereafter, while a nobleman
depicted on the walls of his tomb every aspect of his experience on earth that he wanted repeated in the hereafter. Naturally he chose the most pleasant memories : the perfect harvest, the perfect feast, the perfect catch on the hook and the perfect fowl brought down with an arrow. The happiest hours of his life were captured for the hereafter, the greatest joys and naturally the most praiseworthy honors best owed on him for his administrative excellence.
These tombs shed a flood of light on the life and times. They are valuable chapters in ancient history. Just as the Saqqara Mastabas tell us about life in the Old Kingdom and the rock-hewn tombs of Beni Hassan give an insight into the Middle Kingdom, it is the tombs of the nobles that tell us most about the New Kingdom.We
see how the people lived, worked, built, fished, speared.We see them enjoying a social function and grieving at a funeral. We see the impassive faces of officials at a public ceremony and the light-hearted gaiety of a group of dancers. In fact here is a new type of art.
Egyptian art , as we have seen, was both religious and idealized, conforming to a strict pattern in the portrayal of the Pharaoh, the deities, battles and festivities. The side-view face was considered more typical of the individual than front-view, whilst front-view eyes were necessary for expression. A side-view of the arms necessarily meant concealing one of them, therefore square shoulders were necessary. Groups of people were shown as parallel outlines behind the front figure. These traditions were never questioned by the state artists and they continued the repetitive positions and positioning from generation to generation. Movement was unknown.
In the tombs of the nobles we come across a severe break with these traditions. All the paintings are characterized by naturalism.
First of all, in place of the frieze, each wall is surrounded by a decorative border and within each frame is a picture, complete in itself. The outer figures face inwards, movements and actions are varied. There is balance, perspective and, surprisingly, even front-view faces and side-view shoulders. The most delightful drawings are such realistic portrayals as a thirsty man and a naughty child.
The natural wit and spontaneity of the artist has at last been released. While national and mortuary temples were normally filled with stylized, grand, heroic and repetitive themes, the walls of the tombs of the nobles were covered with a rich and exciting catalogue of the lives of men, each of whom was a pivot of at least
one administrative unit of his time - and not, as sometimes claimed, by cheap substitutes for wall relief.
Explore Tombs of the Nobles in details and plans: