Last chance to see Tutankhamun’s tomb

Published on MSN Travel.

As pretty as Luxor is, there is one main reason why people visit the area and that is to see Tutankhuman’s tomb.  In fact, so many tourists have walked through the tomb that the mummy itself has been showing signs of deterioration. Because of this, the decision has been made that the mummy will be taken off public display in 2014 and replaced by a replica.

Egypt might not seem like the most obvious tourist destination at the moment because of on and off unrest, but it’s mainly the area that borders Israel and Saudi Arabia that is off limits. After checking the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website to make sure it was safe, we decided that we really wanted to see the real thing before it’s too late.

We drove away from the picturesque centre of Luxor, over the Nile with its traditional sailing boats and steam cruisers and past the lush sugar cane fields into the arid desert mountains of the Valley of the Kings.

Our anticipation grew and conversation stopped whilst we looked out at the jagged mountains, each with a solitary guard keeping watch.

The tarmacked road twists and turns through the red limestone hills until you reach the centre of the necropolis where 63 pharaohs are buried in individual and magnificent tombs. Walking around you realise the scale of the valley, which has enough sites to keep you coming back for a week.

The most famous tomb of all – that of Tutankhamun – is located on the edge of a large clearing, flanked by the otherworldly, opulent tombs of the kings Ramses VI and Merneptah.  His tomb entrance is hidden in the side of the rock and located lower down than his neighbours, which enter high into the hills.  Its unconventional location probably helped the tomb to stay hidden for so long, my guide, Yasser Mohammed Ali, tells me.

The lack of tourists meant we didn’t have to wait long in the midday heat to begin our entrance into the tomb. We moved underground and hovered in a modern clearing just in front of the entrance for a few moments to adjust to the low light and cool air of the chambers waiting below.  We then slowly made our descent down the ancient corridor into the main chamber. Unlike most other tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which are adorned with colourful artworks throughout, the entrance corridor leading into Tutankhamun’s tomb has unfinished, plain walls. This is because the king died unexpectedly at the age of 18 so his tomb, as well as being less grand and less complete than those of other pharaohs in the valley, might have even originally been meant for someone else.

Looking down into the chamber I started to feel a mixture of excitement and claustrophobia. The air became thicker the further we descended and the wooden planks that cover the original limestone steps are worn and slippery and I had to kneel slightly to avoid hitting my head.

After a minute or so we entered the main chamber, which was dark but surprisingly tall. Tutankhamun’s body lies in a temperature-controlled glass box to the left hand side. His blackened, dehydrated face and long skeletal feet are clearly visible. The rest of his body is hidden under a white sheet. As other people followed me into the room the air grew stuffy and oppressive and I felt a strong sense of being an intruder in this underground sanctuary. I stood and stared at the mummy, completely astounded that I was standing a foot away from a pharaoh who ruled Egypt in 1327BC and yet I could still make out his features and get a sense of what he would have looked like when he was alive. Even in death, he had a king-like presence that demands your respect.

On the other side of the room is where the lower part of the chamber can be found. This is where the king’s remains were located when they were discovered back in 1922, encased in several coffins, the last of which being solid gold. The sarcophagi still sits in the room, surrounded by beautiful ceremonial artworks. The splendour of the colours and detailed accuracy of the drawings is really quite breathtaking. What is also noticeable is just how delicate the room is with its porous walls and plaster paintings on the verge of crumbling. As more people crammed into the room it made me wonder how much longer this tomb can survive having visitors and how long I could stand being in such a small, cramped space.

Indeed, King Tut, who is the only remaining mummy left in the Valley of the Kings (the rest have been moved to the Cairo Museum), is housed in the glass box to protect him from the moist air and heat that visitors create. Now outside of his coffin, he is vulnerable to even the slightest flash of a camera and experts say the mummy is deteriorating.

As a result of this Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has announced that the tomb of Tutankhamun will close to the public in 2014 and a replica replacement will go on show instead.

I spoke to conservationist Neville Agnew from the Getty Conservation Institute, who is leading a restoration team on the site. He explained: ‘‘Before the revolution, this tomb had up to 1,000 visitors a day.  It was chaos.  People forget that this is a still, quiet area; the king’s final resting place.  It should be a place for reflection and thought, but it’s just not possible with this amount of people. This is why a replica had to be built.  We are going to conserve as much as we can until the closure in 2014.’’

Much of Egypt’s charm and history has been overshadowed by its political troubles over the last few years. Even the fascinating appeal of Tutankhuam’s tomb and the abundance of other historical sites is failing to convince tourists back in significant numbers.

Based on my own experiences there’s no denying the military presence, which is heavy, but I never felt unsafe. And it was glorious to enjoy the Egypt that existed before the tourist boom.

The difficulty is that the local people in Luxor have come to rely on tourism as their main income. They struggle to see why tourists are slow to come back to the area. Our taxi driver shared his thoughts: ‘‘Its 100% safe in Luxor but people are scared to come here because they think it’s close to Cairo.  Tourists are totally separate from the troubles here and they don’t need to worry. They won’t have any problems in Luxor or Cairo.”

Businesses are really suffering in Luxor, with hotels occupied at only 10%. The local people are happy to see tourists and remain positive and light-hearted on topic of the situation, but from taxi drivers to shop owners, I was asked again and again to please tell my friends to visit Egypt, and indeed I will.

It’s more important than ever to visit now, while sites like the original Tutankhuman’s tomb still exist are accessible to the public.

If that’s not enough to encourage you, maybe the beautiful climate, cheap flights, empty hotels and bargain deals will.

MSN’s Ginny Weeks travelled to Luxor with and was a guest of the Sheraton Luxor Resort, on the east bank of the Nile.