Qurna lies within the non-royal Theban necropolis, to the north of the row of royal mortuary temples, with the Valley of the Kings lying beyond the cliffs to the north. The tombs here are located between 170 m and 80 m above sea level, with the flood plain beginning at 80 m above sea level. This area consists of steep upper slopes, while further down the terrain becomes less steeply inclined, and flattens out closer to the cultivated land. It is the most densely populated area of the necropolis, divided into the upper and lower slopes. This division is based on contouring data, tomb distribution, and utilising natural divisions made by paths and topography, as these are believed to have remained relatively unchanged since ancient times.
Tomb groups in the early Eighteenth Dynasty
Upper Qurna contains 77 tombs dating to the New Kingdom or earlier. The earliest burials date to the Middle Kingdom (c.2055-1650 BC: TT60, TT61, TT81, TT82, TT117, and TT119), but the majority of tombs were built in the Eighteenth Dynasty, specifically between the reigns of Hatshepsut and Amenhotep III (c.1473-1352 BC). The Middle Kingdom tombs may have acted as a focal point for tomb-building at the beginning of the New Kingdom, or these upper slopes may have been chosen on account of their elevated position and views towards the east. During the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, there was an influx of tombs on the upper slopes, many orientated towards the Deir el-Bahri temples of these rulers. Upper Qurna was the closest active area of the necropolis to Deir el-Bahri, suggesting a spatial link with the temples, which are visible from these upper slopes.
At the end of the reign of Thutmose III, there was a distinct shift in focus to a previously empty area in the north-western corner. Of the 11 tombs on the upper slopes, nine are dated to Amenhotep II, and are located in close proximity to each other in this western corner, which has the best views of that king’s mortuary temple. The extent of this shift was limited by the contours of the Theban hills in this area. This westerly shift is demonstrated by a defined cluster of tombs (TT29, TT92, TT93, TT94, TT95, TT96, TT98, and TT367), with another group in close proximity just across the path (TT79, TT80, TT84, TT85, TT88, TT97, and TT100). This move is probably a combination of the natural evolution of Upper Qurna (as less space was now available in the central area close to the Middle Kingdom tombs), and an attempt to ensure a funerary view towards the mortuary temple of Amenhotep II (and Thutmose III, for those dating to the previous reign). These tombs were located high up the slope, and were orientated in the direction of these mortuary temples, suggesting that a line of sight to the mortuary temple of the king they served was a prime concern when siting the tomb.
Change of emphasis
After the reign of Amenhotep II, the patterns of distribution are less obviously distinguishable by reign. Tomb-building gradually returned to the central area of the upper slopes (to the north-east in particular), along the top of the cliff, probably as a result of lack of space in the western corner. There are no later identifiable clusters by reign, perhaps because space with suitable rock quality on the upper slopes was insufficient to support a large group of tombs. As there was no shift in the distribution of tombs corresponding to the location of the Thutmose IV or Amenhotep III temples, proximity to the royal mortuary temple was probably no longer the primary factor for siting a tomb.
After the construction of tombs TT115 and TT114 on the upper slopes (located at the western edge of Upper Qurna), no new tombs were built after the reign of Amenhotep III until the Nineteenth Dynasty, suggesting that, by the end of Eighteenth Dynasty, the area was already saturated, forcing people to look for space on the lower slopes and in other areas.
Occupations and connections
Having looked for patterns in the general locations of these private tombs, we can now consider the owners of the tombs themselves and their various occupations.
Thirty-four priests were buried in Upper Qurna, several with multiple titles. Some of the most important individuals were the ten high priests. Seven were ‘High Priests of Amun’, who were responsible for the construction of eight tombs, but only five of them were based at Karnak, four of whom held this office consecutively. The earliest was Hapuseneb (TT67), who was succeeded by Menkheperraseneb (TT86). His successor was Mery (TT84 and TT95), who was succeeded by Amenemhat (TT97). The last to be buried in this area was Meryptah (TT68). Several high priests were based at other Theban temples. A large proportion of high priests were buried in the south-western corner, suggesting a potential cluster. The burial of this number of high priests in Upper Qurna supports the idea that this was the most desirable religious burial location during the Eighteenth Dynasty, as those holding the highest religious office were buried here. There were more than 40 burials belonging to priests of lesser rank, too, many of which were also located in the western area, indicating a potential cluster.
Twenty-eight members of the temple administration were buried in Upper Qurna, including a ‘Chief Steward of Amun and the God’s Wife’, four ‘Stewards of Amun’, and an ‘Overseer of Every Office in Karnak’. Several individuals oversaw food provision, including six ‘Overseers of the Granary of Amun’, and another group responsible for the personnel provisioning the temple, such as the ‘Overseer of Craftsmen’.
Scribes from various temples were also buried here, as well as officials with other titles connected to the treasury of Amun (including two ‘Overseers of Sealed Things’) and men connected to religious aspects of temple life, but without esoteric knowledge, such as the ‘Door-keeper of Amun’. The majority of these people worked for the estate of Amun, but other temples referenced included the Temple of the Aten, the Temple of Ramesses at Abu Simbel and the Temple of Mut. The tombs of the temple administration were scattered throughout Upper Qurna, with some notable clusters.
Forty-five members of the royal administration were buried in Upper Qurna. They included five chief stewards, three ‘Overseers of Royal Works’, two royal nurses, 25 ‘Royal Seal-bearers’, and 12 ‘Eyes and Ears of the King’. There are some unique titles here as well, including an ‘Overseer and Director of the Royal Tomb’ and ‘Deputy of the King’.
A significant number of the tombs of the royal officials are located along the highest slopes, all orientated eastwards, suggesting they had a certain degree of influence over obtaining the best sites. There is a significant cluster of roughly contemporary members of the royal administration located in the south-western corner. While their titles are varied, most of them held office during the reign of Amenhotep II, reinforcing the idea that these men were colleagues, who were buried in the vicinity of each other. Another cluster lies towards the eastern edge of the area.
General and local administration
Twenty-seven members of the general administration were buried in Upper Qurna, including some of the most important officials in the land. Seven tombs belong to viziers (see AE 129), including User and Rekhmira, and form a defined cluster (with TT131 the exception). TT82, belonging to the ‘Steward of the Vizier’ is located close to the tombs of the two viziers he served. Six ‘Overseers of the Granary’ were buried here, with a cluster of four buried in the south-western quadrant, while the six of the seven ‘Overseers of the Treasury’ were buried in this area, too. Pairings of TT80 with TT79 and TT86 with TT87 suggest a desire for contemporary treasurers and overseers of granaries to be buried close together. The ‘Overseer of Overseers’, ‘Chief Overseer of Upper Egypt’, and two ‘Chiefs of the Whole Land’ were also buried here.
Most general administrators were buried in the centre and the south-western quadrant, with some identifiable clusters. They did not occupy the very highest positions on the slopes, which seem to have been reserved for royal officials and some high-ranking priests and temple administrators. The high concentration of general administrators in the south-western quadrant is interesting as well.
There are also four local administrators buried here, including two mayors of Thebes, a ‘Mayor of the Southern Lake and the Lake of Sobek’ (in the Fayum), and an ‘Overseer of Foreign Lands’, although there are no further spatial connections between these tombs.
The necropolis includes the burials of 11 members of the military, many of whom were royal officials too. They include three military scribes, three ‘Overseers of Horses’, a ‘Commander of Royal Ships’, and two ‘Chiefs of the Medjay’. All of these tombs are located in western Upper Qurna, scattered evenly throughout this area.
Relationships between tomb-owners
Some of these tomb clusters show a family relationship in their pattern of distribution. Among the ‘Overseers of the Granaries’ were Nakhtmin (TT87) and his son and successor Menkheperraseneb (TT79). Their tombs lie adjacent to each other, and Menkheperraseneb located a burial shaft in his courtyard that runs under his father’s tomb, thus providing access to his burial chamber. Two other family groups involve viziers (see AE 129).
There is a greater prevalence of important titles among the tomb-owners of Upper Qurna than anywhere else in the necropolis, showing that this was the most prestigious area in which to be buried, particularly in the Eighteenth Dynasty, from the reign of Hatshepsut onwards. This area was chosen for a combination of reasons, including the presence of important Middle Kingdom tombs, views towards Deir el-Bahri and the row of royal mortuary temples to the east (and thus the processional route of the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’). This also explains the high proportion of tombs belonging to officials dating to the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. This period saw the only reuse of Middle Kingdom tombs in the New Kingdom, suggesting a deliberate attempt by individuals to associate themselves with their Middle Kingdom predecessors, in a similar way to Hatshepsut associating herself with her Middle Kingdom predecessor Mentuhotep II by building her mortuary temple adjacent to his at Deir el-Bahri.
All four tombs belonging to individuals who worked at the mortuary temple of Thutmose III, ‘Henketankh’, are located on the upper slopes orientated towards the temple itself, confirming a link between tomb-distribution and the location of royal mortuary temples. A prime location on the upper slopes overlooking the temple was clearly preferred to a lower site in closer proximity to the temple. The most striking clustering of tombs is among those dating to the reign of Amenhotep II, in the south-western ‘Amenhotep II Quarter’. The reason for the choice of this area is again linked to the royal mortuary temples, as this area commands views over the king’s temple, and the associated processional route. The tombs are also visible from the temples themselves.
Dr Katherine Slinger completed her PhD in Egyptology at the University of Liverpool in 2020. She is an Egyptology Tutor in the Continuing Education Department at the University of Liverpool, and also works as an independent researcher and lecturer. Her book Tomb Families: Private Tomb Distribution in the New Kingdom Theban Necropolis has been published by Archaeopress and is reviewed here. You can read her article on the vizier tombs at Qurna in AE 129.
Images: all photographs and QGIS images by the author, unless otherwise stated