It’s nearly 100 years since the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in the Valley of the Kings, and the boy Pharaoh continues to fascinate.
Tutankhamun made his mark on me at an early age. When we were living in Egypt, my own Egyptian mummy took me to see the exhibit at the Cairo Museum in Tahrir Square. At the age of four, I wasn’t as tall as the wooden cabinets, so, while my mum marvelled at the treasures, I had a superb view of the brass screws holding the cabinets together.
My mother’s history with King Tut goes back to her own childhood, as she wrote in her book Cocktails & Camels.
One of the most interesting people we met on our pre-war holidays was Howard Carter who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. I was only twelve at the time, but, as it so often is with childhood memories, it seems like yesterday. Every evening on their way to the hotel dining room, guests were drawn as though by a magnet to the slot machine where, with one franc and a good deal more luck, a crane would reach down amongst a multitude of bonbons and come up not with bubble gum but with silver cigarette boxes and Swiss watches.
Howard Carter would be there with a bagful of one-franc pieces, much determination, and a rare stock of fabulous magic phrases which no doubt had lain dormant for four thousand years. “Abracadabra,” he’d chant soothingly at first. “Abracadabra, hashamatasha, wooloo, wooloo, wooloooo.”
Then, as the crane came up with only a handful of sweets, he’d use some rather un-Pharaonic words and put in another franc. With the crane half an inch away from a silver cigarette case, Carter, who was a strong man, would shake the slot machine unhinging it from the wall. The crane swerved, landed on its object, and with some more magic words, the cigarette case would drop into the waiting receptacle. “Here you are,” he’d say to anyone who happened to be standing by. “You take it. Now let’s have a crack at that lighter there.”
Though we did not like to press him on his discovery of the Tutankhamun tomb, the subject naturally arose. I vividly remember his telling us of the awe he felt when, after having fruitlessly excavated for months, he looked through a hole into the antechamber of the tomb, by the light of a candle flickering in the warm air that was escaping, and saw, as though through a mist, statues, alabaster, and gold everywhere. Some four thousand years had passed since human feet had stood on that same spot where he and his friend the Earl of Carnarvon made their dramatic discovery. Then, as his eyes grew accustomed to darkness, he could pick out beautiful individual objects. It must have been an amazing and magnificent sight to look into that tomb which, unlike the others in the Valley of the Kings, was almost intact.
In fact, Tutankhamun’s tomb had been entered at least twice not long after his mummy was buried. The outermost doors leading into the shrines enclosing the king’s nested coffins were unsealed. However, the inner two shrines remained intact until Carter’s exploration.
I have yet to see any of Tutankhamun’s relics myself. As I was studying hard, Tut Mania passed me by in the early 70s when the British Museum had the golden treasures on show. But I do remember a teacher of the time who quickly acquired the nickname King Tut, purely because he was Egyptian.
Where is Tutankhamun now?
Well, his tomb in the Valley of the Kings is open to visitors. And, as far as I know, the famous gold death mask is still at the Egyptian Museum. It’s probably the best-known object from ancient Egypt and the Egyptian government won’t let it travel again.
However, after many delays, the Grand Egyptian Museum of Giza is due to open in summer 2022. About a mile from the Pyramids and the Sphinx, it will be the largest archaeological museum in the world, and will display the largest collection of Tutankhamun relics ever displayed.
Last April, the ancient royal mummies of 18 kings and 4 queens were transported through Cairo to their new home, in a multimillion-dollar spectacle called “Pharoah’s Golden Parade” which you can see here.
Some of King Tut’s artifacts, like his chariot, are already in the new museum, as this video shows. FYI before you open it, this video is funded wholly or partly by the Chinese government.
While seeing the treasures in real life remains difficult, you can enjoy the blog Egyptian Chronicles and its stunning photography.
And, should you find yourself in Dorset, there’s a recreation of the Tutankhamun exhibition to visit.