For six months, the most famous king in the world has been residing in the British Museum. He is 3,300 or so years old. He comes from Egypt and has received more than a million visitors. King Tut is in London.
Not King Tut himself, of course, but 50 of the most precious pieces of funereal art from his famous tomb, which have been exhibited in a splendor befitting the 50th anniversary of their exciting discovery in Egypt's famous Valley of the Kings.
Never before, in fact, have so many irreplaceable and invaluable objets d'art left the safety of the Cairo Museum at a single time and even the generally staid British public has been impressed. An hour after Queen Elizabeth opened the exhibit in March, some 2,500 visitors had formed a line a quarter of a mile long, and they kept coming all summer at the rate of 1,000 visitors an hour. During the first month waiting time was as long as eight hours and some visitors slept on the sidewalk to be sure of getting into the museum in the morning.
Margaret Hill, the exhibits officer, and Egyptologist I.E.F. Edwards have staged the show on the museum's first floor so that viewers actually feel they are descending into the Theban tomb itself, light receding, room by room, as they move deeper and deeper into the exhibit. Every item in the exhibition is exquisite, but a number stand out: the gilded figure of the King in his Nile boat harpooning a fish; nine pieces of golden jewelry taken from his mummified body; three rare pieces of funereal furniture; four priceless statuettes; his golden dagger; and the final piece in the display, the 21-inch-long, solid gold portrait mask which was actually lifted from his mummified face. It is, says Museum Director Sir John Wolfenden unequivocally, "the most splendid exhibit we have ever held here."
The exhibit, which opened on March 29, has been so popular that its run has been extended until November 4, the precise date 50 years ago when archeologist Howard Carter uncovered, from beneath 200,000 cubic feet of rubble, the first of the 16 steps that would lead him to the still-sealed door of Tut's tomb.
Howard Carter, who had come to Egypt as a draftsman, first started digging in 1892. Subsequently he took on a patron, Lord Carnarvon, a wealthy man who first visited
Egypt in 1902 because his doctor told him the hot dry sun would be good for him. His patience and money, plus Carter's digging, were ultimately to put both of them in the archeological history books forever, but he very nearly blew it. Impatient for some return on the money, Lord Carnarvon had given Carter notice, returned to England and was about ready to give up when Carter discovered that fateful first stair down to Tut's tomb. Carter cabled Carnarvon back in England, "AT LAST HAVE MADE WONDERFUL DISCOVERY IN VALLEY; A MAGNIFICENT TOMB WITH SEAL INTACT; RE-COVERED SAME FOR YOUR ARRIVAL; CONGRATULATIONS."
Within two weeks, Carnarvon arrived in Alexandria. Six days later he and Carter were standing at the door of the tomb and on November 25, a day Carter called "the day of days, the most wonderful that I have ever lived through, and certainly one whose like I can never hope to see again," they broke a hole through the tomb's wall and peered in. As Carter recalled it, "With trembling hands I made a tiny breach. Presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold."
Ironically, Carter's discovery made King Tut much more famous in modern times than he ever was in ancient Egypt. Tut, in fact, is a man historians know virtually nothing about. He apparently was born with the name Tutankhten, was crowned as Nebkheprure, yet spent his youth as Tutankhamen. He stood 5' 6" and had a small scar, cause unknown, on his left cheek. He apparently was married to a cousin two years older than himself, the daughter of the beauteous Nefertiti, which is how he won the throne of Egypt at the tender age of nine. By 19, in January of 1343 B.C., he was dead, whether executed, victim of accident or illness, we don't know. There is no record of children surviving him, no annals of his reign, no quotes or writings left behind. But he enjoyed a magnificent funeral, and when Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon uncovered his remains 3,274 years after he died, his interment made him the most renowned pharaoh in all Egyptian history.
As it turned out Carter's discovery was just the beginning of the discoveries—it took the experts 10 years to remove and identify the more than 2,000 objects found in the tomb's four separate rooms. By the time the excavation was completed, Lord Carnarvon was dead, a legend of a curse had arisen and every newspaper reader in the world had been told the story of Tut's tomb a dozen different times and in as many different ways.
What made the discovery of Tut's tomb so important was that it had been relatively untouched by thieves. True, some intruders had broken in and many things had been stolen, but much, much more remained in Tut's tomb than in any pharaonic burial place discovered before or since, and the value of it all is staggering even today. The exhibit is insured for $26 million and the gold alone in Tut's 2,448-pound coffin would, at today's prices, be worth about $1,700,000.
The announcement of the discovery set off a rash of worldwide enthusiasm which still exists today—as evidenced by the current lines of people waiting to get into the British Museum. Journalists poured into Egypt. So did sightseers and VIP's. Everyone wanted a guided tour and their demands left the dedicated Carter and his archeological staff almost no time to go into the tomb and study the historical significance of their find. As Carter recalled it, "It was with the letters of introduction that the trouble began. They were written, literally in hundreds, by our friends—we never realized before how many we had—by our friends' friends, by people who had a real claim upon us, and by people who had less than none."
It was at this time that the London Times became irrevocably bound up with King Tut—a relationship which exists even today. The Times is the co-sponsor with the British Museum of the current London exhibit. It was the Times that first carried the original story: "From our Cairo Correspondent: Valley of the Kings (By Runner from Luxor.)" The rush was then on. "Once the initial dispatch had been published," Howard Carter recalled later, "no power on earth could shield us from the light of publicity that beat down upon us. We were helpless and had to make the best of it." As a result, a Times man was appointed PR director for the dig and the Times given the exclusive rights to distribute dispatches on the excavation, a move which infuriated editors of rival newspapers and made for a great deal of ill will.
Yet the story which earned the most headlines in the 1920's was not the scientific nor artistic one, but the bizarre tale of a "curse" which the king supposedly had uttered and which, legend said, doomed those who had uncovered his tomb. According to one British Museum source the curse was originally a joke invented by an Egyptologist, but people began treating it seriously when, in 1923, Lord Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito in March, saw the bite turn septic and died tragically of pneumonia shortly thereafter.
And that was only part of it. As Lord Carnarvon died, two mysterious events occurred. First all the lights in Cairo went out, and the English engineer in charge of the power house was unable to find a single technical reason for the brief failure. And then, simultaneously, at Lord Carnarvon's home in the U.K., 4,000 miles away, his Lordship's favorite hound howled, rolled over and died.
Later, when a visiting archeologist from the Louvre suddenly died of a stroke after visiting King Tut's tomb, the legend gained credence. And when another archeologist from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York died after he had also visited the dig, the idea of a curse passed into folklore.
In modern times, of course, no one believes in curses. But even skeptics think it odd that 22 people connected with the Tut treasures have died. In 1967, for example, when the treasurers were sent to Paris for a display, the man who signed the contract for the Egyptian museum was hit by a car and killed as the treasures were being packed. Then, when the treasures went on display in Paris, a leading antiquarian was run down and killed shortly after leaving the museum—or so they say.
Most recently—on February 4, this year—Dr. Gamal Mehrez, director general of the Egyptian antiquities department suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as the Tut treasures were being packed for London. It was, of course, pure coincidence.
Those who refuse to believe in the curse point out that Richard Adamson, 74, who claims to be a member of the Carter expedition, is still living. Indeed, Adamson who has just published a book on King Tut claims that he, not Carter, discovered the tomb first and then showed it to Carter—without, obviously, any ill effects.
The headline writers of the 1920's and '30's led people to believe that it was the curse that scared off the grave robbers who looted so many other nearby tombs. Actually, King Tut's tomb had been looted by robbers on two separate occasions. Traces of their footprints were found in the dust of the tunnels. Apparently these were priests or people who knew the king well because they went right to the richest rooms in the tomb and took the most valuable items of the day—in that era, unguents and oils. The raids were superbly executed and the thieves even brought wine skins with them into which they poured the greasy liquids. Since several of their skins were left behind and on the floor of one room was a rag containing a number of gold rings, obviously thrown away quickly as the thieves fled, it's quite possible they left in haste, close to being discovered. Today the FBI would have no trouble in identifying them, for they left greasy fingerprints all over the tomb. Carter and his assistants decided after examining all the relics, that about 60 percent of the treasures and jewels had been taken. When one realizes the richness of the 40 percent that was left, some idea of the magnitude of the treasures originally buried with Tut begins to emerge.
Modern thieves would have less success today. Although the museum has never disclosed its precautions, there has never been a theft and the steps they took to protect the Tut treasures were even stricter. Three jets flew the crated treasures to London, 100 policemen were assigned to guard them and the M4 highway was closed to traffic while the crates were trucked from Heathrow airport to the museum.
But if thieves cannot expect to become wealthy through this London exhibit, UNESCO can. The proceeds of admission charges and the sale of catalogues, after expenses, are to be turned over to this international organization to help save the Egyptian temples on the island of Philae, close to the Egyptian border with Sudan. Long known as the "Pearl of Egypt," because of its Acropolis-like temples and luxurient vegetation, Philae is threatened with rising waters backed up from the Aswan Dam. The Egyptians have built a temporary small dam around the temples to save them until they can be dismantled and transported to a nearby island where they will be rebuilt, stone by stone. Egypt is paying a third of the cost of all this, UNESCO the rest; and it is hoped that the Tut exhibition will amass considerable funds for this worthwhile effort.
His burial riches now further away from him than they have ever been before, King Tut in mummified form, still lies in Thebes within a massive rosy sarcophagus in a gigantic burial chamber. He has been dead for more than 3,300 years, yet, in 1972, he has never been more alive. "To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again," say the funeral inscriptions in Egypt; it restores "the breath of life to him who has vanished." Judging by the lines winding around, and into, the British Museum today, King Tut is as alive as he ever was.
Arturo F. Gonzalez, formerly with Time and the Reader's Digest, is now free-lancing from London.