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A date with Tutankhamun

  • Published at 10:55 pm February 14th, 2020
Tutankhamun
Photo: COURTESY

Did the great leader fulfil his potential? 

When Tutankhamun comes to town, you really have to make time to see him or, at least in this case, the artefacts found in his tomb. His mummified body is still located in its original resting place in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt, but barring flying to Egypt, this was the next best thing. 

There are some who in death achieve far greater fame and glory than during their lifetime. Tutankhamun, 13th pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom of Egypt, falls squarely into that category. 

British archaeologist Howard Carter made the discovery of the century in 1922 with the help of his financier and amateur Egyptologist Lord Carnarvon, by unearthing the tomb of Tutankhamun approximately 3,300 years after the death of the pharaoh. 

As if that were not enough, stories soon started to circulate of a mysterious curse that befell anyone who disturbed the pharaoh’s tomb. 

According to some accounts, Lord Carnarvon was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito and died of blood poisoning only a few months after the opening of the tomb. In the moment he died, all the lights were said to have gone out in Cairo. 

It also transpired that Tutankhamun carried the scars of a bite on the same cheek. 

Then there was Aaron Ember, an American Egyptologist who was also present at the opening. He died along with his family in a fire at his home trying to retrieve his manuscript titled “The Egyptian Book of the Dead.” 

Another victim of the mummy’s curse was Egyptologist James Henry Breasted who was with Carter during the discovery of the tomb. He returned home soon after to find that his pet canary had been eaten by a cobra and said snake was still in the cage. 

The cobra was a symbol of the Egyptian monarchy, further fuelling the already overactive imaginations of the media and the people. 

And thus, a historical rockstar was born. A young boy who became pharaoh at the age of nine, had an unremarkable reign of nine years and then died aged 18, became the most famous pharaoh of all time.

Interestingly, Tutankhamun’s father, the pharaoh Akhenaten, was a far more controversial character. Akhenaten went against the traditional Egyptian religion of polytheism and tried to impose the worship of a single god named Aten (an aspect of the sun god Ra). 

When he died, Tutankhamun abandoned his father’s religion which had been rejected by both the priesthood and the people and reverted to the old ways. He actually changed his name from Tutankhaten to the name we know him by -- Tutankhamun (by worshipping the god Amun thought to be the king of the gods).

Having been fascinated from an early age by King Tut, the Boy King, I made my way on a cold and crisp evening to the Tutankhamun Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London. 

Apparently, I wasn’t the only Tutankhamun fangirl -- prior to coming to London, the exhibition attracted over 1.4 million visitors in France, making it their most popular exhibition of all time. 

Before heading in to see the actual artefacts retrieved from the tomb, the first port of call was a virtual reality simulator which allowed us an immersive experience, journeying through Tutankhamun’s tomb as it was found in 1922. 

There was something humbling about walking, albeit virtually, through the corridor into the antechamber, the annex, the treasury, and of course, the burial chamber of the sleeping pharaoh. 

Thousands of years may have passed by, but time seemed to have stood still. A cornucopia of objects filled the rooms starting from his chariot to wall paintings, religious items, cooking utensils, statues, jewellery, weapons, to even his walking sticks -- items used during his lifetime and those that he would need in the afterlife. 

What was notable was that unlike the majority of tombs of other pharaohs discovered previously, Tutankhamun’s was the first to be found almost intact and undisturbed. 

Compared to other royal tombs, this was also smaller and far less ostentatious than most. 

Speculation has it that Tutankhamun’s vizier and successor Ay, who was already elderly, made a cunning swap burying the young pharaoh in the tomb meant for himself and keeping the far more opulent tomb near that of Amenhotep III (grandfather to King Tut) where he was subsequently buried. 

Had he not, I might have been writing about the Ay Exhibition instead.

Having seen many of the artefacts in virtual reality, it was immensely gratifying to stand a few inches away from the real thing. 150 items were on display, 60 of which had travelled from Egypt for the first and last time. 

What was particularly striking were the gold statues depicting Tutankhamun. There was a softness to the figures, making the pharaoh almost effeminate, including one where he appears to have breasts. We put it down to the aesthetics of the time. 

As the real Tutankhamun was said to suffer from scoliosis, have a clubfoot, and walk with a limp, we thought it likely that this was meant to be an idealized representation. 

However, digging a little deeper, it appears that British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves has an altogether more interesting theory. He claims that most of the burial items in the tomb were made for Tutankhamun’s step-mother and chief wife to Akhenaten, Nefertiti. 

He asserts that the famous death mask attributed to Tutankhamun was originally Nefertiti’s and the hieroglyphics show that his name was inscribed over an earlier name -- that of his step-mother’s full official name when she was co-pharaoh with Akhenaten. 

Reeves also suggests that Nefertiti’s as yet undiscovered tomb might actually be in a hidden chamber within Tutankhamun’s burial complex.

There are many who are sceptical about the existence of the hidden tomb of Nefertiti but I, for one, would like to believe that Tutankhamun still has much more to offer. 

Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.

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