16 - 22 March 2000
Issue No. 473
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (329)
Egypt and the world were fascinated and awed by the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the boy-king who ruled for eight years only. The priceless treasures stacked up in the tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor -- called Thebes in ancient times -- were found intact. The discovery, made by a Briton and financed by a British peer, had numerous repercussions, good and bad. On the negative side, a controversy arose between Egyptians and Britons over whether some of the discovered treasures should be given to the British sponsor. On the positive side, the discovery helped make Egypt a major tourist destination and created a "Pharaonic craze" in Western countries. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the story from the pages of Al-Ahram
The stunning discovery
"The Magnificent Treasure," blazoned Al-Ahram in describing the breathtaking archaeological discovery that enthralled Egypt and the world in the winter of 1922-23 -- the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
The drama unfolds on Wednesday morning 29 November 1922 in the Valley of the Kings. Harold Carter, the famous British explorer, and Lord Carnarvon, the wealthy British aristocrat, stood at the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun. Also on hand were several senior British officials in Egypt, the representatives of the Egyptian Antiquities Department and a number of journalists. Among the latter was the correspondent of Al-Ahram, who described the "awesome moment" to the newspaper's readers:
"It was pleasantly warm. The sun was brilliant, not a cloud obscured the intensity of its glare. It was obvious that the entrance had been forced open thousands of years ago. Was it thieves who broke in and made off with every treasure worth stealing, destroying all else that was too heavy to move?
"Hearts tremored in anticipation. It was as though time had stood still, as though the waiting would never end. Then, when they opened a breach in the entrance, a gust of fetid air surged into the pure air around us like a breath that had been trapped in that tomb for thousands of years. But the asphyxiating gases kept no one back. Lamps were brought, and in the flickering light five persons stood at the entrance, a thrill coursing through their spines. They peered through and beheld an astounding treasure, unlike anything that had ever been seen. Those five persons were Lady Allenby, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert, Mr Howard Carter and Mr Calendar."
The l-Ahram correspondent entered the tomb along with the others to be even more astounded. The first object he saw was the ceremonial garb of King Tutankhamun, "who ruled Thebes from 1358 to 1350 BC." He goes on to relate, "These clothes were scattered across the floor. But there were so many other things -- a splendid gilded chest whose handles were carved to represent captive Asian soldiers, delicately carved beds and chairs, statues of various shapes and sizes, chariots inlaid with semi-precious stones. There were numerous funerary figurines more exquisite in their workmanship than any such figures discovered previously. There were innumerable boxes in which documents had been carefully folded in a manner suggesting that they were historical records and not religious papyri." Particularly impressive was "the marvellous throne of Tutankhamun, encrusted with priceless jewels too numerous to count. In the thrill of that moment, those present said that this throne is the most precious artistic artefact that has ever been discovered."
Before leaving this scene, the Al-Ahram correspondent furnishes more detail about the two principals in the drama. Howard Carter, he writes, "first started excavating in Thebes 33 years ago in the hopes of locating in every handful of sand the key to the ancient treasures." As for Lord Carnarvon, "he is one of Britain's most ardent advocates of public concerns and a munificent philanthropist ever keen to bring new knowledge to light." These two men "joined forces, with Lord Carnarvon providing most of the necessary funding and Mr Carter drawing on his extensive experience in Thebes and his vast expertise in Egyptian antiquities."
Other prominent figures witnessed the drama. These included Egyptian officials present: Abdel-Aziz Yahya Bek, Chief of the Qena Directorate, irrigation inspector Ibrahim Bek Rizq, Qena police commissioner Mohamed Bek Fahmi and, finally, precinct police chief Ali Effendi Fouad Daoud, responsible for the security of the site.
The spectacular discovery of Tutankhamun's treasures inevitably carried strong political overtones. Among the many competing foreign archaeological expeditions in Egypt -- from France, the US, Germany, Austria and the UK -- the British had been the least successful, that is until Carter discovered Tutankhamun's tomb. That it was the British who made this discovery was certain to generate even greater controversy than if it had been made by any of the other foreign teams. Although the event took place months after the Declaration of 28 February 1922 terminating the British protectorate and granting Egypt limited independence, the British influence over Egypt was still strong and Egyptian sensitivities towards the former occupying power were still acute.
True to the norm in the realm of archaeological discoveries, Carter and Carnarvon would seek to claim a portion of their findings for their country, and, as so often has been the case, their claims would trigger heated controversy.
Within two days of the magnificent revelation following the opening of the famous burial chamber, The London Times wrote, "According to the laws governing archaeological research and excavations in Egypt, the discovering party has the right to half the antiquities it finds. These laws had been in full and unstinting effect in the days of Monsieur Maspero. It is our hope that they remain equally in force as regards the discoveries that were made today and that the Director of the Egyptian Museum will emulate Maspero in his treatment of Lord Carnarvon. No labourer would be expected to work without pay. Yet, Lord Carnarvon worked 16 years without compensation, and, moreover, he spent out of his own pocket."
"Egypt's antiquities must remain in Egypt!" blazoned Al-Ahram in response to The Times. In this editorial, which appeared in its 8 December edition, it announced that the discovery was worth between LE8 and LE10 million, an astronomical figure by the standards of the time. It goes on to caution, "The government must undertake all necessary measures to prevent any attempts to misappropriate these antiquities." Referring to The Times' remarks regarding the laws governing archaeological findings, Al-Ahram counters that those laws apply only to antiquities that are not unique, which certainly was not the case with the findings in the Valley of the Kings. In all events, the application of those laws was out of the question because "the Egyptian government and Lord Carnarvon are bound by an agreement that all the artefacts in the tombs found to be in good condition shall remain the property of the Egyptian government." The writer goes on to exhort the Egyptian government to abide by that agreement and adds, "We have no doubt that it will not be influenced by the machinations of certain British journalists who are pressing their government to negotiate with Egypt over conceding a portion of these treasures to Lord Carnarvon on the grounds of the enormous expense and lengthy time and effort he dedicated to their discovery. Nor do we have any cause to doubt that Lord Carnarvon will be the first to honour the agreement he has struck with the Egyptian government."
Al-Ahram appealed to Lord Carnarvon's sense of honour by relating a story involving the director of the Egyptian Museum, Marriette Pasha, and Napoleon III. In 1866, the French emperor asked the Khedive Ismail for the antiquities that had been discovered up to that year. Marriette, although French himself, refused to hand over the antiquities, which he said were the property of Egypt. Then, "when the French government requested that the antiquities be sent to France for display in the 1866 exposition, Marriette only agreed after he secured a pledge from the French government that every item would be returned to Egypt. In acting in this manner, Marriette was by no means repudiating his loyalties to France, but rather he was a true scholar whose first allegiance was to knowledge. It was Marriette who established the principle that no unparalleled artifact should be permitted to leave Egypt."
Soon other bodies joined Al-Ahram's campaign to safeguard Egyptian antiquities. Many local organisations dispatched telegrams to the Egyptian government urging it not to give away the unearthed treasures. Moreover, The Daily Mail correspondent in Luxor covered another form of protest. He reports that a group of Egyptian women approached the tomb site and inquired about the purpose of the equipment located there. When they learned that the equipment was for packaging and removing artefacts, "they cried out against the removal of the ancient treasures that had been buried by Egypt's pharaohs." He goes on to relate that "these women said that Tutankhamun was one of their ancestors and that excavating for antiquities constituted a violation of the sanctity of the dead." More remarkable yet was the report of an Egyptian doctor who claimed that he was the owner of the antiquities in the tomb, that he possessed papyrus documents certifying that he was a descendant of the famous Pharaoh and that he would "take the government to court if it refused to recognise his rights."
Lord Carnavon with his daughter Evelyn, and Howard Carter (right), on the top step of the entrance to Tutankhamun's tomb
In order to pre-empt further protests, the Ministry of Public Works, under which the Antiquities Department fell, issued a statement to allay public fears over the fate of the antiquities. Appearing in Al-Ahram of 22 December, the statement said that, although it was true that under Egyptian law archaeologists had the right to half the artefacts they discovered, "since the ministry was aware of the archaeological importance of the Valley of the Kings and since it was anticipated that extremely valuable findings would be unearthed, it explicitly stated in the license given to Lord Carnarvon that he would not be entitled to any of the objects he discovered." It added, "Lord Carnarvon agreed to this condition in good faith, which is clear proof of his disinterest in material gain and his dedication to the service of knowledge and the arts."
Unfortunately, aTimes article published two weeks after the discovery would bring Carnarvon's purported altruism into question. The British newspaper announced that it had concluded an agreement with Carnarvon and Carter over "the publication and dissemination of all news and photographs concerning the tomb of Tutankhamun. According to this agreement, The Times will have full rights to all news reports, articles, interviews and photographs, and Lord Carnarvon and the other members of his team have pledged not to give news, articles or photographs to any other newspaper. The newspaper and Lord Carnarvon will take every precaution to prevent any infringement of this agreement."
Naturally, the other British newspapers were the first to rebel against The Times agreement with Carnarvon. The Daily Express charged that Carnarvon and Carter were acting as though their discoveries were their personal property. The Daily Herald wrote, "The widespread practices of trade are now being applied to the dissemination of knowledge about the antiquities in the Valley of the Kings. Poor Tutankhamun who died in the distant past has been made into a monopoly now that they closed off the Valley of the Kings in order to prevent anyone from setting eyes on those priceless treasures except Lord Carnarvon and his team, and the representatives of only a single newspaper." The newspaper goes on to say, "Now, if a newspaper wants to inform its readers about the discovery, it has to pay £500 to The Times in order to obtain a copy of a photograph or anything else. Research and exploration into Tutankhamun has thus been transformed into an ordinary commercial activity."
The speculation spawned by The Times' agreement with Carnarvon prompted an Egyptian journalist, Mahmoud Abul-Fat'h, to conduct an interview with Carnarvon. In the interview, published in Al-Ahram on 27 January 1923, Carnarvon stressed that his agreement with The Times would not prejudice the interests of the Egyptian press. He went on to explain that he had brought Sir Harry Robinson with him to Egypt in order to personally ensure that all news items were sent to The Times and distributed to the Egyptian newspapers simultaneously.
Confronted with the commotion in the Egyptian press over the agreement, the Egyptian Press and Publications Authority was forced to issue a statement in order to appease all parties. It announced that the Egyptian authorities were determined to remain absolutely impartial with regard to the demands of foreign and Egyptian correspondents and that it would issue instructions to the Director of the Antiquities Department to give journalists all the publishable information they request.
Evidently, it would take more than official pronouncements to convince Carnarvon to give others access to the site. The Daily Express correspondent in Luxor wrote, "The city is a battlefield. Carnarvon has been so adamant in his refusal to allow British journalists and Egyptian archaeologists to enter the site that the Egyptian government was forced to take matters into its own hands and invite those people in against the Lord's will."
The thirst of the foreign newspapers for all possible news about the "magnificent treasure" was understandable. As had occurred after the unearthing of Egyptian antiquities in the past, the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb ignited a "Pharaonic craze" in the West. Newspapers thrived on such fads. In another scene of the Tutankhamun drama, Al-Ahram relates to its readers the popular reaction abroad. From across the Atlantic it cites The New York Times which wrote, "In private homes, hotels, trains, parks the talk is of nothing else but that great Pharaoh, his unearthed treasures and the invaluable information that this magnificent historic discovery will yield. People of varying degrees of interest are fascinated to hear the opinion that Tutankhamun was the Egyptian king whose armies were ditched in the Red Sea while in pursuit of the children of Israel."
The New York Times also reported that newspapers throughout the country had allocated considerable space on their pages to news of the discovery. "Journalists are scrambling to get interviews and statements from everyone who claims some knowledge of Egyptian antiquities," it wrote. "What is amazing is that the photographs transmitted by the newspapers to the American reader are having an immediate impact on fashion and the arts. The ancient Egyptian departments in the nation's historical museums are packed with clothes designers, jewellery makers and even hairdressers to brace themselves for the forthcoming fashion revolution, and ceramics manufactures are engraving images of Egyptian antiquities on their wares. As a result, the name of Egypt is literally becoming a household word."
The 20th century media and movies would play an important part in captivating audiences with the wonders of the ancient world. Under the headline "The Marvels of Luxor in the London Cinema", a British newspaper announced that a British society had recently come out with a film on the discoveries of Tutankhamun. Evidently, the photographer had been able to circumvent all the precautions Carnarvon had taken in order to prevent outsiders from photographing his find by concealing his camera beneath his jacket.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, Luxor suddenly soared to the forefront of tourist destinations around the world, bringing a steady train of international royalty and dignitaries. Typical of this phenomenon was the visit of Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, who brought with her Crown Prince Leopold and an entourage of eight people. The Belgian court arrived in Luxor on 17 February, where "they were received on behalf of the government by His Excellency Abdel-Hamid Pasha Suleiman, and then by Lord Carnarvon and Lord and Lady Allenby. The queen then proceeded in advance of her entourage towards the tomb to the accompaniment of a musical salute by a band from the National Guard. After viewing the site, the Queen expressed her gratitude and praise to Lord Carnarvon and returned to the city of Luxor." Sultana Malak, the wife of the late Sultan Hussein Kamel, arrived in Luxor the same day, accompanied by the director of the Antiquities Department, the American consul and his wife, Lord and Lady Allenby and a number of officials from the British high commissioner's office.
However, the craze for the Pharaohs would take on other manifestations. According to an American news report, the daughter of the illustrious American millionaire, Rockefeller, announced that in a former life she had been King Tut's first wife and that she had married him at the age of 16. She told reporters, "While I was watching a newsreel, I saw a chair being brought out from the chamber of King Tut and I immediately recognised the chair I used to sit on many times!"
Such a story would not escape Egyptian wit. One government employee, Mohamed Emad, wrote to Al-Ahram to testify to the truth of Rockefeller's daughter's claim. Under the headline, "I am King Tut", he wrote, "I married that young woman 3,000 years ago after having fallen in love with her one day as I was sailing down the Nile on my beautiful royal boat and espied her with a bowl, scooping up the river's sweet water. This is only one of my memories of my marriage to that woman who is so wealthy today and was so poor of yore. Of course, I am sure she shares these same memories!"
The final scene in the drama of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun ends on a tragic note. Weeks after first entering the burial chamber of the famous Pharaoh, Lord Carnarvon succumbed to a severe illness, the causes of which defied diagnosis. The inability of his physicians to diagnose his illness immediately gave rise to the notorious myth of the "curse of the Pharaohs." Commenting on this phenomenon, The Daily Express wrote that "many people attribute Lord Carnarvon's illness to King Tut. They say that the long-dead king had used a mosquito to poison his enemies." The Cairo correspondent of the British newspaper added that Egyptian archaeologists were cautioning women against wearing necklaces made from beads taken from ancient Egyptian tombs.
Another newspaper featured a letter signed by the famous novelist Mary Corelli, who claimed that she had warned Carnarvon against the dangers of violating the sanctity of the final resting place of the Egyptian king, over which stood a special sacred guard. She added that she also had a rare book on the history of the Egyptian pyramids, translated from the Arabic original in the age of King Louis XVI, which warned that whoever broke the seal on a Pharaoh's tomb would be severely punished. The British novelist's opinion was corroborated by a noted French expert on the supernatural who wrote that Lord Carnarvon's illness was caused by the spirit of King Tut, which wanted to take revenge for the violation of the sanctity of his tomb.
Lord Carnarvon was flown back to London on a private plane, attended by his wife and the noted British physician, George Snide. However, all efforts failed to save the man's life and he died on 4 April 1923, 17 weeks after he entered the young Pharaoh's tomb. Carnarvon's sudden and mysterious death provoked terror among collectors of Egyptian antiquities, who, according to The Daily Express, sent off all their precious possessions to various British museums, "in order to escape the vengeance of the spirit of King Tut who killed Lord Carnarvon."
Many people attempted to dispel such irrational fears. Among them were Lord Carnarvon's friends who said that "the claim that Carnarvon died by magical powers is a dangerous myth because it spreads superstitious beliefs." They asked, "Is it at all credible that God Almighty would allow for a Pharaoh, a human being distinguishable from the rest of us only by a crown on his head, to kill people through some magical power thousands of years after he died?"
Al-Ahram would have the final word on this issue, at least as the story of the opening of King Tut's grave drew to a close on its pages. With its tongue firmly in cheek, it asked its readers, "Why should Tutankhamun use a lowly mosquito to do his bidding when he had all the gods of the underworld at his beck and call?"
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.