He died more than three thousand years ago, but King Tutankhamen is still drawing crowds. The golden and jewelled objects removed from the boy-king's tomb by Howard Carter in 1922 have fascinated the world from the moment they first saw the light of day.
The newest exhibit, called King Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, opened last Saturday at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and runs until Sept. 30. More than 10,000 fans of the boy pharaoh came on opening weekend to see the spectacular trappings of his reign.
What draws us to these funereal artifacts? Jill Fergus, a visitor from New York, waxed philosophical at the opening of the show opening. "The ancient Egyptians went to all this expense and trouble to obtain eternal life, and then they turned to dust anyway. But it is something we would all do if we really believed it would work."
And in a way, the Egyptians attained a kind of immortality -- their bodies are long gone, but the artifacts that were buried with them and remained undisturbed by early tomb robbers have ensured they will never be forgotten.
An exhibit of the King Tut artifacts at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto more than 30 years ago was the first real museum blockbuster in Canada. People stood in line for hours to glimpse the splendour of the king's golden funeral mask. While the famous mask is not in this exhibit -- it is now too fragile to travel -- there are 130 objects in this new show, only 11 of which were in the earlier exhibit.
More than 425,000 advance tickets, timed and dated for this exhibit, have already been sold and the organizers are predicting that the Philly stop will top one million in attendance. This is the last North American venue for the exhibit, which travels next to London before returning home to Egypt. For Canadians, the Philadelphia show is the most accessible.
Organizers of the exhibition have designed the presentation to be easier to view. Explanatory signage is displayed at the bottom of each object, and duplicated higher up so that visitors can read them even if they are one or two rows back from the installation. Most of the objects are in glass cases that can be viewed from 360 degrees for intimate examination. Music, subtle lighting and surprisingly spacious display areas are the result of exhibit designer Mark Lach's effective integration of the show with the configuration of the Franklin Institute. It is an accessible and comfortable space in which to view the treasures of a lost civilization. Actor Omar Sharif narrates the audio guide.
The story arc of the exhibition draws you along, from the first rooms that display artifacts from Tut's predecessors to the last rooms that display the objects from Tut's tomb.
For sheer drama, the large sarcophagus of Tut's grandmother, Tjuya, is remarkable. The piece is massive, two metres long and covered with reddish gold. A large white-stone sculpture of the head of Amenhotep IV, Tut's father, is equally impressive, but the real pleasure of this exhibit lies in the smaller, more intimate objects found in Tut's tomb. They bring the young man and his family to life.
The child-sized chair and footstool, inlaid and perfectly preserved, that was presumed to have been used by a very young Tut is a poignant reminder that he was thrust into kingship at an early age. Crowned at 9 or 10, he ruled for only a decade. A game board, carved from a solid piece of ivory, has moveable pieces and an incised surface that could be confused with a modern game board. An alabaster jar, carved with hunting scenes and topped with a recumbent lion representing the king, rests on the bodies of the king's enemies, whose heads protrude from under the jar. It still held the remnants of a cosmetic ointment when it was unearthed.
An ornately detailed golden canopic coffinette is one of four vessels for the mummified internal organs of the king. This one originally held his liver. It is solid gold inlaid with carnelian, obsidian, rock crystal and glass, and its image has been used on most of the posters for the exhibit.
The golden funereal head that protected the fetus of a female child, one of two found buried in the tomb, suggests tragedy in the life of Tut and his wife, who was also his half-sister. And the mystery of Tut's death adds a compelling story line to these objects. Archeologists have long speculated on the cause of his death. An early X-ray that revealed a dark mass at the back of his skull suggested he died from a blow to his head. But new technologies have revealed that the dark mass was caused by the embalming process. A CT scan has revealed a broken leg, a break that occurred shortly before his death, and could have resulted in an infection that led to his demise. A short National Geographic video about the mystery of Tut's death is on view in the last room of the exhibit.
While the Franklin Institute is a science museum, it is well suited to this exhibit. The steps at the front entrance have been transformed with a picture of Tut's funeral mask, and the imposing Benjamin Franklin statue in the rotunda provides dignified access to the exhibition. The institute's Imax theatre is screening Mysteries of Egypt as well as Mummies later this summer.
Here's a plan for a great visit to Pharonic Philly: Take an early-morning walk to the Water Works restaurant for brunch in their terrace dining room overlooking the Schuylkill River. Then stroll to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a Rocky Balboa run up the steps. Another short walk takes you to the Franklin Institute, where you can spend the afternoon with the pharaohs. Plan dinner at one of the many BYOB's in the city where you can bring your own bottle of wine with no corkage fee, and then retire to The Vault bar at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for a Tut-tini.
An experience fit for a pharaoh.
Pack your bags
Air Canada Jazz has a direct flight to Philadelphia. In Philly, the Tut Trolley is a shuttle service that takes visitors between the Independence Visitor Center, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Franklin Institute and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. It costs $2 (U.S.) a person.
Barbara Ramsay Orr travelled as a guest of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.
King Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs: Franklin Institute Science Museum; http://www.fieldmuseum.org/tut and http://www.kingtut.org/home. The exhibit runs until Sept 30. Individual tickets are available at 1-888-600-5888 or http://www.fi.edu.
WHERE TO STAY
King Tut Hotel Packages: Two untimed VIP tickets come with every booking at 15 different Philly hotels, beginning at about $223. For information, visit http://www.gophila.com/tut.
THINGS TO DO
Amarna, Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun: An exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology running through October is a perfect companion piece for the Franklin Institute show. For information, visit http://www.upenn.edu.
Rescue Rittenhouse Spa: 255 South 17th St., 215-772-2766, http://www.rescuerittenhousespa.com. The Rescue is offering a decadent Cleopatra Wrap, which uses milk and honey, rose water and rose petals.
WHERE TO EAT
Marigold Kitchen: 501 S. 45th St., 215-222-3699, http://www.marigoldkitchenbyob.com. MEMORABLE MOMENT
Entering the exhibit room that is constructed like a temple, complete with ornate columns.
The slatted seats on Tut's Trolley are hard on the tush.
For cool things to do in Philly from the people who really live here, visit http://www.uwishunu.com.