Christina Riggs is an expert on the history of the Tutankhamun excavation whose most recent book is Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century. She is professor of the History of Visual Culture at Durham University.
Tutankhamun only wanted one afterlife. The teenage pharaoh’s funeral rites were meant to guarantee his eternal cycle of rebirth among the gods – not the eternal cycle of media coverage that awaited him instead. With the centenary of his tomb’s discovery set to make news again this year, will we ever get tired of King Tut?
Probably not, but the reasons for his perennial appeal have more to do with modern history than with his short-lived reign about 3,350 years ago. Tutankhamun has found more fame and influence as a cultural icon than he’d ever wielded as a king. In fact, the world hit Peak Tutankhamun not in the Jazz Age but in the Cold War era, when his treasures toured Western Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union and North America. (Toronto is one of three cities, alongside Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., to have hosted a Tutankhamun exhibition three times.) Events to mark the 2022 anniversary will try to recapture that past magic, but amid the hype, it’s worth asking who benefits – and whose histories the Tutankhamun industry has failed to tell.
When the discovery of his tomb hit the headlines in November, 1922, it was a reawakening no ancient Egyptian could have foreseen. The tomb was the first complete royal burial found in Egypt, but its discovery followed a storyline familiar from Victorian adventure tales of mysterious mummies and rugged archaeologists.
What had changed was the political landscape. Earlier that year, Egypt won partial independence from Britain, which had been in control since invading in 1882. But excavator Howard Carter and his patron, the Earl of Carnarvon, were old-school imperialists. They expected archeology to carry on as it always had, with a share of the tomb’s treasures left to them. Lord Carnarvon even sold exclusive media rights to the Times in London, as if they were his to bestow.
Egypt had antiquities protection laws long before Britain and other European countries did, yet most foreign archeologists, like Carter, assumed Egyptians didn’t care about the country’s ancient past – and were incapable of looking after it. How wrong they were. Tutankhamun became a symbol of Egypt’s reawakening. Poets wrote odes to him, politicians visited the tomb and schoolchildren staged plays in honour of the boy-king.
Angered by what he saw as the Egyptian government’s excessive monitoring of his work, Carter quit, returning only in 1925 when tempers – and media interest – had cooled. In all, it took 10 years for his team (including Egyptian experts) to clear the tomb and conserve the 6,000 or so objects found inside. In lieu of giving Carter and the Carnarvon family any of those antiquities, which by law were state property, Egypt reimbursed Lord Carnarvon’s widow (he died in 1923, sparking rumours of a curse) for the excavation expenses she had paid. The gilded furniture, luxurious jewellery, astonishing carved sculptures and, of course, the gold mask took pride of place in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, while Tutankhamun’s body stayed in the tomb, concealed inside a coffin and his stone sarcophagus.
Tutankhamun’s second round of resting in peace turned out shorter than his first. When the 1952 revolution brought Egypt full independence, it embarked on the construction of a hydroelectric dam at Aswan to power the country’s development. Realizing that the dam’s reservoir would flood a dozen ancient temples and other archaeological sites, Egypt turned to UNESCO for help to save them. In 1960, UNESCO launched its International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia – the region straddling southern Egypt and northern Sudan, which had been the source of Tutankhamun’s gold. To raise awareness, Egypt sent a small selection of Tutankhamun artefacts on a tour of the United States, stopping in Canada and the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Every museum that hosted Tutankhamun was overwhelmed by the response.
A tour of Japan in 1965-66 saw the gold mask leave Egypt for the first time, welcomed by Crown Prince Akihito and three million visitors, raising US$1-million for UNESCO. In 1967, Tutankhamun met similar success in Paris. But the Six-Day War that summer, when Israel defeated an Egyptian-led coalition, made the pharaoh’s work as cultural ambassador harder. Only in 1972 did Tutankhamun finally find his way to London – the home that Carter and Lord Carnarvon had once imagined for him. Queues snaked through the streets around the British Museum, which hosted a record 1.6 million visitors during the exhibition’s nine-month run and donated £600,000 to the UNESCO campaign. Next stop: the Soviet Union, since Egypt had managed to avoid taking sides in the Cold War.
By the time Tutankhamun returned to North America in the late 1970s, however, the United States had wooed Egypt with diplomacy and military aid, eager for an Arab ally in the Middle East after the 1973-74 oil crisis. This tour was Egypt’s goodwill gesture to its new friend and a birthday gift for America’s 1976 Bicentennial. UNESCO had no more temples left to save, so all the profits went to the host museums instead, with a fraction sent to Egypt. Cash registers rang in gift shops that were almost as big as the galleries of art.
It was the birth of the blockbuster at a time when international travel was still a luxury and museums were feeling the financial pinch. Like a stadium rock star, Tutankhamun dominated t-shirts and television schedules. He even had a Billboard No. 1, thanks to comedian Steve Martin’s satirical song in his honour. King Tut lampooned the commercialism of the exhibitions, but it ended with Mr. Martin offering an electric blender to the pharaonic sax player who emerged from a “coffin” on the Saturday Night Live stage.
After another Toronto visit in 1979, Tutankhamun’s treasures made their way to West Germany. In Berlin, accidental damage to one of the gilded wooden sculptures brought home how fragile the antiquities were, and in 1981, Egypt declared a halt to further touring.
Never say never, where Tutankhamun is concerned. When tourism plummeted after 9/11, Egypt’s enterprising head of antiquities, Zahi Hawass, struck a lucrative deal with an American entertainment company. A new generation of Tutankhamun tours – bigger and glitzier than ever – took Tutankhamun around the world again. At the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, more than 150 tomb objects were stranded at the Saatchi Gallery in London until Egypt could arrange their return. It was just in time, since the tour’s legality had been challenged in Egypt on the grounds that the ministry of antiquities should not have entrusted the artefacts to a commercial outfit.
Egypt has had bigger worries in recent years, since the 2013 coup that put General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in power crushed the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring. Economic reforms dictated by an IMF loan have contributed to crippling cost of living rises, while military rule, marked by human rights abuses and corruption, grips even tighter. Desperate to bring back lucrative tourism income and hit by COVID-19, Gen. el-Sisi’s government has combined the ministries of antiquities and tourism. If Tutankhamun can no longer go to his fans outside of Egypt, he will have to bring them to him – somehow.
But in a world of social media, virtual reality and digital access (or excess), what does Tutankhamun have to offer on his never-ending journey through the news cycle? Egypt is pinning its hopes on the Grand Egyptian Museum, or GEM, which has been rising in the desert near the pyramids for nearly two decades. Underwritten by Japanese investment, its cost is nearing US$1.5-billion in a country where a third of the population lives below the poverty line. A vast suite of galleries aims to exhibit every single object from Tutankhamun’s tomb, apart from the stone sarcophagus and his remains.
We can expect Egypt to host a grand museum opening and a pharaonic-style parade for Tutankhamun at some point this year, while Western news media and TV schedules will fill up with the boy-king once again. After a century of hype about the “wonderful things,” the real wonder would be telling the story of Tutankhamun’s tomb with greater accuracy and an awareness of how the past and present shape each other. Maybe then this ancient king, who died too young, can have the afterlife he always wanted.
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