King Tutankhamen

Call me superstitious...

I believe that he should be left untouched.

Those grounds are sacred.

As if anyone seems to understand what that means in these days.

By Daniel Williams | Associated Press
February 23, 2005

LUXOR, Egypt _ Somber workers in turbans pulled the mummy of King Tutankhamen out of its tomb in the Valley of the Kings last month and carried it outdoors for the first time in 70 years. Suddenly, gusts of wind swept dust up through the canyon. The high-tech machinery put in place to probe Tut's 3,000-year-old remains broke down.

There he goes again _ yet another event in a long string of weird happenings that have made Tutankhamen the most storied of mummies. He is the boy king who died young in a tumultuous period of ancient Egyptian history. By luck, his tomb lay undisturbed for millenniums and stored a collection of marvels: gold masks, jewelry, alabaster vases for his preserved organs, sarcophagi within sarcophagi, graceful statuary of gods and animals alike, and furniture.

And he's at least as notorious for his association with the Mummy's Curse, the stuff of Gothic novels and mummy movies for almost 200 years. You know how it goes: "Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the king" and other such No Trespassing signs on pharaonic tombs.

For Zahi Hawass, who heads Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities, the ill wind and machinery meltdown were a godsend.

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"A little publicity is a good thing," says Hawass. "Tutankhamen, along with the Sphinx and the pyramids, is an icon in Egypt. The more news he makes, the better for tourism, for antiquities and for Egypt."

Such words may seem odd coming from the gatekeeper for scientific exploration among Egypt's vast store of ancient treasures. They represent a new, and controversial, view of the value and uses of Egypt's pharaonic past: It's time to cash in.

"Tutankhamen has magic and mystery," Hawass says. "Every child in the whole world knows his name. Egypt used to send the relics around for free. No more. There are no free lunches."

The traveling exhibit of King Tut artifacts and related relics is netting Egypt $50 million in proceeds, Hawass says. It opened in Basel, Switzerland, is currently in Bonn, Germany, then this summer moves to Los Angeles. Also on the schedule are Chicago; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Philadelphia.

In advance of the Los Angeles opening, the National Geographic Society, one of the sponsors of the U.S. tour, plans to air a TV documentary in May and June on the National Geographic Channel. It's called "Pharaoh's Curse," and includes the Valley of the Kings mishap, which occurred Jan. 5.

Fine, say critics, but does Tut need to be trotted out like an aging movie star for promotional reasons? Shouldn't scientists first do all requisite inspections to test his state of decay? Archaeologists last inspected Tut in 1978, inside the tomb several feet below the desert sands and rock.

Detailed still photos, DNA smears or other hands-on inspections weren't done, complains Saleh Bedeir, who resigned from the Supreme Council's scientific team when it was decided to bring out Tut. "This was just show business. It has nothing to do with science," Bedeir says.

Terry Garcia, an executive vice president of the National Geographic Society, insists that bringing out Tut has research value, that new technology will bring new discoveries. "We are entering an age of the greatest period of exploration," he says. "Our mission is to increase research and diffuse knowledge. Television communicates knowledge on a large scale. There's no question that Tut is the best-known mummy, at least in the public mind, and he will attract a lot of attention."


It's tempting to regard the flap as a purely contemporary battle between science and marketing. In fact, money, fame, prestige and a bit of hucksterism have long competed with serious archaeological research in Egypt. European explorers and their patrons, the 19th-century pioneers of modern Egyptian digs, combined greed and self-aggrandizement in equal measure. They sold off vast quantities of artifacts to museums in Europe while carefully nurturing images as intrepid adventurers.

In 1922, Howard Carter, the English discoverer of Tut's tomb, gave exclusive rights to London's Times newspaper for coverage of the tomb's opening, to the outraged complaints of Egyptian newspapers. As Carter broke in, he exclaimed, "I can see wonderful things." Then, over several years of excavation, he proceeded to smash Tut's body while prying off his famous golden mask, amulets and jewelry. Carter's patron had planned to take some of the treasure himself, but authorities of newly quasi-independent Egypt thwarted his ambitions.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was almost impossible to hold a world's fair without a display of either real or ersatz pieces of Egyptian relics. Queen Victoria had her name inscribed in hieroglyphics at one such pavilion inside an 1854 exposition. Self-styled professors held "mummy unwrappings" in Europe and the United States in which they exposed mummies to public view.

French dramatist Jean Cocteau justified pleasure at macabre museum viewings on the grounds that the pharaohs wanted it that way. "They did not hide themselves in order to disappear, but in order to await the cue for their entry on stage," he wrote. "They have not been dragged from the tomb. They have been brought from the limbo of the wings with masks and gloves made of gold."

Legends fed the mummy mania. Early mummy-comes-to-life stories surfaced in ancient Egypt itself. In one, a high priest named Khamwas pilfered a sacred book that was defended by a live mummy. Mummy novels became popular in the 19th century, when Europeans poured into Egypt to scavenge tombs. "The Jewel of the Seven Stars," a novel by Bram Stoker, creator of "Dracula," involved a mummy queen who tries to possess a scientist's daughter.

The 1932 Universal Pictures production of "The Mummy," starring Boris Karloff, solidified America's affair with pharaohs. It's the story of a necrophiliac mummy who thinks his girlfriend, dead already for 3,000 years, is reincarnated in the form of a slinky 20th-century Cairo woman. He tries to mummify her so they can live wrapped in each other's linen strips happily ever after.

Many of the tall tales involve the Curse. That's where King Tut comes in.

After Carter discovered the tomb, a viper ate his canary. It was a bad omen, his Egyptian workers said. Then Carter's sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, died of an infected mosquito bite. Supposedly, Carnarvon's dog in London also keeled over. From then on, anyone connected with Carter or Carnarvon and who died was somehow declared a victim of the Curse. More recently, the head of Egyptian antiquities was fatally hit by a car in central Cairo in 1977 after signing a contract to let 70 Tutankhamen artifacts travel to Great Britain. Hmmm.

So on Jan. 5, when Tut was hauled out in a plain wooden box and the wind blew, everyone gasped. "It was strange," a guard at the tomb said recently. "It had been so calm just a minute before. Strange. Please don't write my name. I don't like to talk about this."

"There are lots of strange coincidences around Tut," says filmmaker Brando Quilici, who is producing the National Geographic Channel's planned two-hour documentary. "Maybe we can get to the bottom of some of them."

National Geographic has contributed $1 million to the Egyptian Mummy Project, in which the Supreme Council will probe scores of mummies to understand ancient Egyptian eating habits, diseases and perhaps the cause of death. Siemens, the German communications and technology company, donated the scanning equipment and reportedly provided a half-million dollars to maintain it.

Hawass' scientific team is inspecting the 1,700 images taken of Tut. The scanner produces three-dimensional pictures and can pick up minute scars and fractures that regular X-rays cannot. Hawass originally proposed to transfer Tut to Cairo for the examination, but Luxor citizens objected. They were afraid he would never return, Hawass says. "He is their king," he says, sighing.

Coming soon: Hawass exposes the cause of Tut's death. "The scan will tell us everything we need to know about Tutankhamen. We can go inside the mummy. I will tell you who killed him. I will tell you in March! Call me," he says.

Gaballa Ali Gaballa, a former director general of the Supreme Council, thinks Hawass may be optimistic. Tut's body has already been much abused and the use of a scan is less valuable on it than on other, better preserved mummies. Carter left Tut broken into pieces. Bits of fingers were scattered in the coffin. Only the head itself is largely intact.

"Tut's not a mummy," says Gaballa. "He's a mess."