This year has been the half-century anniversary of a lot of things. I recently wrote about the 50th anniversary of The Godfather, but the significance of this cultural event wouldn’t become important to me until much later in life. More crucial to my world when I was eight years old was the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit, opened at the British Museum by the late Queen Elizabeth II (I am still amazed to find myself typing those words) on March 29, 1972.
Treasures of Tutankhamun was the most popular exhibit in the British Museum’s history, and it would travel across the globe, moving on to museums in the Soviet Union and the United States before arriving at the Art Gallery of Ontario near the end of 1979. Blockbuster traveling museum exhibits used to be a major feature of our cultural life, inspiring countless books and magazine articles, miles of column inches in newspapers and waves of pop culture trends. (The most salient pop Tut moment remains comedian Steve Martin’s hit single “King Tut,” released during the Tutankhamun show’s three-year tour of America.)
The exhibit triggered a new wave of public fascination with ancient Egypt, and channeled my own childhood obsession with history into Egyptology, a passion that burned hot for several years, though by the time Treasures of Tutankhamun finally arrived in Toronto, I had moved on to more conventional obsessions with pop music. In the time it took for the show to travel across the Atlantic and cross the border, I learned and forgot more about pharaohs, pyramids, and the funerary rites of a vanished civilization than I care to think about.
An ancient, powerful civilization that thrived for more than three millennia, Egypt fascinated the world before it collapsed under successive waves of Persian, Greek, and Roman invasions. The Phoenicians were the first to counterfeit Egyptian artifacts for sale, beginning a history of fakes that continues to this day.
Egypt crazes have a long lineage, but they really begin in modern times with Napoleon’s invasion of the country at the turn of the 19th century, and continued to ebb and flow in subsequent decades, the most abiding relics of which range from the Washington Monument to tombs featuring pyramids, sphinxes, and sloped temple walls, which I’ve seen in cemeteries from London to Toronto to New Orleans.
The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in late 1922, by archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, set another revival of the Egyptian craze in motion. The pharaoh unearthed in this cramped underground complex in the Valley of the Kings was a short-lived, minor “boy king,” nowhere near as important as his presumed father, the iconoclast Akhenaten, or mighty Rameses II, his later successor as ruler.
What made Tutankhamun crucial to the history of ancient Egypt was the fact that his tomb was that rarest of things – nearly undisturbed, spared from the robbers that had begun ransacking the burial places of every significant pharaoh, noble, courtier, or notable from the moment they were laid to rest, thousands of years ago.
What Carter unearthed was a treasure trove of authentic objects, excavated methodically, that gave us unprecedented insight into Egypt at the height of its New Kingdom power and wealth. Most iconic among Carter’s discoveries was the gold funerary mask of the young king, an enigmatic and priceless sculptural portrait that, along with the renowned painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten (an object of undeniable beauty, dogged by allegations of fakery and disputes over ownership) comprise our image of the ideal of Egyptian beauty.
No small part of the appeal of ancient Egypt is its deep, abiding strangeness. Greece and Rome are recognizable roots of western culture, with ideals and buildings and governments whose concepts and shapes persist to our day. But the Egypt of the pharaohs appears more alien the longer you ponder it, from the pyramids – so monumental in scale and so stark in form – to their concept of the afterlife as a detailed landscape to be traversed, a place populated by nightmarish pagan gods; bizarre human-animal hybrids employed in a divine bureaucratic machinery overseeing everything from the weighing of souls to the renewal of the seasons and the rise of each day’s sun.
The Greeks and Romans were fascinated by Egypt’s wealth and power, even as they brought its ragged remnants to an end; the Romans began the custom of decorating their cities with purloined Egyptian obelisks, which can be found today in Poland, Lebanon, Florence, London, Istanbul and New York City. The modern mind takes on a more awestruck attitude, regarding every relic and ruin with bafflement that abides even as we’ve learned more about the civilization that created them. Indeed, a small but avid part of today’s popular fascination with ancient Egypt is speculation that it was the beneficiary of an advanced prehistoric culture lost to time, perhaps even touched by alien visitors.
Ancient Egypt was justifiably mysterious for centuries after the last scribe who could read its hieroglyphic alphabet died in the 5th century. It wasn’t until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1799 and its deciphering in the 1820s that we were finally able to read the inscriptions covering the walls of Egypt’s ruins and tombs, and discover a very pragmatic society obsessed with crops, trade, and logistics. Before that, the common person’s whole idea of Egypt and its pharaoh came from its role as setting and antagonist in the five books of Moses, which would persist at least until Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of his 1923 film The Ten Commandments.
But this would take time, and the misperceptions and myths about Egypt that had taken hold over previous centuries continued to grow. When Carter’s patron, Lord Carnarvon, died of blood poisoning from an infected mosquito bite just two months after the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the global media machine that had descended on the excavation was quick to share stories of a “mummy’s curse” that befell anyone who disturbed a pharaoh’s eternal rest. (Ancient belief in such curses seems to have been dubious when you consider that tomb robbers began their work in earnest when arrest and execution for royal graverobbing was a more certain punishment than supernatural vengeance.)
Stories of a mummy’s curse date back to the beginning of the modern Egypt craze, and an early science fiction novel by an obscure author, Jane Loudon Webb, called The Mummy. Louisa May Alcott would write a short story on the theme called “Lost in a Pyramid” in 1869. And the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a devotee of spiritualism and very far from the paragon of logic that was his creation, publicly stated that he “didn’t say that some Egyptian spirit did kill Carnarvon, but I think it is possible. There are many malevolent spirits.” The myth would live on in countless horror movies beginning with The Mummy (1932).
Egypt’s fascination with death and rebirth, and the (to modern eyes) macabre theology overseen by its priests and the pharaoh – a chief priest as much as a king – was the basis for a centuries-old popular belief that Egypt was an empire in thrall to magic and the supernatural. This would inspire the liberal borrowing of Egyptian symbols and theatrical echoes of its rituals by Freemasons, for instance.
In her book The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy, science journalist Jo Marchant tells the story of just one of the many misperceptions about Egypt and its mummies. It was long believed that bitumen was a major component in the dark resin that coated mummified bodies, going back to Greek, Roman, and Arab authors. (Alfred Lucas, a chemist who was part of Carter’s team, did tests on the substance liberally coating Tut’s mummy and determined that it was actually made of plant-based materials like juniper resin, gum, and wood pitch.) Indeed, the word mummy is derived from the Latin word mumia, itself derived from the Persian müm, for bitumen.
It was believed in ancient times that bitumen was a drug that could cure everything from epilepsy to tuberculosis, and as Marchant describes in her book, the confusion of mummies with mumia in the 16th and 17th centuries “led to a bizarre cannibalistic craze for consuming them for medicinal purposes, and ground mummy became a popular item in apothecaries’ shops in Europe. Dealers even started faking mummies, drying out corpses exhumed from local cemeteries, to try to meet demand. Lucas’ work finally revealed that aside from being highly unethical (not to mention unpalatable), the entire mumia craze was built on a misconception. Not that this put everyone off, though. As late as the 1970s, there was still reportedly a New York pharmacy, catering to witches, selling powdered Egyptian mummy for forty dollars an ounce.”
Despite decades of serious research and Egyptology’s high public profile, nearly all the myths and misperceptions about Tut specifically and ancient Egypt in general persist, much like the magical, medicinal, and homeopathic qualities of mumia. It’s not so shocking when you remember that the modern Egypt craze began in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, when established religion was an institution scheduled to be overthrown along with the monarchy.
Egypt and its strange theology joined the many alterative belief systems that rushed into the vacuum created by edging Christianity slowly out of mainstream public life. Prayers to Horus, Isis, and Osiris joined the menu of options available to anyone on the questing and eccentric fringe of the “spiritual but not religious” demographic.
Adherents to these ad hoc revivals of ancient Egyptian cosmology often defend their boutique paganism by claiming that any religion that lasted as long as Egypt’s had to have a kernel of truth. (A kind of theological luddism.) The cyclical popularity of pseudo-scholarship claiming that Christianity is nothing more than a repurposing of ancient paganism – that Christ was just a derivation of Horus, in one theory promoted by the late Tom Harpur, Anglican priest and religion columnist for the Toronto Star – has given this idea an unearned legitimacy. It’s unlikely that public fascination with Tut and ancient Egypt will ever go away – it’s survived more than two millennia – but it’s just as unlikely that general comprehension of the facts will never be as appealing as its myths, which abide in an apparently eternal afterlife.