Archive for November, 2010


On his last visit to Tutankhamun’s tomb, the thief had probably been surprised by the inspectors whom the priests and the pharaohs regularly “appointed” to watch the tombs.  Like modern night watchmen, these inspectors were constantly making rounds.  When they discovered a theft, they “marked” it by placing a seal on the masonry which they, themselves, had applied to hermetically seal the tomb.

It therefore appears that Tutankhamun’s tomb, if it hadn’t totally escaped pillagers, had probably not been violated more than two or three times, no doubt a very long time ago;  the inspectors must have afterwards succeeded in sufficiently masking its entrance, to render it completely invisible.  The construction, above it, of the huts of Ramses VI’s workmen, would have finally plunged Tutankhamun’s tomb into oblivion, at the same time, protecting it from thieves for three thousand years.

So, Carter and Carnavon are reassured on the subject of thieves.  But something else worries them.  In the room, there is neither a sarcophage, nor a mummy.  Should it be concluded that they have only found a hiding-place of precious objects?  Is the real tomb of Tutankhamun somewhere else, or must it be admitted that the thieves were able to destroy the sarcophage and its mummy, or remove it?  Once more, an attentive examination tranquillizes them:  at the end of the antechamber, on the right, between the two statues of the king, they discern a new door, also sealed.  There are therefore other rooms, other treasures to exhume.  But Carter soon realises that this door has also been pierced, then resealed.  Another cold shower!

As can be imagined, Carter and Carnavon burn with desire to continue the dig.  To know if they are going to find the mummified body of the little unknown pharaoh of whom they have dreamed for more than fifteen years.  But their scientific minds win against their curiosity.  Before going any further, they decide to do a complete inventory of the antechamber’s riches.  This is the only way to definitively shield them from theft and assure their conservation.

***

For three months, Carter launches himself into laboratory work.  He decides to do everything on site, for fear of damaging the precious objects by transporting them to Cairo.  He buys photographic material, cartons and wrapping paper, planks on which to fix the most fragile pieces – enrobed in cotton wool.  Each object will be cleaned and manipulated with antisepticised instruments.  Carter installs his photographic workshop inside one of the ancient tombs discovered years before, that of Pharaoh Seti I, then a laboratory.  He hires some collaborators:  a chemist, an expert in Egyptian writing, a doctor specialised in anatomy, an Ancient Egypt historian, photographers and craftsmen used to the manipulation and cleaning of delicate objects.  Until mid-February, this team lists, numbers, photographs and classes the one hundred and sixty pieces found in the antechamber, from the biggest piece of furniture to the smallest piece of jewellery.  Under three a day, on average.  This seems very slow.  But so many precautions have to be taken.  The pearls, for example, fall into dust at the slightest knock…  And then, in December, administrative and diplomatic complications interfere with Carter’s efforts, obliging him to interrupt his work.

***

Lord Carnavon

The dig permit accorded to Lord Carnavon expires on 31 December 1922.  And the Egyptian Government, which fears – correctly – that Tutankhamun’s treasure will leave the country, does not hide its intention of taking over the tomb’s exploration.

So, Lord Carnavon leaves for London, at the beginning of December, to solicit the support of the British Government.  To his great disappointment, the public servants of the Foreign Office are extremely circumspect:  the Egyptian Protectorate is already giving enough worries to His Gracious Majesty, who does not wish to provoke a nasty quarrel with the Egyptian Government… over some old mummy!

Carnavon has more luck in Brussels where, on the recommendation of the Belgian archaeologist Jean Capart, he is received by the wife of Albert I, Queen Elisabeth.  The Queen, who will not cease until her death, in 1966, to protect the Arts, Sciences and Letters, promises him her support.  She intervenes with the Cairo authorities.  Action crowned with success:  Carnavon obtains the authorisation to continue the inventory of Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Just one condition:  a delegate from the Antiques Service will be permanently present at Carter’s side, to see that no piece leaves the territory.

***

In January, the work begins again at an accelerated pace.  The whole world is passionately following it now.  At the end of January, Carter accepts, to calm the impatience of international public opinion, to let journalists visit “his” antechamber.  He states that it will be the first and last time.

So, on 25 January 1923, thirty British, American, French and Egyptian reporters descend the famous sixteen steps behind Carter.  He tells them that a new little room, which he has baptised “the annexe”, has been discovered at the end of the antechamber, on the left, opposite the staircase.  It contains dozens of other objects, similar for the most part to those found in the first room.  As for the door which masks the entrance to the room where it is hoped that Tutankhamun’s sarcophage and mummy rest, Carter announces that it will be opened in a few days, at a date to be fixed by Lord Carnavon, whose return from England is imminent.

A disagreeable surprise awaits Carter and the journalists as they leave the tomb.  Behind a police cordon, about a hundred Arabs – not all of them fellahs – are gathered, and appear very excited.  Seeing the group formed by Carter and his guests, they start to hurl.  Small stones bombard the journalists who retreat hastily.  The policemen then decide to push back the demonstrators.  One of them cries out:

“In your country, tomb violators are condemned.  And when you do it here, it’s a feat which gives you rewards, that makes you rich…  You are just sacrilegious vandals who dig up bones to amuse the visitors to your museums.  Sorrow upon you!”

To be continued.

The news of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb is beginning to spread and Professor Gaston Maspero, Director of the Cairo museum, fears that some religious sects and political movements hostile to the British domination might try to use it.  The politicians accuse the British of pillaging Egypt’s national heritage.  The priests cry sacrilege, tomb violation, recall the existence of old spells, of antique curses, with which the fellahs, who are helping the archaeologists in their impious task, could be threatened…  and the British would not escape the vengeance of the pharaohs, either.

This is certainly not the first time that the priests have tried to incite an uprising of the population, or at least of its more primitive elements, against the British.  For reasons which are doubtless more political than religious.  But Maspero is afraid that they might use the discovery of a new, almost unviolated tomb – which has never happened before – to stir up demonstrations and provoke violence.  He therefore recommends that Carter envisage security measures, as well.  In any case, this is another reason for opposing the transfer of Tutankhamun’s treasures to Europe.

***

Lord Carnavon

Such is the situation when, on the morning of 25 November, Carter, Lord Carnavon, Lady Evelyn and Callender descend, together, for the first time, the sixteen steps which lead to the entrance of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The first door, in cement, having been broken down, the archaeologists enter the corridor that Carter had already rapidly inspected by the light of an electric torch, two weeks before.  Two metres high, slightly sloping, this corridor is, as we have already seen, encumbered by all sorts of debris fallen from the vault.  But not only of that.  Carter and his team notice that the ground is also covered in pottery, vases and albaster bowls.  Most of these objects are in pieces.  The presence of these debris momentarily removes their illusions:  there is no doubt that the tomb has been pillaged, and even more than they had feared.  If the thieves have abandoned so many objects in the entrance corridor, what must they have taken with them?

It takes no less than one whole day to clear the terrain and list the few debris of any interest.  On 26 November, at last, they arrive before the second door.  Carter speaks of this historic day in his Memoires:

“This was the day of days, the most marvellous that I have ever lived and certainly one of those that I can never hope to live again…”

Carter’s hands tremble as he takes an iron rod to again pierce a hole in a door.  Just a tiny hole, in front of which he lights a candle to find out if the air is toxic.  The candle flickers in a slight draught of warm air, but doesn’t go out.  Carter enlarges the breach, passes through his electric lamp and, taking a deep breath, places his eye against the hole.  First of all, he sees nothing, everything seems to be covered in dust.  And then, forms emerge from the shadows, gold reflects shine here and there.  His companions hear him mumble unintelligible words.  He remains there, stuck against the wall, without moving, with the air of a man struck by lightning.

Lord Carnavon starts getting impatient.  He demands to know if Carter can see anything.  Carter turns to him.  He is pale.  His voice is raucous.

“Yes. Fantastic things!”

In turn, Carnavon, Lady Evelyn and Callender peep through the orifice.  Then the four archaeologists look at each other, incapable of speech.  This silence lasts several seconds – Carnavon, who is the first to come to his senses, will later say, an eternity.  He takes Carter’s pick and attacks the wall.

When the breach is sufficiently large, the searchers are better able to understand the amplitude of their discovery.  In the vast room, eight metres by three metres sixty, that they have just opened, they are firstly struck by the presence of three big gold seats, entirely sculpted, whose arms are in the form of monstrous animals, marked with the name of Tutankhamun.  The Pharaoh’s throne, in particular, sparkling with gold and silver, enhanced with blue, red and yellow glass, representing scenes from the life of Tutankhamun and his wife:  as fresh, as bright as illuminations.

Against the right-hand wall, placed there like sentinels, two life-size statues of the king, face to face.

Once over the first astonishment, the archaeologists see that great disorder reigns in the room.  Strewn amongst building debris, there are chests encrusted with stones, albaster vases, balm bowls, pots encrusted with glass, crockery, gold, lapis-lazuli, turquoise, candle-holders, fly-swatters, torch-holders in painted wood, sceptres, trumpets, pieces of cloth, step-ladders, folding stools, jewellery, bouquets of leaves and flowers, beds, altars, a great wooden chest, also painted with panels depicting hunting and war scenes.  A whole fabulous mass of Arabian Nights that Carter and Carnavon embrace in one sweeping glance before exchanging their impressions.

Carter says that it is impossible that it had all been thrown together in such disorder at the time of the burial.  Carnavon thinks that it must have been thieves who put everything in such a mess.  But why did they leave so many things behind?

This mystery is partly cleared up after the first investigations.  Near the door, Carter finds, on the ground, a bag of jewellery, pearls, which are certainly not in their right place.  Farther in, but still on the way to the door, skin sacks lie empty.  The ancient Egyptians transported balms and creams in these sacks.  Continuing his search, Carter notices that part of the wall, near the entrance, has been roughly patched up.  No doubt:  an opening had been made at this place, to allow the passage of a small man, a child perhaps.  He must have come several times, for the balms of Libya, Syria or Phoenicia, reputed for healing illness and effacing fatigue, have disappeared from the albaster vases where they should have been;  for several jewellery boxes are broken and empty.

To be continued.

Howard Carter has been disappointed hundreds of times over the more than fifteen years that he has been digging in the Valley of the Kings.  However, this time again, like the others, his heart beats faster as he approaches the place of discovery.  He leans over it.  Yes, a stone, but cut like the step of a staircase.  Carter has the edges gently unearthed.  On one side, lower down, another identical slab appears.  The beginning of a staircase, without a doubt.  Carter later recounts:

“I remained motionless for a long time looking at this step, without saying a word.  And the men who were around me weren’t speaking either.  They were simple fellahs, but because of all the time that they had been working on digs, they had acquired that sort of sixth sense which tells searchers, even before having material proof of it, that they have just put their hands on a remarkable piece…”

Until evening, with infinite precautions, the fellahs dig.  At nightfall, they have unearthed four steps.  The next day, they continue.  Twelve steps, fifteen steps.  Will they ever see the end of this staircase?  Does it even lead somewhere?  Carter becomes feverish.  Another step, the sixteenth, but it’s the last one:  before them, the workers have no more earth and stones, but a vertical slab, made from something that resembles cement.  A door…  surmounted by a marble lintel, in the middle of which is encrusted a seal like those found at the entrance to all of the tombs of the pharaohs.

It is eleven o’clock in the morning.  Even in November, no-one continues working in the desert when the sun is at its zenith.  While the fellahs rest in the shade, Carter, to keep himself occupied, gets a bucket of soapy water and carefully cleans the lintel.  Deception:  the seal isn’t a royal seal, he has never seen one like it.  Carter goes to lie down in the shade.

When coolness returns, the removal of earth and stones continues.  Another seal appears, and Carter recognizes this one without hesitation;  it is a royal seal, and it bears a name, the complete name of the unknown pharaoh whose shadow Carter has been chasing since 1908:  Nebkheperura-Tutankhamun.

The archaeologist’s joy is short-lived.  A terrible doubt invades him.  The first seal is doubtless a fake, engraved on the door by pillagers, probably a long time ago, to hide the violation of the tomb.  Carter asks himself if he isn’t going to find an empty tomb.  Trifles, once more…  And then, he reflects.  Strange, all the same, if it were thieves, that they had respected the second seal…  Those who had penetrated inside the tomb – for it had been violated, that’s certain – weren’t they priests who had wanted, on the contrary, to verify that nothing had been disturbed?  Priests frequently “inspected” tombs.  The archaeologists had discovered that, while exploring other necropolises.

While delivering himself up to these reflections, Carter has a hole pierced in the door’s cement.  When the last little piece falls, a breath of warm air escapes, vaguely nauseating.  Carter knows that smell, he has already given it a name:  “tomb stuffiness”.  After having waited a few minutes for the odour to evaporate, Carter slips an electric lamp inside the hole.  He sees a long corridor partly obstructed by small stones, ruins from the partly collapsed vault.  At the end, seven or eight metres away from Carter, there is another door, and it is marked with Tutankhamun’s seal.

***

Carter now knows that he has just made a great discovery.  In spite of his emotion and his passionate desire to immediately continue the dig, he will wait for Lord Carnavon before opening Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Carter has the hole  in the first door patched up, places sentinels at the top of the staircase and goes to Luqsor to telegraph Lord Carnavon.

Lord Carnavon

Forty-eight hours later, he receives a first telegramme:

“Arriving soon.”

And the next day, another:

“Will be at Alexandria on 20th.”

Carnavon doesn’t lose a minute in organizing his trip to Egypt.  On 23 November, he debarks at Thebes, flanked by his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, and another famous egyptologist, Callender.

***

During the two weeks which separate his discovery from the arrival of Lord Carnavon, Carter does not remain inactive.  His principal worry is to stop thieves from penetrating the tomb.  He therefore goes to Cairo – a promenade of seven hundred and fifty kilometres – where he has a heavy iron door made to measure.  While waiting, he has the site completely filled in.  He writes:

“The trace of the tomb has completely disappeared.  It’s safer…”

Carter also visits the Director of the Cairo museum, Professor Gaston Maspero, to inform him of the state of the dig.  He hesitates a lot about doing this, for Lord Carnavon will want to keep the secret for as long as possible.  He knows his sponsor’s intentions and disapproves of them.  Carnavon has never hidden the fact that he hopes to import to Europe almost all of the artistic treasures discovered by Carter.  These treasures would be given into the keeping of big European museums and private collections.  Carter loves the Egyptian civilization too deeply, is too exclusively an egyptologist, to envisage with a light heart the dispersal of the marvels which he hopes to find in Tutankhamun’s tomb.  In his eyes, the pharaoh’s treasure must remain whole, and the only appropriate solution is to transport all of it to the Cairo museum.  It is in this state of mind that he goes to see Professor Maspero, who, naturally, entirely shares his point of view.  Maspero also gives him a few pieces of advice:  the objects locked in Tutankhamun’s tomb must have been there for over thirty centuries, they should be handled with maximum precautions.

Carter orders a cargo of medicines and diverse products from Europe, including two tonnes of cotton wool.

To be continued.

Lord Carnavon

Lord Carnavon has checked the American, Theodore Davis’ credentials.  He has been told that the amateur archaeologist is the most competent of all of the egyptologists.  If he says that there is nothing left in the Valley of the Kings, he should be believed.  Carnavon has also contacted another archaeologist, the American, Eldon Gorst, and asked him his opinion on the few objects bearing Tutankhamun’s seal, found by Davis.  Gorst replies that they are uninteresting trifles.

However, once again, Carter’s communicative fervour sweeps away Lord Carnavon’s doubts.

For Carter, this is the beginning of a grand adventure.

All true adventurers know that adventure is first of all a lot of patience, an interminable search, while waiting for the big day.  For Carter, this wait is particularly trying.  For four years, from 1908 to 1912, he explores, metre by metre, the region situated to the West of Thebes, on the left bank of the Nile.  Not completely in vain.  The searchers find a series of objects dating from 1500 years before the present era, among which there is a wooden tablet bearing the account of a war waged by a certain Kamose, who liberates Egypt from the invasion of the Hyksos people.  This is a small consolation for Lord Carnavon:  Carter baptises the document with the name of his protector;  the “Carnavon tablet” enters into the History of Archaeology.  Another find:  the mummy of a cat.  Still only trifles.  The 1914-1918 war doesn’t help.  Lord Carnavon has to stay in England, the digs stagnate, the egyptologists lack conviction.  It is understandable that their minds are not on the job.  Carter has succeeded in getting himself mobilised in Egypt, but he lacks means.  And when the digs really get under weigh again, in the Spring of 1919, Carnavon’s enthusiasm has once more dwindled.  He leaves Carter to work however he wants for another year, but in April 1920, he sends him a comminatory telegramme from London:

“We have wasted enough time in the Valley of the Kings.  We must change terrains.  Go and dig in the Nile delta, it’s a region where not much has yet been found…”

Carter has no choice but to obey.  He installs his camp and his teams of workers in the heart of the delta, at Sakha.  And there too, he “scratches” conscientiously, but without finding anything notable… until the day when, right in the middle of the Summer of 1922, the searchers’ camp is invaded by an army of venimous snakes.  Cobras, Egyptian sacred animals.  Terror takes hold of the fellahs.  The cobra…  The serpent which is one of the principal emblems of the pharaohs, found on statues, sarcophages, one of the attributes of power, therefore of divinity.  Do the gods want to chase the profaners from the delta?  The workers murmur, threaten to stop work.  Carter finds a magnificent pretext in the incident.  He tells Lord Carnavon:

“We can’t stay here.  We’ll get nothing more out of the fellahs.  Let’s return for one last try in the Valley of the Kings.”

Carnavon is irritated, all these stories of magic are really getting on his nerves.  But then, after all, since the digs in the delta haven’t given anything, since the fellahs are afraid, since Carter insists – and after all, there are only a few months left before the concession inherited from Theodore Davis expires – well…  Lord Carnavon shrugs his shoulders, with the feeling that he is satisfying Carter’s last whim:

“Go back to your Valley of the Kings.  If, by chance, you find something, write to me in London.  It’s the hunting season, I intend shooting a few grouse…  Have fun!”

The sacred cobras really were instruments of destiny.  Without them, Carter would probably never have discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.

***

So, Carter and his team are once more near Thebes.  But there is very little time left:  in less than three months, they will have to leave the Valley of the Kings and renounce piercing the mystery of Tutankhamun, probably forever.

Seized with a sort of fever, the archaeologist accelerates the work.  The fellahs move tonnes of earth.  Nothing!  Always nothing…

Only two months left.  Carter doesn’t know what to do.  One morning, while he is contemplating a few stone huts in ruins, built two thousand years before, near the tomb of the pharaoh Ramses VI, an idea comes to him.  These huts were used by the workers who built the tombs.  Digging tools had been found, trifles.  Today, they serve to shelter tourists who visit the Valley, the guides have made them part of their circuit.  Carter tells himself that, after all, no-one has ever thought of digging under these huts.  Inside, yes, but never underneath.  And why not?  Try that or anything else, at the point where he is…

On 2 November 1922, the fellahs attack the removal of the first stone.  Two days later, arriving on the site at the wheel of his old Ford, Carter, as soon as he cuts the motor, is surprised by the unusual silence which reigns around the huts.  His fellahs – roughly ten – aren’t working.  They are sitting on the ground, on the stones.  The archaeologist approaches.  No-one moves.  He asks what is happening.

Hormuzd, the foreman, the only one who speaks a bit of English, leans nonchalantly on one elbow and tells him that there is something over there under the hut.  So, they have stopped.  Carter wants to know what sort of “something”.  Hormuzd doesn’t know.  A stone, a paving stone perhaps.  Until they have dug deeper… ?

Hormuzd has only scrupulously followed Carter’s instructions:  as soon as a worker hits an object, even apparently of no interest, or as soon as his pick encounters the smallest hole, he must stop and wait until the “boss” has come to look at it himself.  This is the rule on all archaeological sites.  One blow too many with the pick can wreck everything.

To be continued.

Grand Vizir Ay and General Horemheb, who are the real masters of Egypt, have a general amnisty promulgated.  The prisons, which Akhenaton had filled with what could be called “religious” prisoners, are emptied.  Religious peace returns to the country.  And Horemheb, whose power continues to spread, to the point that he is seen as a co-regent, establishes the task to which Tutankhamun must devote his life.  The child-king must repair the evil done by his predecessor.  From Heliopolis, on the Nile Delta, to Abu Simbel, at the foot of the second cataract, there remains no temple that hasn’t been mutilated, soiled, abandoned.  Weeds are growing on monument walls, herds graze in the middle of sanctuaries…  Egypt risks the anger of the gods for this impiety.  Her armies have just been defeated, on the empire’s steps, in the mountains of Syria that they were trying to conquer.  Abandoned by Egypt, the gods are abandoning her in turn;  they are no longer listening to the prayers of the Egyptians.

Tutankhamun has returned to live in Akhet-Aten, near Nefertiti.  Horemheb had no objection, on the contrary:  Installed in Thebes, he is the one who is really governing the kingdom.  The young pharaoh is left to consecrate himself to the pious work assigned to him.  He fashions, himself, in fine gold incrusted with precious stones, a gigantic effigy of Amun;  he raises another statue to him near Memphis.  The sanctuaries are rebuilt one by one, religious communities installed everywhere.   A propitiatory text reports:

“Tutankhamun installed priests and prophets […] all the temple goods were doubled, tripled, quadrupled by donations in gold, silver, lapis-lazuli and turquoises […] the sanctuaries’ service was financed by the palace…”

Tutankhamun also creates troupes of dancers and singers whose job is to spend their whole lives celebrating the glory of the god.

The programme fixed by Horemheb is carried out.  In the re-established order, Egypt enters into a new period of prosperity.  Sure that the heresy is really dead and that the social revolution begun by Akhenaton is snuffed out, Horemheb orders Tutankhamun to leave Akhet-Aten and come definitively to Thebes.  Not for long:  death awaits the young pharaoh at the dawn of his twentieth year.

***

Like his life, Tutankhamun’s death is mysterious.  The scholars who examined his mummy thought that they could see marks of blows on the right side of his face.  Was he assassinated?  It’s possible.  Those who believe in the curse of the pharaohs have even stated that these marks are those of an insect sting similar to that which led to the death of Lord Carnavon…

However, certain documents lead egyptologists to question whether Tutankhamun had really totally renounced the cult of Aton.  In this hypothesis, the priests might have had something to do with his disappearance.

The young pharaoh’s funeral was carried out normally, with all the rites which should assure him immortality, as witnessed by the objects found in his tomb, the inscriptions, like those that figured on the bandelettes of his mummy:

“Your immortality will remain in the mouth of all the living, oh Osiris, King Tutankhamun…”

At his death, Tutankhamun was therefore treated like all the other pharaohs, his memory was supposed to remain in the minds of men, the traces of his work were not supposed to be effaced.

It is the “Divine Father”, Ay, who succeeds him.  But, at the death of Ay, after four years of reign, General Horemheb manages to have himself proclaimed pharaoh.  The XVIIIth Dynasty dies with Ay.  Horemheb founds the XIXth, which will count the pharaohs Ramses I and Ramses II among its rulers.

***

In the same way that, at the death of Amenophis III, his son Akhenaton had given free rein to his passion against everything which could recall the cult of Amun, Horemheb goes wild against all that can still subsist of the Aton heresy.  The first thing that he does is to have the town of Akhet-Aten erased from existence.  Doubtless prodded by the priests, he devotes himself to destroying anything that can still remain of Akhenaton’s reign.  Then he starts on his descendance, on that Tutankhamun whom he has, deep down inside, always hated.  The artisans are sent back to the temples with their hammers and chisels.  They must efface the names and the seals of those who have preceded him and engrave those of Horemheb in their place.  The effigies of Tutankhamun must disappear.  Certain egyptologists say that Horemheb even went as far as ordering his servants to clandestinely enter the tomb to steal the balms and symbols which were supposed to assure survival after death.

***

Paradoxically, far from encouraging the amateur American archaeologist, Theodore Davis, to persevere in his search, his findings remove all hope from him.  He is sure that he has found all that remains of Tutankhamun’s burial, no doubt a minor pharaoh, buried without great pomp and probably also a victim of pillagers.  He declares to Professor Gaston Maspero, Director of the Cairo museum:

“I am afraid that we have exhausted all the resources of the Valley of the Kings.”

Lord Carnavon

Carter refuses to abandon.  In 1908, he succeeds in persuading Lord Carnavon to concentrate all his efforts on Tutankhamun.  He needs funds:  Carnavon will be his banker, his sponsor.  He needs the authorisation of the Egyptian Government:  Carter obtains it.  With difficulty.   At first, with Carnavon, he comes up against the scepticism of Pr Maspero.  But, five days after this interview, he finds a message from Maspero in his message-box at the Continental Hotel:

“Come back to see me at the museum.”

Maspero proposes Theodore Davis’ concession to Carter.  It would allow him to dig in the Valley of the Kings until 1922.  Davis has abandoned it.

To Maspero’s great surprise, Carnavon is no longer very enthusiastic.

To be continued.

It is around the time of Amenophis IV-Akhenaton’s religious revolution in Egypt, that Tutankhaton, the future Tutankhamun, is born.  Very certainly the son of Akhenaton, but not of Queen Nefertiti.  Tutankhaton is a bastard, born of one of the women in the royal harem, whose name we don’t know.  He has a studious childhood, like any pharaoh’s son.

During this time, Akhenaton, strongly encouraged by Nefertiti, perfects his reform.  He writes a “Hymn to the Sun”, an act of ardent faith in the new god, the text of which was found in the ruins of his capital – the town is today called Tell el-Amarna.  And then his father, the old Amenophis III, dies.  Having become the sole master of Egypt, Akhenaton goes wild.  Not satisfied in having stripped the Amun priests of their powers, he wants to efface all traces of the Amun cult.  Under the supervision of his officers, the kingdom’s artisans are affected to demolition tasks.  On the frontons of all the temples, on the monuments, on the statues, the effigies of Amun, the symbols of Amun, are chiselled off.  Nothing must remain of him.  The clergy, the nobles, try to excite the population against the heretic.  In vain…  Akhenaton is the strongest, and he is popular.  And he is still young.  Plus, to be sure that his work will be perpetuated, he has raised to the throne beside him, as co-regent, his half-brother, Smenkhera.  The future is sombre for the Amun faithful…  From now on, they will call Akhenaton “the great scoundrel”.

Akhenaton dies suddenly – some say assassinated – after seventeen or eighteen years of reign.  Smenkhera follows shortly after.  A successor to Akhenaton must be found.  The new pharaoh must be of royal blood – essential for legitimacy – but he must also be sufficiently malleable to allow the priests to restore the old religion.  As far as we know, Akhenaton does not have a direct heir:  Queen Nefertiti only gave him girls, unless all her sons died – we don’t really know.  But there’s Tutankhaton.  He fills all the conditions:  his royal filiation is established, and he is only nine.  An easy prey for the lords and priests.

***

That, in its main lines, could be the story of the accession of Tutankhaton to the throne of the pharaohs.  It is a version of the events which has the advantage of being coherent, but it is not universally admitted.  Certain egyptologists do not believe in the co-regency of Amenophis III and Amenophis IV.  But if we consider that the reigns of these two pharaohs succeeded each other without overlapping, we have to admit that Tutankhamun was around twenty-two years old at his accession to power.  As he reigned about ten years, he would have been over thirty when he died.  However, the examination of his mummy unquestionably reveals that he was a very young man, twenty at the most.  To deny the co-regency, means leaving no place for Tutankhamun in the History of Egypt…  This is what the egyptologists who, like Howard Carter, consider that we know nothing about the life and death of Tutankhamun, do not hesitate to affirm.  Other scholars estime that he was not the son of Amenophis IV, but his brother.  These facts are all the more difficult to verify as family relations, in the dynasties of the pharaohs, were very far from the Christian conceptions which commonly rule today’s Western societies.  It was not rare, at this epoch, to see daughters marry their fathers and give them children.  Not only were there marriages between sister and brother (almost the height of banality) but also between grandfathers and granddaughters, grandsons and grandmothers;  uncles, nieces, step-sisters, danced an unbelievable matrimonial saraband.  You could be the son of your mother and the father of your mother’s children.  Far from being considered a crime or even simply inadvisable, incest was blessed by the gods.  For example, the third daughter of Akhenaton and Nefertiti, Ankhsenpaaton, married her father, with whom she had a daughter.  Akhenaton was therefore both the grandfather and the father of this child…  As for Ankhsenpaaton, this marriage followed by a maternity consecrated her “divine essence” in the eyes of her contemporaries, because it was understood that a pharaoh, who was both king and god, could only have a child with a woman who also came from the divinity.  Later, Ankhsenpaaton became Tutankhamun’s wife.

***

Two people dominate then in the royal palace.  Queen Nefertiti and the Grand Vizir Ay, who is, by the way, her presumed father (for Nefertiti’s genealogy is hardly clearer than than of Tutankhamun).  Ay also bears the title of “general lieutenant of the chariots”, for which it is difficult to find a modern equivalent.  He was something like the recognized chief of the Egyptian high nobility and general-in-chief of the army.  He disposed therefore of considerable power and influence.

Nefertiti and Ay seek to assure a smooth succession.  They know that the disappearance of “the great scoundrel” risks setting off a religious war.  In hiding, and soon out in the open, the priests of Amun prepare their vengeance against the Aton zealots.  Will they try to overthrow the dynasty in favour of a new king entirely devoted to their religion?  And what would then remain of the power exercised by Nefertiti and Ay over Egypt’s empire?  This has to be avoided at all costs.

At this decisive hour for the country’s destiny, Ay reveals his great political capabilities.  By imposing Tutankhaton, thanks to the army’s support, he softens up the priests, who are not afraid of a child.  At the same time, he assures the continuity of power… he finds his principal ally in the person of the chief of the Egyptian armies in Asia, General Horemheb.  For the moment, the priests are cleverly manipulated.  Without leaving them any time for reflection, Ay announces that the young prince will take Ankhsenpaaton for his wife and that he will be solemnly crowned.

To be continued.

***

Lord Carnavon

In 1903, when Carnavon arrives in Cairo and pays a visit to the Director of the Egyptian capital’s museum, Professor Gaston Maspero, archaeologists have one near-certainty and one regret.  They consider that the Valley of the Kings has delivered all its secrets.  They have never succeeded in discovering an unviolated tomb and a complete collection of the funeral objects which should accompany the bodies of the pharaohs.  Pr Maspero is therefore rather sceptical when Lord Carnavon tells him that he intends to undertake new digs.  Even so, he suggests that he take Howard Carter as his assistant.

The two men, who will work together for twenty years, get on well right from the start.  Carnavon writes:

“Carter is not only an expert egyptologist, he is also a delicate artist full of imagination, and also a true friend to me…”

Carter is convinced that there are still things to discover in the Valley of the Kings.  In 1906, a find by another archaeologist, Theodore Davis, an American lawyer possessed by the demon of archaeology, will feed Carter’s dreams.  One day, Davis picks up a little blue earthenware bowl, hidden under a rock.

He scrapes off the soil which coats the object.  In a rectangular frame, an inscription appears.  A new name, which figures in no manual of Ancient Egyptian History, a name of which no archaeologist has ever heard:  Tutankhamun.  But, in spite of careful searching, Davis finds nothing else.

A year passes.  Davis is still searching.  Near a tomb, many times explored, his workers disengage a sort of chamber carved out of the rock.  It is full of mud up to the ceiling.  He has it cleaned.  Right at the bottom, a wooden chest, broken on two sides, appears.  In the chest, there are gold leaves.  And on the gold leaves, for the second time, the name of Tutankhamun.  Three days later, a new discovery, at the bottom of a shaft, about one hundred metres away, pieces of vases, bandelettes, bits of cloth, a few necklaces and clay jars marked with the same Tutankhamun seal.  Davis decides to send these vestiges to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to have them analysed.  Response of the experts:  you have found material used for the funeral of King Tutankhamun; approximative date, 1350 before the present era.

***

In her book Toutankhamon, Christine Desroches-Noblecourt places in exergue this sentence from the German egyptologist, Walterh Wolf:

“Nowhere, is the temptation to write a novel, rather than a chapter of History, as strong as here, and that is why we must show the greatest prudence in the exploitation of all these documents.”

Carter estimed that it was impossible to date with precision when Tutankhamun had lived.  He wrote:

“In the present state of our knowledge, we are able to say with certainty that the only remarkable fact in his existence, is that he died and was buried.”

Many egyptologists, even today, share Carter’s opinion and consider all the hypotheses, all the attempts at reconstitution of the life of Tutankhamun, as pure products of imagination.  Christine Desroches-Noblecourt writes:

“No document has yet permitted us to leave the domain of hypothesis to establish when Tutankhaton (this is supposedly the first name borne by the young prince, transformed into Tutankhamun at his accession to the throne of Egypt) was born, and by whom he was raised.”

To begin with, no-one has succeeded in determining with certainty the dates of Tutankhamun’s reign, which is supposed to have lasted nine or ten years.  Certain egyptologists situate it between the years 1369 and 1360 before the present era.  Others, like Otto Neubert, between 1358-57 and 1350-49.  A third group – and Christine Desroches-Noblecourt considers that it is the closest to the truth – envisage his accession to the throne around 1352 or 1351 and his death in 1344 or 43.  In any case, he seems to have succeeded one of the most prestigious pharaohs, Amenophis IV, also known as Akhenaton.  Amenophis IV was perhaps the father of the young Tutankhaton.  But none of this has ever been able to be verified.  With all necessary reservations, we are therefore going to examine the theory generally admitted as being the most likely.

***

Amenophis IV-Akhenaton, supposed father of Tutankhaton-Tutankhamun, occupies a particular place in the History of the pharaohs.  He is sometimes called “the mystic”, sometimes “the heretic”.  He is in fact the author of the most audacious attempt at religious revolution in Ancient Egypt.

Amenophis III surrounds himself with scholars who combat the power of the priests of the all-powerful god, Amun, all the more feared as he is mysterious.  He is the “hidden god”, who sees all without being seen and who allows the priests to dominate the public life of their time, through the terror that they inspire with the name of this god of whom they are the servants.

The young prince does not like this domination.  Does he plot against them?  We don’t know.  However, his father, well before dying, accepts to share his power with him.  Egypt then lives under a co-regency of father and son.  Amenophis IV, who marries the famous Nefertiti, leaves Thebes to better escape the power of the priests.  He founds a new city and the bases of a new religion.  The city, his capital, will be called Akhet-Aten, “Horizon of the Globe”, and it will be consecrated to a new god, Aton, the sun-god.  Amenophis IV takes the name of Akhenaton – the servant of Aton.  Religious quarrel?  Perhaps…  But above all a political fight, the first great historical battle, perhaps, between temporal power and spiritual power, the attempt of a king to thwart the power of a Church…  The new religion will be stripped of all the magical trickery which assured the empire of the priests over the faithful, the multitude of secondary gods who surround Amun is banished from the temples;  Aton is the one and only god…   And from now on, all men will be equal in the sight of Aton.  It really is a revolution in the theocratic and feudal society of Egypt.

To be continued.

Lord Carnavon

Lord Carnavon is also a pioneer of the automobile.  He drives very fast on straight roads – at least he does from the day that cars allow him to drive relatively fast – and he says:

“In a car, it is only the crossroads that are dangerous.  And I never speed at crossroads.”

Lord Carnavon does not forsee that an accident can occur on a perfectly straight road, if the road’s surface is in bad condition.  And, one day in the Summer of 1902, while driving in the Schwalbach Forest, in South Germany, he notices, twenty metres in front of him, a trench dug in the middle of the road by workmen who are installing water pipes.  He brakes desperately…  too late.  At the last moment, Carnavon aims his car along the side of the road, but a wheel strikes a big stone.  The car turns over on the driver, while Carnavon’s valet, Edward Trotman, who has followed him everywhere for the last twenty-eight years, is thrown from the car, landing in the grass, ten metres away.  Slightly dazed, but otherwise unharmed, Trotman rises and sees His Lordship trapped under the car.  Carnavon is not moving.  He isn’t even moaning.  Panicked, the valet runs to some workmen in a field, fifty metres away.  One of them is holding a bucket of water.  Without taking the time to explain, Trotman grabs the bucket and runs towards the car, chased by two workmen, crying out “stop thief!”.  He empties the whole bucket over His Lordship’s face.  Immediately, His Lordship starts to move, he starts breathing, his heart starts to beat again.

The “ressuscitated” Earl is in a very bad way.  Apart from cuts and bruises all over his body, he has a broken jaw and a broken wrist;  his face is so swollen that it no longer looks human – his palate is also broken – and he’s blind…  He regains consciousness long enough to ask:

“Have I killed someone?”

He is reassured on that point, and again passes out.

Until the end of his life, he will suffer from health problems, having one operation after another.  He very quickly recovers his sight, but he breathes with difficulty, his organism is not coping.  His doctor tells him that he will have to be very careful.  In the state in which he finds himself, the slightest bronchitis could kill him.  He thinks that it would be imprudent to spend Winter in England…

Any normal Englishman would have taken the train for the Cote d’Azur, and settled down in the cosy comfort of a luxury hotel, in Nice or Monte Carlo.  Not Lord Carnavon.  He chooses Egypt.  And more precisely, the Valley of the Kings.  At the beginning of 1903, he visits the sites where egyptologists have been digging for nearly a century, looking for the fantastic civilisation of the pharaohs.

***

Real passion is needed to launch into this adventure for, at the epoch when Lord Carnavon erupts (and the word is not too strong) into the Valley of the Kings, most of the egyptologists, are packing, or are about to pack their bags.  It is thought that the Nile valley has now delivered all its secrets.  Since the Assistant Director of the Cairo Museum, Emile Brugsch, penetrated the great necropolis of Deir el-Bahri, in 1881, everything has been searched.  One false note spoils Emile Brugsch’s joy.  At Luqsor, as he is about to embark on the boat to take his treasures to Cairo, a cohort of poorly dressed Arab women, wives of fellahs, comes towards him.  The women tear their clothes and untie their hair like antique mourners.  Some are hurling, others moaning.  They follow Brugsch all the way to his boat, aggravating him with their lamentations, where the word “curse” is continually repeated.  Brugsch is greatly troubled by it.  Not that he believes in any spells or a “vengeance” of the dead.  Rather, he was asking himself if certain fellahs, who consider the tombs and the mummies inside them with superstitious fear, are not going to think themselves invested with some sort of divine mission, and try to punish those who had profaned them…  However, nothing happens, nothing more than the lamentations of the mourning women;  Brugsch and his precious cargo arrive in Cairo with no problems.

As far as profanation goes, the Western archaeologists are rather late.  For centuries, millenia in fact, the pillage of tombs is a flourishing local industry.  Eleven hundred years before the present era, the empire of the pharaohs had temporarily collapsed into anarchy.  Bands of pillagers roamed the Nile valley looking for food, for famines were frequent, but also any gold or jewels they could find.  At different times, several of these bands forced entry into tombs.  One thousand years before the present era, under the XXIth Dynasty of priest-kings who were contemporaries of David and Solomon, there already remained very little of the funeral treasures of the great pharaohs.  Not content with swiping precious objects, the thieves did not hesitate to open or break sarcophages, to strip the mummies of their bandelettes, and to break them to steal the jewellery they were wearing.  The kings sometimes tried to limit the damage by walling up the pillaged tombs, or even by moving the most isolated and most frequently raided ones.

Fear of the “curse” of the pharaohs is certainly less well-known one thousand years before the present era than in the middle of this era’s XXth Century.  It apparently doesn’t bother the “primitive” Egyptians, or their descendants:  in 1900, an armed band knocks out the guards of Amenophis II’s tomb, near Thebes, and penetrates the sanctuary.  The pharaoh’s mummy is pulled from its sarcophage, the bandelettes are ripped off, all for nothing, for the gold and jewels have been gone for ages.  But the last remaining pieces of art near Amenophis II disappear.

A young archaeologist of twenty-five, Inspector of Antiques in the region of Thebes, is called to evaluate the damage.  His name is Howard Carter, and he will soon meet Lord Carnavon.

***

To be continued.

The real curse of the pharaohs

Lord Carnavon

In the night of 4 to 5 April 1923, a man of fifty-seven lies delirious in one of the rooms of the Continental Hotel, in Cairo.  Burning with fever, his eyes wide-open, his head rolls from side to side on the pillow, unintelligible sounds coming from his lips.  Although, not all of them are unintelligible.  One word keeps coming back, a name which has been spread over the front pages of many newspapers for the last six months:  Tutankhamun…  Suddenly – it is five minutes to two in the morning – the dying man half-sits up in his bed.  He cries out:

“It’s over, I’ve heard the call and I’m nearly ready!”

And, almost at the same moment, the light in the room goes out.  Panicked, the nurse who is watching over the patient rushes out into the hallway:  everything is dark there, too.  Seen from the top of the lift shaft, the hotel lobby is just a black hole.  Glancing out the window, the nurse notices that the neighbouring houses are also plunged into darkness.

When the young woman, having succeeded in finding a candle, comes back inside the room after a ten minute absence, she sees that her care is no longer needed.

The man who has just died in this atmosphere worthy of a story by Edgar Allen Poe, is called George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnavon, Lord Carnavon.  It is thanks to him, to his obstination and his money, that the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun had been discovered, on 4 November 1922, by an egyptologist, his compatriot Howard Carter.  And, on 18 February 1923, Lord Carnavon had witnessed the opening of the tomb by Carter and his team.  A tomb, at the entrance to which, the egyptologists had deciphered this inscription:

“Death will touch with its wings whomever disturbs the pharaoh.”

And that is how a legend is born:  the “curse” of Tutankhamun…  The successive deaths of several people attached to the Carnavon-Carter team, the superstition of the fellahs from the Valley of the Kings, the imagination of certain journalists and the romanticism of a few others, the passion for mystery among peoples of all latitudes, will do the rest.  That is to say, build up and embellish the legend, despite the shrugging of shoulders by scholars, and Howard Carter’s sneers.

Legends are slow to die;  they have too much charm for people to really want to kill them.  So, that is not our goal.  How was the myth of Tutankhamun’s curse born?  How had it been able to survive and develop in the middle of the XXth Century?  What did the people most concerned by it, scholars and egyptologists, think about it?  Those are the things that we must try to find out and, perhaps, understand.

***

Nothing, in his youth, seems to indicate that Lord Porchester, the future Lord Carnavon, will become a pillar of Egyptian archaeology.  At Eton, where he pursues classical studies, he is a mediocre student.  And he doesn’t continue these studies for long;  his notes are so bad that his father prefers to take him out of the college.

In 1885 – he is nineteen – the young lord enters Trinity College at Cambridge where, if his fellow students are to be believed, he is more interested in playing sports than in studying, which is a very old tradition in British high society.  And he more willingly spends his evenings in Newmarket cabarets than in libraries.  His holidays are spent on the Italian Riviera, at Porto Fino, where his father has had a villa built near an isolated promontory, away from tourists.  Communications with the outside world are more or less impossible overland – apart from a steep track carved out of the cliff – and Porchy prefers to use a fishing boat as a means of locomotion.  Very soon, he is no longer content with cabotage along the coast.  He ventures farther out to sea, confronts wild weather, and dreams of faraway countries, whose coastlines he senses on the other side of the horizon.  From now on, he knows where he is going in life.  Out there, across the seas.  Porchy has made up his mind.  He will travel the world.  And he can afford it.  His family is rich enough for that.  In 1887, he leaves Cambridge definitively, and embarks on a cargo ship, for a trip around the world.  The Cape Verde islands, the Antilles, Brazil, Cape Horn.

The days are long on a ship, between the sky and the sea.  What to do?  Read.  Read what?  Why not works on the history and geography of the countries that he is going to visit?  Lord Porchester suddenly discovers a passion:  History, and in particular, Ancient History.  He tries to find archaeological traces everywhere he goes.  He writes to his father:

“After all, that’s living History.  The one that is not learnt in colleges.”

And he enjoys the exhilaration of discovery.  This passion will later take him to South Africa, Australia, Japan, Turkey, Sweden, the United States of America and, one day, to Egypt, before the tomb of Tutankhamun.  But, to get there, he will first have to have a car accident.

***

To be continued.

What does Harry Whitecliffe, alias Lovach Blume, reveal to his fiancee, Wally von Hammerstein, in the terrible letter which he writes just before committing suicide?  That the Devil exists, and that he has met him.  That he has always been two people, one of them all the more intelligent and gifted as the other is cruel and bloodthirsty.  That he is like the possessed people of ancient times, and that he dies partly because of his love for her:  he knew that he was menaced by the police, he should have left Germany, the way that he had already fled England, after nine murders, because Scotland Yard was on his heels…  If he remained, it was because he loved her, Wally von Hammerstein, who was perhaps the only one who could have saved him from his demons…  He begs her to live in prayer from then on, to redeem his divided soul…

In the middle of the year 1925, a young, gentle, beautiful, blonde girl, whom everything destined for a brilliant and happy existence, buried herself in the Elmersheim monastery to pronounce perpetual vows.  Wally von Hammerstein entered into prayer under the name of Maria of Sorrows, to rescue a tortured soul from Hell.

***

This terrible and pathetic story, which took place in the “roaring twenties”, was talked about in Germany for many years.  It is one of the most troubling criminal cases of the XXth Century.  First of all, for its hero, who is a young literary genius.  Doubtless, his gifts can only be explained by his double life.  They are stimulated by the bloodbaths in which he wallows and the totally magical way in which he analyses his case…  Also far from banal, is the mystical conversion of his fiancee, whom nothing predisposed to enter a convent.  It was very contrary to her character, and to the spirit of the time.

***

Whitecliffe was the son of a great English family.  But apart from the three high magistrates who opened the famous letter – in spite of the dead man’s last wishes – only Sister Maria of Sorrows and her parents knew Whitecliffe’s true identity.  The three judges and the parents were all dead, when Louis Pauwels wrote this text.  Wally was still locked up in the silence of her convent, and had not divulged anything of this drama from her youth.

***

The writer’s German admirers do not appear to have made the connection between Whitecliffe and Blume.  In any case, none of them went to his trial, which, although exceptional, was nevertheless only one of many blood crimes trials, particularly numerous and atrocious in that Germany of poverty and revolt.  Where most values inspired roughly the same amount of respect as the paper money which had to be transported by the cartload whenever anyone went shopping…

***

There are other people who have been condemned to death without the public ever knowing their real names.  One of them was executed around 1900.  No-one, including the Tribunal, ever knew who he was.  Leon Treich mentions him in connection with the Whitecliffe-Blume mystery.  He writes:

“A little more than sixty years ago, a man was guillotined in Paris, who was only known by the name which he had given himself, Michel Campi, a name that was certainly false, but no-one was ever able to pierce its enigma.  It is the drama generally known as the Guillaume inconnu case, about which the whole of France became passionate.”

And he adds: 

“Lovach Blume will remain the German Campi.”

***

At his trial, Whitecliffe-Blume refused to give any information about where he had lived before the end of 1923.

***

The contents of his letter are known from the little revealed by the fiancee and her parents before they burned it.

***

In the letter, he explains his dual personality in terms of sorcery.  This is perhaps because of a taste for the romanesque, a literary sensitivity.  But his interpretation is so convincing, it is presented with such consummated art – he shows the effects in his own life – that his young fiancee decides to lock herself up for the rest of her life in a convent whose Rule is particularly severe.

The most singular part of this story is that it is the living illustration of the novel that made Robert Louis Stevenson famous, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  The story is well-known:  thanks to a drug, Dr Jekyll liberates the beast that hides within him.  Famous worldly doctor by day, he becomes an abominable monster at night.

At the end, his nocturnal personality inspires him with such fear and disgust that he commits suicide, confessing his secret to a friend in a letter.

The novel dates from 1886.  It is still very much in fashion when, thirty years later, a young English poet, who has many similarities with the dual character described by Stevenson, slips into the skin of the two-faced Jekyll-Hyde, in real life.

***

At this epoch, the mode of capital execution in use in Germany was still decollation by axe.  An execution which has always been reserved for aristocrats.  Is this why it was favoured by the young lord of letters?

***

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