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.

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