Howard Carter is not very surprised at the demonstration of hostility by a hundred or so Arabs, at Tutankhamun’s tomb. The speech that has just been addressed to him is too perfect to be spontaneous. He knows that the religious sects are working to create a climate of fear around his discovery. And not only by invectives: tourists en route for the Valley of the Kings have been attacked several times by bands of bandits – but, are they really bandits? – who have robbed and wounded them; it is said that one of them is dead. Carter knows that the Egyptian authorities are not doing very much to prevent these incidents. He is even asking himself if they aren’t encouraging them discretely. The Cairo Government would not be annoyed to see the searchers pack their bags. The Egyptian newspapers, imitated by certain European newspapers, openly accuse Lord Carnavon of being a mercenary man, who is only thinking about getting his money back, money that he has spent on the digs, and even to make a profit, by selling Tutankhamun’s treasure to the highest bidding museums or individuals.
Two days later, when he reads the first newspaper reports consecrated to the Visit of the Tomb, Carter has a new cause for disgruntlement. In front of the door that is soon going to be opened, he had deciphered, for the journalists, an inscription which he had already translated for himself, considering it a simple curiosity, to which no particular importance should be given, for it figures at the entrance to numerous pharaonic necropolises. He had read in a detached voice:
“Death will touch with its wings whomever disturbs the pharaoh.”
The journalists did not miss underlining the prediction and, naturally, connected it to the menaces proffered by the chief of the demonstrators who had stoned them. Some ironise, others believe or pretend to believe. In any case, they talk about the “curse” and Carter could have done without this supplementary publicity.
Lord Carnavon is in no better humour than his assistant when he returns from England, on 7 February, in the company of his daughter. He wants to forbid the Egyptian public servant entry to the tomb, and finally decides to proceed to the piercing of the last door in secret, alone with Carter and a few workers. Carter tries to reason with him: an official ceremony is planned for 18 February, in the presence of numerous guests, including the Queen of the Belgians and the Egyptian authorities. If the tomb is opened without them, there is going to be a scandal… Carnavon refuses to listen. Since he is not going to be allowed to freely dispose of the treasure, he at least wants the privilege and the pleasure of giving the first blow of the pick! Some, among those who believe in the curse of the pharaohs, will later see in this stubbornness, the fatal mark of destiny.
In the middle of the day, under a burning sun which is sure to keep away any prying eyes, Carnavon and Carter slip into the tomb, with precautions worthy of thieves. At 1 : 50 p.m., Carnavon raises his pick. Ten minutes later, the ray of the electric lamp, shone into the hole by Carter, is reflected from a yellowish surface, which glows feebily. A wall of gold! Under the flow of emotion, Carnavon recovers his cool head. He tells Carter:
“That’s enough. I simply wanted to be sure that we would not be ridiculous in front of the official guests. The real tomb is there. We shall wait for the ceremony to widen the breach.”
And here is the great day. Sunday, 18 February 1923. The beginning of the ceremony has been fixed at 8 o’clock in the morning, to avoid the heat. The entrance to the tomb, at the top of the sixteen steps, is decorated with British and Egyptian flags. On either side of the staircase, two rows of mounted guards greet the guests as they alight from their cars. Lord Allenby, High Commissioner of Great Britain, arrives first, so as not to miss the Dowager Sultana of Egypt, who alights from her Rolls Royce, the Ambassadors of France and Belgium, several Egyptian Ministers and, all in white – white tailored suit, white fox stole – Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth, Lord Carnavon’s protectrice, on the arm of her son, Prince Leopold.
The guests – around twenty – having grouped themselves in the left-hand side of the antechamber, Carter, Carnavon, Callender and an American archaeologist, Arthur Mace, who is part of Carter’s team since November, attack the wall. After having removed a dozen stones, Carter understands. It is not a gold wall that he has in front of him. It is one of the panels of an enormous chest which almost fills the room. A chest of gilded wood. The archaeologists have to double their precautions so as not to harm it, and it takes them no less than two hours to completely knock down the wall.
After which, Carter slips inside the chamber, between the wall and the chest, followed by Mace. Two men cannot pass side by side: this detail has its importance, for it is because of the narrowness of this passage that the objects of inestimable value, which had been placed by the priests inside a fifth little room, communicating with the funeral chamber by a low door, are able to be found intact.
For the moment, it is the big gilded wooden chest which intrigues Carter. A chest? Rather a sort of catafalque which measures three metres high by five long and three metres thirty wide. The image of the falcon-god, Horus, is drawn on the sides. Above the doors floats a winged sun. Signs of magical appearance designed to protect the pharaoh’s sleep, decorate the door panels. It is the burial place. But, has it been respected? Is Tutankhamun’s mummy still there? This is what Carter is asking himself while the guests slip one by one along the walls and group behind him.
To be continued.