Another strange death is that of Jay Gould the day after his visit to Howard Carter.  He is stricken with a strong fever and dies the same evening.  And Lady Almira who, like her husband, seems to have been stung by an insect.  These five or six troubling deaths – those occurring a few hours or a few days after a visit to the tomb, or pulmonary congestions occurring a few weeks later – are sufficient to develop all sorts of hypotheses.

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The most improbable of these hypotheses is from certain American scholars attached to laboratories in Oakridge.  It supposes that the Ancient Egyptians had discovered radioactivity.  They had noted the destructive effects of atomic radiations emitted by radioactive matter, without being able to domesticate them.  The priests had deposited some of this matter inside the tombs of the pharaohs, in particular that of Tutankhamun.

The partisans of this theory mention K. Dorbal, a Czech physicist, who perceived radioactive signals in the Khephren pyramid.  As well as this, the Egypt of the pharaohs had attained, in the domains of scientific and philosophical knowledge, a very advanced degree.  The study of hieroglyphs and pyramids shows us that one thousand years before the present era, the Egyptians knew more about mathematics and astronomy than the scholars of the Middle Ages.  In 2350 before our era, there was a library in Memphis containing several tens of thousands of volumes.  Most of this knowledge was engulfed in the great night of the barbarous times.  So, why not a few atomic secrets, too?

But the scholars who studied the objects and mummies found inside the tombs never presented any evident clinical signs of radiodermititis, the well-known illness of radiologists.  Also, no trace of radioactivity has been registered with a Geiger counter.  Another hypothesis:  a poison was put on the mummy’s bandelettes.  The sweet almond oil which impregnated them, had, in time, suffered a chemical transformation to become mortal prussic acid.  This acid was known to the Egyptians who transmitted it to the Romans – it is thought that Nero used it to kill Britannicus.  Certain hieroglyphs also allude to a mortal sap from the peach or almond flower.  But, if the pulmonary congestions are classed among the inexplicable cases, this poison cannot be the cause.  Pulmonary congestion is provoked by an abnormal flux of blood to the lung’s vessels, which engenders serious respiratory problems, while the poison kills by neurotoxicity.  Toxines fix themselves electrically onto the nervous system.  If there were poison, the embalmers would have been the first victims.  And with the passing of the centuries, could this toxic substance still be efficient?

Oral absorption is not very plausible for it means that the archaeologists must have licked the objects.  The hypothetical poison on archaeological material is able to penetrate the body through perspiration or small wounds.  But are there poisons capable of acting after such a long time?

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The theory that the “curse” of the pharaohs is due to a virus has more partisans.  It would explain the differences in the times of the deaths.  It rests on the fact that all of the scholars who participated in the exhumation of Tutankhamun’s mummy, either directly, or from afar, suffered from a sort of epidemic.  Archaeologists, assistants, workers and even employees of the Cairo Antiques Service, complained of itchiness and skin irritation, accompanied by a strong  irritation of the throat, the larynx and even the bronchial tubes.  Carter consulted doctors who were incapable of determining the cause of these symptoms.  At the time, it was called “the Copte sickness”, without anyone really knowing what it was.

In 1962, two Egyptian scholars, Dr Mohamed Sayed Abdel, Professor of Work Medicine, and Dr Ezzedine Taha, Professor of Micro-Organism Chemistry at the National Research Centre in Cairo, called to treat archaeologists suffering from the same illness, announce that, examining a Copte mummy from the IVth Century before the present era, they discovered the germs of a still-living virus.  Is this virus responsible for the death of Lord Carnavon and a few others?

The magazine Histoire pour Tous reports the opinion of Pr Lepine, Head of the Virus Service at the Pasteur Institute and inventor of the French vaccine against polio.  He declares:

“I remain extremely sceptical.  Apparently, it could be the symptoms of “Q fever”, a fever that is widespread today in the Orient, and whose virus, very resistant, is conserved in dust.  We have no reason to believe that the archaeologists worked in a dust-free zone, on the contrary.  As well as that, we know that the preparation of mummies included their immersion in extremely antiseptic solutions:  it is very doubtful that any viruses could have resisted their action, just as it is not very likely that they could have survived thousands of years.  I would therefore only accept the hypothesis of my Egyptian colleagues with the benefit of an inventory, and with strict scientific controls.  We are still far from that.”

Pr Lepine recalls, with humour, that in the Middle Ages, mummy powder, baptised “moumiah”, was supposed to possess magical properties which made it almost a panacea.  It was apparently particularly sovereign for curing phthisis.  Four or five hundred mummies were sent each year from Alexandria to France and Italy, where they were reduced to powder before being administered to patients in the form of potions.  The consummation of “moumiah” resulted in a shortage of mummies in Egypt – which perhaps explains why the archaeologists of the XXth Century found so many empty tombs and sarcophages – the prices climbed so high that, in the XVIth Century, to meet the crisis and still keep on treating tuberculosis sufferers, the Faculty of Medicine in Paris suggested replacing the mummy powder by the fat from hanged men, which possessed, it said, identical properties.

It could always be said that a number of patients treated with moumiah died from the virus discovered by Sayed Abdel and Ezzedine Taha…

To be continued.

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