HISTORY / “I see wonderful things!” Howard Carter exclaims in amazement as he sticks his hand with a flaming candle through a hole in the wall. Her flame timidly licks the vestibule of the more than three thousand year old tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. He finally found what he had been searching for years in the sand and sometimes hopelessly.
“I fear the Valley of the Kings is already exhausted,” shrugged Theodore M. Davis, the American patron of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings excavations in 1912. The hoes and shovels of tomb robbers and later archaeologists have already turned everything upside down, so continuing the research would be a waste of time, according to him. And this despite the fact that five years ago, his team discovered small burial objects with the mysterious name of a still unknown pharaoh…
A certain Howard Carter was of a different opinion. Although this enthusiastic Briton lacked an archaeological education, he made up for it with a passion for Egyptian history, stubborn determination and many years of hard work in field excavations. “Tutankhamun’s tomb just has to be around here somewhere,” Carter relentlessly convinced George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, when he entered his service. A British lord took over the license for an archaeological survey of the Valley of the Kings and became Carter’s patron.
World War I blew all the explorers away from the Valley of the Kings. Carter spent the turbulent war years as a translator and diplomatic courier for the British government. But the thought of the Egyptian secret still hidden somewhere under the deposits of sand and stones did not let him sleep. Already at the end of 1917, he returned with hope. In the arid, seemingly already completely explored valley, he tirelessly overturned stones to see if a secret entrance to the tomb was hidden beneath them, knocked on the rocks to see if a hollow sound would be the answer, dug probes. Nothing, still nothing.
He put the knife to his neck
Meanwhile, Lord Carnarvon was running out of both patience and finances. Looking at his ledgers, he observed with displeasure that his money was turning to dust due to the excavation. In 1922, he decided to stop this unnecessary spending. But Carter wasn’t about to give up, not yet. So they agreed on the last season.
November 4, 1922 came. One of the local boys who was carrying water to the workers suddenly cried out. When not far from the entrance to the tomb of Pharaoh Ramesses VI. he stuck a pot with a pointed bottom into the sand, he discovered what looked like a step. Carter was skeptical at first. However, step by step, the diggers got lower and lower… Until the descending passage, at the end of which a portal walled with stones awaited. And on it, in the thousand-year-old plaster, Carter was amazed to see the imprints of ancient seal marks. Some of them bore the name of Tutankhamun.
The temptation to barge in was too strong. Still, Carter pulled himself together and remembered who had provided for him financially all these years. “With a superhuman effort,” he admitted, he had the stairs thrown back, posted patrols, and sent one of the most famous telegrams in history to London: “At last you have made a great discovery in the Valley of the Kings – stop – a magnificent tomb found with the seals intact – stop – till your arrival again buried – stop – hearty congratulations – stop – Carter.’
Pure gold glittered everywhere
After three endless weeks, Lord Carnarvon arrived in Egypt with his daughter Evelyn Herbert. Together with assistant Arthur Callender, after removing the backfill from the access corridor, they approached the second sealed door. Carter cut a small hole in them, where he put his candle hand and then his head. “At first I could see nothing because the flame of the candle began to flicker due to the hot air escaping from the room. However, after a while, when the eyes got used to the light, the individual details of the room, strange animals, statues and gold slowly emerged from the haze. Everything had a sheen of gold. I was speechless for a moment,” he later recalled.
After widening the hole in the wall, a wonderful spectacle unfolded in front of them – statues of animals and people, chests decorated with gold and ivory, light chariots, decorated vases, royal couches… And also traces of thieves who made a mess in the room. Behind all this, however, stood a third sealed door. Carter was sure at that moment that the pharaoh himself was sleeping his eternal sleep behind them. As he confided in his book: “It was such a wonderful day that can only be experienced once and cannot be repeated more than once.”
The world went crazy, the names of a hitherto too unknown pharaoh and an even less known archaeologist were now inflected in all cases. Crowds of people were heading to the Valley of the Kings, the grave had to be guarded by an armed guard. Carter had been sneaking to the tomb before dawn so he could get to work unobserved. Nevertheless, people chanted his name several times during the day and called him out with applause.
It took weeks of painstaking work and gradual uncovering before Carter could finally enter the burial chamber. “At this moment, we didn’t even want to break the seals, because when we opened the door, we were seized with the feeling that we were disturbing the peace of the king,” he then admitted. What the experts saw exceeded their expectations. The crypt hid so many jewels, statuettes, clothes and war chariots that today these treasures occupy twelve rooms of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The mummy of Pharaoh Tutankhamun himself, which had to wait another three years for its unveiling, rested in an amazing sarcophagus made of three coffins. One of them is made of pure gold and weighs over a meter. The mummy’s face was covered by a majestic golden funeral mask, inlaid with lapis lazuli, carnelian, jasper and obsidian.
Carter wrote: “At such moments a thousand impressions overwhelm the respectable researcher, leaving him speechless. Even the most hardened person must realize the reverential horror of the mysterious shadows of the ancient past.” But to this day, the shadow of suspicion hangs over him that he took some things from the tomb without permission. Several dozen smaller items without the monarch’s name gradually made their way from the tomb to the whole world, to American museums, to the private property of Lord Carnarvon and other places.
Lord Carnarvon did not live to see Tutankhamun’s coffin opened. A few days after visiting the crypt, he was shaken by chills and began to rave. “The bird is scratching my face,” he allegedly shouted, covering his face with his hands. He allegedly got an infection in his shaving wound. He died in a few weeks. “Vulture Nechbet, protector of kings, will scratch the face of anyone who desecrates a grave!” people remembered the ancient incantation formula. The legend of the pharaoh’s curse that destroys anyone who disturbs his eternal sleep was born.
Carnarvon was not the only one. In a few months his younger brother died, then the Lord’s Secretary. Several people died during the work on the tomb – exactly eight in twelve years. Scientists today believe that in some cases the pharaoh may have had a hand in their deaths, although not in the way people told each other at the time. The cause of the illness and subsequent death could be fungal spores that multiplied in Tutankhamun’s tomb. And for a human who was weakened for whatever reason, it was hard to defeat them.
Carter didn’t believe any stories about Pharaoh’s curse. He always approached his work “with a sacred reverence and deep seriousness, but certainly without the haunting horror to which the sensation-hungry crowd so easily succumbs to its mysterious spell.” When he died in 1939, at the age of 64, secluded and almost forgotten, it was not because of the pharaoh, but for a much more prosaic reason – he was broken by cancer.
An insignificant, yet most famous pharaoh
Pharaoh Tutankhamun himself did not manage to do much in his short life. He ascended the throne as a nine-year-old sometime around 1333 BC and died about ten years later. DNA analyzes have shown that the son of the famous pharaoh Akhenaten (originally named Amenhotep IV), was not spared health problems in his short life. He had a small cleft palate and a deformed lower limb – his left leg was shorter than his right, and he had to lean on wooden sticks to walk. He also suffered from excessive enlargement of the male mammary glands.
An open fracture of the femur and the subsequent infection that settled in the wound, perhaps as a result of a fall from a horse, became fatal. “His only significant deed was to die and be buried,” Carter once said of him. But it was thanks to him that Tutankhamun and the treasures found in his tomb became a symbol of the power of ancient Egypt, an empire whose glory and power had long since been buried in the sand.