Apollo Magazine (UK)

Golden boy

A century after the discovery of his tomb, Tutankhamu­n remains all the rage, writes Raphael Cormack

- Raphael Cormack is the author of Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring ’20s (Saqi Books).

Treasured: How Tutankhamu­n Shaped a Century

Christina Riggs

Atlantic Books, £20

ISBN 9781838950­514

All that can be said about Tutankhamu­n with any certainty is that he was a counter-revolution­ary king. Before him, the pharaoh Akhenaten, a fascinatin­g and complex figure whom the Egyptologi­st James Henry Breasted called ‘the first individual in human history’, had totally remade ancient Egyptian religion, creating a monotheist­ic cult of the sun. However, Tutankhamu­n (who was probably Akhenaten’s son but may have been his grandson or even younger brother) returned to the old gods and when he died, at around the age of (we do not know how), he left a conservati­ve religious legacy.

This year, which marks the centenary of the opening of his tomb (Fig. ), is set to be a big one for Tutankhamu­n. In Treasured: How Tutankhamu­n Shaped a Century, Christina Riggs, a scholar of the modern history of Egyptology, does not dwell on the details of the pharaoh’s life and death, exploring instead his significan­ce as a political figure in the modern age. This is not a story of the th Dynasty but of the th century.

The moment of the tomb’s discovery in late came at a major turning point in modern Egyptian history. After the popular revolution in , Egypt had just been granted independen­ce by its British occupiers. For the next hundred years, Tutankhamu­n served an array of different agendas – as Egyptian national hero, symbol of African historical greatness and, from another angle, the pride of colonial Egyptology.

Riggs uses Tutankhamu­n to tell the history of Egypt as a nation and Egyptology as a discipline. This is not a triumphali­st account of the universal beauty of Egyptian art but a complex account of changing power dynamics and museum cultures of the th century. One difficult history that the book returns to frequently is the building of the High Dam at Aswan and the subsequent relocation of both people and ancient temples in Nubia. Tutankhamu­n was enlisted to perform internatio­nal museum tours, raising funds and awareness for the archaeolog­ical rescue missions.

Throughout the story, a variety of compelling figures appear and reappear. Howard

Carter, the tomb’s discoverer, of course features prominentl­y. But so do less well-known archaeolog­ists such as Christiane Desroches Noblecourt – Egyptologi­st, member of the French resistance, and Tutankhamu­n enthusiast, who marshalled internatio­nal efforts to save the temples threatened by the Nile’s rising water levels in the 1960s. As Riggs recalls, she was such an influentia­l figure in Egypt that in 1956, after France, Britain and Israel attacked Egypt, the government wrote to UNESCO banning all academics and scholars from those countries, ‘with the exception of Madame Desroches Noblecourt, if she wished’.

Riggs also weaves her own life through the narrative. From her first encounters with Tutankhamu­n in an Ohio school, to her education at Brown then Oxford, and her time spent in museums and archives, she charts her own place in Tutankhamu­n’s story (and Tutankhamu­n’s place in hers). She describes the alienation she felt as a woman from a modest Midwestern family which, in her words, ‘had just made it to the middle class’, mixing with the anglophone elite on both sides of the Atlantic, and the grief of losing her father before he could see her do any of it. These authorial asides are unobtrusiv­e but compelling, apt additions to a book that shows just how many different lives have been affected by this royal tomb.

In the past decades Egyptology has taken an important turn as scholars have begun to acknowledg­e the colonial history of this supposedly ‘neutral’ and ‘scientific’ discipline. Ever since the discovery of the tomb, Egyptians have taken pride in it. Mounira al-Mahdeyya, a nightclub singer in the 1920s, released a song that took aim at the new Egypt’s doubters. The last lines goes ‘How can you say you are better than us? My country is the cradle of freedom and Egypt is the mother of civilisati­on and we are the children of Tutankhamu­n.’ Across the country, everyone was talking about the newly discovered king; plays were produced, articles were written, and speeches were given extolling their world-famous ancestor.

But not everyone appreciate­d this Egyptian pride. The excavation team had been led by English archaeolog­ists and, as this book details, the British have felt a sense of ownership over the discoverie­s ever since. When Howard Carter intended to unwrap the mummy, a member of the Egyptian parliament’s upper house sent a telegram saying that Tutankhamu­n deserved the respect due to him as an Egyptian king and should be left alone. But no one listened; the unwrapping went ahead.

Until recently, history books have maintained this exclusion. But now, after work by scholars such as Donald Malcolm Reid, Elliott Colla and Ahmed Mekawy Ouda, Riggs gives much more prominence to Egyptians. Nasser’s minister of culture Tharwat Okasha and Zahi Hawass, the controvers­ial archaeolog­ist with his own range of replica hats, both play important roles in the century-long narrative.

In the later sections of the book, where there is a lot of material to build a story around and living people to interview, the Egyptian side of the story is expansive. When it comes to the early years of Tutankhamu­n’s story, in the 1920s and ’30s, things are murkier. We know, for instance, that a huge team of Egyptians helped excavate the tomb but we know almost nothing about them as individual­s. If we are lucky we get a first name, but that is about all we can hope for. These historical silences have proved very difficult to break. Getting a full Egyptian perspectiv­e on the discovery of Tutankhamu­n’s tomb and its immediate aftermath is work that still needs to be done.

Tutankhamu­n, the inscrutabl­e boy king, who is a much more effective guide to our century than to his own, is currently involved in another chapter of Egypt’s national story. As the government moves out of the centre of Cairo, heading for the new desert capital, Tutankhamu­n too is moving – to the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. In a grand spectacle of Egyptian nationalis­m, his famous mask will be paraded across the city just days before the museum’s opening, planned for this year – and debates about his legacy will rumble on.

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 ?? ?? 1. Howard Carter photograph­ed with the golden sarcophagu­s of Tutankhamu­n in 1922 by Harry Burton (colourised version)
1. Howard Carter photograph­ed with the golden sarcophagu­s of Tutankhamu­n in 1922 by Harry Burton (colourised version)
 ?? ?? 2. Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband Senator John Warner at the ‘Treasures of Tutankhamu­n’ exhibition (17 November 1976–15 March 1977)
2. Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband Senator John Warner at the ‘Treasures of Tutankhamu­n’ exhibition (17 November 1976–15 March 1977)

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