Historical Notes: Immortality restored to Tutankhamen

ASKED ABOUT the Curse of the Pharaohs, Howard Carter gave the invariably succinct response: "The answer is spherical and in the plural." Even so, almost 80 years after the opening of the only undisturbed tomb ever to be found in the Valley of the Kings, Carter's great find remains as famous for the doom it supposedly brought down upon its discoverers as for the splendour of its treasures. Ever since the death of Lord Carnarvon, Carter's sponsor, less than five months after he first entered the tomb, it has been a popular superstition that a pharaoh's vengeance can indeed reach out from beyond the grave.

In fact, as Carter himself never tired of pointing out, there was never any ancient tradition of placing curses to guard a pharaoh's tomb. If anything, pharaohs were more likely to be the victim of curses themselves. All it required was for the memory of their names to be destroyed, for then, according to Egyptian belief, they would be denied the chance of eternal life. Ironically, this had been the fate of Tutankhamen himself: his name had been chiselled from all his inscriptions, nor had he appeared on any of the traditional king lists. For three and a half thousand years, he had endured oblivion.

But Tutankhamen's disgrace existed in the shadow of a much greater one. It was a mystery which Carter himself, at the age of 19, had come across on his very first excavation. In the 1880s a remote and previously unknown city had been discovered. Images of the pharaoh who had built it had been found on nearby cliffs, but carved in a unique and unsettling style. The usual harmonies of Egyptian art had been jettisoned: the king was shown with a swollen skull, a grotesquely thinned face and a feminine physique.

He was invariably represented as worshipping the disc of the sun, while of the traditional gods of Egypt there was not a trace. It was this monotheism which appeared to have been responsible for a systematic attempt to obliterate the pharaoh's legacy utterly, and that of his successors. Nevertheless, amidst all the excisions, some undamaged cartouches were eventually found, and the heretic's name, Akhenaten, was restored to him at last.

The Egyptologist Arthur Weigall, writing about Akhenaten's revolution, cast him as a visionary who had dared to challenge the ancient priesthood, and compared him to Moses. In 1911, Weigall proposed staging a play in the Valley of the Queens, with the stated aim of appeasing the ancient gods, and lifting the curse which had condemned Akhenaten to a ceaseless wandering after death. At the first rehearsal, however, a violent storm blew up; an actress was blinded by a sudden attack of trachoma, while Weigall's own wife was struck down with a life-threatening stomach condition. Both women later recovered, but the play itself had to be abandoned, never to be performed.

The relevance of this to the hysteria surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb some 13 years later is evident. There can be no doubt that the vengeance of the priests against Akhenaten, the effort to obliterate his name and to damn his afterlife, provided the crucial seedbed for the legend of the Curse. This was all the more so because Tutankhamen was not only Akhenaten's successor but also probably his son. Weigall himself, who had always loathed Carter, and was reduced to covering the excavation of the tomb as a journalist, did much to give the Curse its spurious authenticity. Happy to make mischief, he also knew what would make good copy for the Daily Mail.

Of course, in the end this only added to Tutankhamen's fame. By a final irony, it was the very myth of the Curse which helped to frustrate the vengeance of the priests. No longer a forgotten princeling, Tutankhamen became the most celebrated name in Egyptian history - and thereby gained a true immortality at last.

Tom Holland is the author of `The Sleeper in the Sands' (Abacus, pounds 6.99)