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)

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?