The Egyptians have, for millennia, had what seems to us a peculiar attitude to the dead. In ancient times, tombs of noblemen and royalty were invested with considerable resources and treasures to accompany the dead into the afterlife. It could well be imagined that a festival attitude accompanied the sumptuous burials.
In Islamic times, tombs were things to be lived with. No visitor to Cairo should miss out on the astonishing spectacle of the city of the dead. A collection of tombs and funerary complexes attracted first visitors, then permanent residents. These days the city of the dead is indistinguishable from many residential parts of Cairo, with the addition of some stupendous Mamluke funerary architecture. Nobody at all thinks living in this way remotely macabre or strange.
So when we hear about the conscious display of a pharaoh's corpse by the Egyptian authorities, it is tempting to suppress any sense of bad taste in the interests of cultural diversity. Modern Egyptians have a different attitude to death than we do, as indeed did ancient Egyptians. One's immediate response might not be an appropriate one at all.
The flamboyant Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's Council of Antiquities, has unveiled the corpse of Tutankhamun himself. The date was to coincide with the 85th anniversary of Howard Carter's discovery of the undisturbed tomb. No doubt, too, the showing of the corpse was intended to drum up some interest in a world-wide touring show of some treasures from Tutankhamun's tomb, about to arrive in London.
There has been some criticism that the 130 objects in the exhibition, including 50 from Tutankhamun's tomb, are less spectacular in reality than anticipated, or remembered from the famous 1972 touring show. Mr Hawass's exuberant display may have been intended to remind the ticket-buyers of the world of some of the mystery of ancient Egypt.
"With his beautiful buck teeth," Mr Hawass said, "the tourists will see a little bit of the smile from the face of the golden boy." The corpse will be placed upright in a glass case in the tomb of the pharaoh, protected from the breath and evaporated sweat of thousands of visitors which presents serious problems of preservation in this fragile and largely enclosed environment.
To me, this looks like a sad and an unattractive object. The body of the 19-year-old boy is blackened into charcoal, his teeth peeping through the mouth. I find it difficult to reconcile any kind of notion of the dignity of death with the idea of putting a dead body, however old, in a glass case for people to pay to stare at. The trappings of Tutankhamun's tomb – the sublime funerary mask and the extraordinary beds and caskets – are one thing. They are the trappings of a civilisation, and don't represent a human being, but rather the nobility of his status. But Tutankhamun's corpse is another matter. That, really, is just a human being.
On the whole, we used only to put dead bodies on display in such a manner to express our contempt for the dead. One thinks of the display of the corpses of Mussolini and Clara Petacci at the end of the Second World War in Milan. Very occasionally, a corpse might be displayed in churches to demonstrate its extraordinary sanctity. Recently, things have started to change, and being remarkable neither for great wickedness or great virtue will no longer preserve you against being put on display. I found it very difficult to come to terms with Gunther von Hagen's travelling show of laminated corpses in undignified positions, believing that the dead ought to be treated better than that.
There is something distasteful about the failure to treat the dead with proper respect, to bury or cremate them with due ceremony. For me, and for many people, the respect due to the dead does not diminish with the decades or the centuries.
Just because there is nobody around to object to the display of a relation's remains in a glass case or in a museum doesn't make it right. I don't think that any curiosity could justify the public display of a dead body for the amusement of the paying public.
We could say that the robust attitude of the Egyptians to this is a product of their particular culture, to which we have no real right to object. That is absolutely true. But the particular culture that we are observing here is not, in my view, a historic one or one rooted deeply in their lives. You can visit the sublime tomb of Barquq in Cairo, but the culture would never have invited you to look at his corpse for the sake of entertainment.
The particular culture which has produced this obscene display is, surely, the one which requires the Egyptians to make as much capital as they possibly can out of their immensely rich cultural patrimony. The country relies enormously on foreign tourism, and, in that region, it is a highly vulnerable source of income. No wonder they have to work hard to create interest; no wonder that dignified and serious people is being driven to display not just their treasures, but their ancestors themselves, against all propriety and decency.
That is the culture that this treatment of the dead comes from; and it is not one of the Egyptians' own creation.
The writer was named Journalist of the Year in the latest Stonewall AwardsReuse content