As I have written before on this blog, the Ancient Egyptians had many beliefs about death and the afterlife, and upon the pharaoh’s death they followed detailed rituals to ensure he or she would live on eternally. Crucial in the rituals was mummification of the pharaoh’s remains followed by entombment, to ensure that the pharaoh and his/her possessions would be protected by the god of death, Anubis (pictured above).
The idea of all this was that the tomb would remain sealed. For good. It was absolutely not a pharaoh’s desire that the tomb be opened one day and plundered by a robber – or, thousands of years later, by an eager Egyptologist.
Egyptology was all the rage in the 1800s and early 1900s. People with means from Europe flocked to Egypt for the thrill of solving ancient mysteries and uncovering great treasures – claiming treasures, even. Taking them from Egypt. Profiting from them.
Meanwhile, upon learning of the discoveries made in Egypt, some imaginative writers had begun dreaming up stories in which mummies were horrifying undead creatures who would seek revenge for their tombs having been disturbed. Louisa May Alcott is one such writer: famous these days for her Little Women series of books, she also published sensationalist short stories under a pen name, A.M. Barnard, and in 1869 she published ‘Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse’.
By the time Howard Carter opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, a rumour was circulating: that it was a dangerous business indeed to disturb the tombs of the ancient kings. Curses had been found inscribed outside sealed tombs, threatening any who entered everything from a life without pleasure to the destruction of the soul.
The local men working with Howard Carter were deeply superstitious and were terrified to open the tomb, and Carter and his team did nothing to reassure them, knowing that the men’s fear would keep them from exploring the tomb alone at night, when the excavations were paused. The dig continued, and such amazing treasures were unearthed… along with what would become the most famous mummy in history.
Howard Carter examining the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun
Then Lord Carnarvon, funder of the Tutankhamun dig, died from blood poisoning after a mosquito bite, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) declared that Carnarvon’s death was at the hands of what he called ‘elementals’ that guarded the tomb of King Tut… and the rest, as they say, is history. The press whipped up a sensationalist news story of disaster befalling all who disturbed the royal tombs, which was inaccurate but made Egyptology all the more exciting.
Howard Carter himself dismissed the curse as nonsense, saying that ‘the sentiment of the Egyptologist… is not one of fear, but of respect and awe… entirely opposed to foolish superstitions’.
‘Respect and awe’ with regard to Egyptian antiquities: this is a thread that runs through my novel Song of the Nile. In the book, Phares and Aida discuss the idea of the curse of the pharaohs while visiting the Temple of Philae.
Phares drew her attention back to the ruins of Philae. ‘These immense buildings have a certain solemn grandeur, don’t they?’
Aida nodded pensively. ‘When we walked through the Temple of Isis, I couldn’t help but feel that tramping these sacred places is somehow profane,’ she murmured. She glanced at the tall palms, their heavy branches seeming to bend over the ruins as though they were weeping, and gave a little shiver. ‘Do you believe in the curse of the Pharaohs? Do you think that in disturbing the tombs of the ancients, they signed their own death warrant, or that the strange number of deaths were caused by the release of bacterial spores, or whatever scientists now think?’
Phares shrugged. ‘My father believes that Egyptian curses are a product of our superstitious culture and their psychological impact can be powerful. When you look at those curses, they were designed to strike terror into the hearts of tomb robbers. For example, there are some tombs where the Pharaoh has inscribed a curse, like the one etched in the tomb of Khentika Ikhekhi, which reads something like: “Who ever shall enter my tomb will be judged … an end shall be made for him … I shall seize his neck like a bird … I shall cast the fear of myself into him.” I can’t remember the exact wording.’ He turned to Aida and smiled, catching hold of her hand. ‘Do you think we’ll be cursed for coming here, is that it, chérie?’
She laughed and shook her head, thinking of the Victorians and their plundering of the sacred tombs and temples of the island. Her English forebears perhaps deserved a curse or two to fall on their heads, she thought wryly.
Song of the Nile: available to buy now
To this day the treatment of Ancient Egyptian antiquities is a topic that is hotly debated. Around the world there are collections of artefacts that were taken from Egypt at the height of Egyptomania without the permission of the authorities. Should these be returned to Egypt? What of excavations: Is it sacrilegious to disturb an ancient tomb? Is it acceptable for tourists to visit tombs? And how about museums, should they collect and display mummies?
Tutankhamun on display
Whatever your opinion, it is clear that any approach to antiquities should be based on the tenets of respect and awe. In this way, we can honour the pharaohs.
And how they would have loved to be honoured! I doubt that the ancient pharaohs dreamed of being examined and displayed in museums thousands of years after their death, but they did dream of eternal life, of always being known and revered. In a sense, then, the discoveries of the past 200 years have enacted the magic of the death rituals: the pharaohs will live eternally.
Photo credits: 1) Vladimir Melnik/Shutterstock.com; 2) New York Times/Wikipedia.