Originally published July 4, 2009 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel
“Now if I'd known,
They'd line up just to see him,
I'd've taken all my money,
And bought me a museum”
1978, lyrics from “King Tut,” Steve Martin
In 1978, at age 23, I stood anxiously waiting in a long line outside the Los Angeles County Museum for my chance to see relics from King Tut’s tomb. It certainly wasn’t common in the 1970s for artifacts to generate concert-ticket-length queues, let alone record-breaking museum attendance. But King Tut was a cultural phenomenon like no other. From 1976-79, nearly eight million Americans viewed “The Treasurers of Tutankhamun” during sold-out tours at each museum it appeared—including the de Young in San Francisco. Passions ignited for all things Egyptian—especially the boy king himself—unleashing a consumer phenomenon that included jewelry, clothing, dance moves, songs and even hairstyles.
The American frenzy for ancient Egypt wasn’t unique to the 70s, however. In 1922, English archaeologist Howard Carter launched the first wave of Tutmania when he originally discovered the long-forgotten tomb of King Tut. For the next decade, photographs of the objects that emerged had a wide ranging influence on America, from product advertisements (cigarettes and soap), to automobiles (the Scarab), to Hollywood movies (“The Mummy”), to art and architecture (art deco).
Last week I avoided the long lines I experienced 30 years ago by attending the press preview of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” at the de Young Museum. I photographed the refreshment tables featuring pyramid-shaped vanilla yogurt on crackers, and cream cheese-stuffed dates looking very much like tiny coffins. I listened to various dignitaries, including the famed Egyptian scholar/explorer, Zahi Hawass, discuss the importance of the exhibit to San Francisco and Egypt, since proceeds from the exhibit will go not only to the museum, but also back to Egypt to further its efforts to excavate and preserve antiquities. (According to Hawass, Egypt never saw a dime from the 1970s U.S. tour.) And I lingered over each item in the exhibit itself.
Now that I’ve seen this amazing exhibit and done a bit of reading, I’d like to take a stab at answering that nagging questions, why is the West it so fascinated by the world of the pharaohs?
It figures that a 19-year-old king who died in 1323 BC might leave behind a few unanswered questions such as: How did he die? Was he murdered? Who were his parents? Who were the fetuses buried with him? Modern technology may help to definitively uncover some of these mysteries through CT scans DNA testing.
You can take it with you
Ancient Egyptians believed that you can and should take it with you, so they buried royalty and those of high status in tombs packed with all the things they would need in the afterlife—both practical and beautiful. Essential for eternal survival and pleasure were items such as mummified meat, jars of wine, clothing, eye-paint, weapons, chariots, boats, etc. In young Tut’s case, his tomb also contained possessions he enjoyed during his lifetime such as a child’s chair and gameboards. Also included were funerary figures called shabtis, placed in the tomb to perform menial tasks for the tomb owner in the afterlife. And wrapped up with the mummy itself were amulets and charms—often made of gold or inlaid with semiprecious stones—to help protect the deceased on his journey to and existence in the afterlife.
Many pharaohs were buried in tombs in the Valley of the Kings—Tut’s being one of the smaller tombs probably because of his premature death. But what sets King Tut’s tomb apart from all the others is the fact that it was discovered intact with all its riches—virtually untouched by thieves. Tutankhamun died without an heir and the subsequent pharaohs, who, for whatever reason, wiped Tut’s name from the official record, inadvertently ensuring that his tomb would remain safe for centuries and his name would live forever.
The creepiness factor
“Oh Mister Tut they dig the tomb
All that gold leaf brightens up a room…
Your sarcophagus is glowing but your esophagus is showing
Who cares how rich you are love
When you look like Boris Karloff?”
1986, lyrics from “Dead Egyptian Blues,” Michael Smith
In America, mummies are the stuff of nightmares and horror films, usually brought back to life by some ancient spell. But to an ancient Egyptian, embalming and preserving the dead for the afterlife made perfect sense and was practiced as a very meticulous science. Each internal organ—the lungs, liver, stomach and intestines—had to be removed, dried and preserved in separate containers. The brain, which would hasten the process of decay if left in the body, was removed through the nose. The head was shaved and coated with a fatty material. The entire body was wrapped in layered strips of linen. (The penis was held perpendicular to the body as if erect.) Within the linen bandages that enveloped the mummy were about 150 objects, most of gold. What we might consider materialistic and creepy, the Egyptians considered essential to eternal well-being.
Pyramids and Papyrus
“All the old paintings on the tombs
They do the sand dance don’t you know”
1986, lyrics from “Walk Like an Egyptian,” The Bangles
Ancient Egyptian art is perhaps the most easily recognized art in the world. Smooth-sided pyramids of monstrous proportions; colorful paintings of buff men and women with faces in profile and liberally applied eye-liner; papyrus scrolls telling stories with columns of beautifully expressive picture-writing (hieroglyphics)—Egyptian art has a style and mystique that’s all its own and still resonates with us today, thousands of years later.
America’s passion for all things Egyptian will no doubt be ignited once again by “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs." I’m embarrassed to admit that 30 years after I first made contact with King Tut’s accoutrements, my most vivid memory is not of his treasurers, but of Larry Hagman (a.k.a. J. R. Ewing), discussing an exhibit display with a friend. Hopefully, the greater purpose of the exhibit and this cooperative exchange between countries will not be lost on me this time. As Sameh Shoukry, Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the U.S. so eloquently described the big picture at the press preview: sharing the heritage of humanity, recognizing the commonality of our values, and breaking the stereotypes for those who would like to see more tranquility in the world.
IF YOU GO
What: Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: June 27 to March 28
Tickets: $15 to $32.50, depending on age, membership and days of week