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On The Road with Joanie Maro: Discovering King Tut

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’”[1]

Genevieve Hathaway_Tutankhamune Mask
Tutankhamun’s Funerary Mask. Cairo Museum. 2003. Photo: Genevieve Hathaway

The discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922 was the archaeological triumph of the 20th century. Although today King Tut is the best-known ancient Egyptian pharaoh, historically speaking he was a minor figure who accomplished very little in his short reign. The boy king was born in 1341 BCE, during the 18th dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom, as the son of the “Heretic Pharaoh”, Akhenaten. Tut ruled as pharaoh for 8-9 years before dying of unknown causes. Due to Tut’s controversial lineage, and the political turmoil of the time, after his death his name was essentially erased from history, until his discovery in the Valley of the Kings centuries later.

The discovery of his tomb was extraordinary because it was one of the few tombs in the Valley of the Kings that had been left undisturbed by grave robbers. The man credited for the discovery, Howard Carter, an English Egyptologist, had a hunch that Tutankhamen lay beneath the Valley of the Kings even though conventional archeological wisdom declared that all the area’s tombs had been found, and robbed, previously. In 1914, supported by his British benefactor Lord Carnarvon, Carter began his search in earnest. For seven years his efforts bore no fruit and his colleagues were not shy about vocalizing their lack of confidence in his work. Carter, however, never lost faith that he would make the discovery and in November 1922, during the last season of exploration that Lord Carnarvon said he could support, Carter’s luck changed. His Egyptian laborers uncovered a series of steps leading down to a sealed door, which would lead to the most celebrated archaeological discovery in recent history.[2]

Photo of Howard Carter. Wikipedia. Creative Commons.
Photo of Howard Carter. Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

Although Carter recognized the tomb’s significance at once, he did not foresee the extraordinary impact the discovery would have on not just the people of his own time, but of the people yet to be born who would dedicate their life to the study of Egyptology. Uncovering a treasure trove buried beneath the sands, the mysterious circumstances surrounding King Tut’s death, and the subsequent unprecedented frenzy of media attention, is the reason many people dream of becoming Egyptologists. Just as Carter’s discovery marked renewed interest in the field of Egyptology in 1922, so did learning about the famous boy king spark life long interests in prospective Egyptologists. People like me.

Like many children learning about ancient Egypt for the first time, I was completely mesmerized by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. As I grew up and pursued the field of Egyptology, I began to relate to Howard Carter’s struggle to remain hopeful of success despite the odds stacked against him. To pursue Egyptology as a career one most have incredible inner strength and faith in oneself. There is a limited job market and it is an excruciating process to get grants to conduct excavation. Despite this, Egyptologists continue to push on because we love the subject so much we are willing to put all of our faith into it, despite the odds of success being minimal.

I’ve spent hours imagining myself standing at a peephole in the tomb wall and seeing “wonderful things”. Like many I spent hours in long lines and crowds for a limited viewing of King Tut’s artifacts when they toured local museums. But to visit his actual tomb is something few have the opportunity to do.

***

It is still dark outside the small Nubian style villa that my mother and I are renting from a local on the West Bank of Luxor. I can hear the village rooster crowing, so it must be time to rise. I am on the second leg of my first trip to Egypt, and my experience thus far has been incredible, but it was today that I had been looking forward to for the last 25 years of my life. It was the day I would go inside King Tut’s tomb. The phrase that Howard Carter uttered when he first discovered the tomb, “I see wonderful things” had been floating in my mind since the night before and I couldn’t wait to relive his moments of initial discovery. I rose from bed with a grin and dressed quickly in the stiffening cold of my bedroom. My mind was already inside the tomb and I wondered what the air inside would feel like.

My guide Samar picked my mother and I up right after sunrise. The Egyptians equated the rising sun to the triumphant rebirth and continuation of the universe after the sun god spent all night fighting through the chaotic underworld. Never missing out on a chance to find the significance in symbolism, I felt like my life leading up to this day was like fighting through those chaotic waters, and this morning I was rising as a new person whose dreams were about to be fulfilled.

We drove the short distance through the rural town of Luxor to get to the Valley of the Kings, the place where so many Pharaohs of Egypt were interred in tombs buried beneath the earth. Surrounded in death by treasures of unimaginable value, the pharaohs hoped to elude discovery by grave robbers that had violated the burial vaults of their predecessors. Their efforts were unsuccessful; thieves pillaged all of the buried tombs in the Valley – except one of course, that of King Tut.

The limestone cliffs rose up on either side of us as we approached the Valley. The sun was already high in the sky upon our arrival and it beat down on us with incredible force. Egypt’s Valley of the Kings is a desolate place. The arid valley supports no vegetation and provides no shelter from the relentless sun and the ground is a mixture of sand and small rocks that broil in the heat. However, this lifeless landscape was the place that sprouted my childhood dreams and allowed them to be nourished, thrive, and to bloom as an adult.

Valley_of_the_Kings_panorama
Valley of the Kings panorama, Egypt. Photo by Nikola Smolenski. This image was created with Hugin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 rs. Creative Commons.

As we stepped out of the car, the surrounding cliffs reflected the rays of the sun and shot them right back at us. We were completely exposed to the life giving rays and I couldn’t help but immediately see why so many Egyptian Pharaohs were buried here in order to be born again in the afterlife. The sweltering heat engulfed us immediately and I did not envy the workman thousands of years ago responsible for drilling into the rock faces.

We purchased our ticket for 100EGP, the equivalent of 12USD, a bargain as far as I am concerned to see the tomb of King Tut and the sum total of my travel and personal goals. I looked around and noticed instantly that there wasn’t a tourist in sight. “Are we really the only ones here?” I thought. “Will I be able to be in King Tut’s tomb all by myself?” The prospect was thrilling and like the tomb’s discovery in 1922, once in a lifetime.

We took a rickety train cart up the hill to the tomb’s entrance. I looked around again; there still wasn’t another visitor in sight. I asked the guard if there was anyone else in the tomb. He said no. My mom, bless her, let me go down into the tomb alone first. I remember standing at the entrance to the burial shaft, a rough square cut into the hillside, and feeling nervous. I knew that I was about to enter into the place where dreams were made. Call me sentimental, but its true. How many of us can say that we haven’t fantasized about making a discovery like Carter’s in the Valley of the Kings? Regardless of the sentimentality of my reflection, this is the place all people imagine going, and I could feel it, and I was about to step into it.

I tried to savor every moment before I entered, knowing that there was never going to be another first time entering King Tut’s tomb. My mind willingly transported itself back to 1922, and like a kid playing make believe I imagined myself Howard Carter, looking through the peephole, candle flame flickering, and seeing wonderful things. I gripped the sides of the entrance, the white limestone flaking off around my sweaty fingers, and made my descent.

I crawled down the shaft, slowly, marveling at how basic this tunnel in the earth was. There was nothing spectacular about it. It was as white as chalk with no inscriptions or designs. I let my hand run over the sides, knowing that Carter’s workmen had helped hack away at this entrance.

When I stepped into the tomb, I walked up to a wooden barrier, that separates you from

Burial chamber tomb reliefs. Tutankhamun. Valley of the Kings. Photo: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.
Burial chamber tomb reliefs. Tutankhamun. Valley of the Kings. Photo: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

the walls, and I immediately viewed the Northern Wall, the mural I had seen photographed in countless books, depicting three scenes of Tut on a bright yellow backdrop. To the right Tut stood in the form of Osiris, in the middle he was drawn as a young boy greeted by the Sky Goddess Nut, to the left he stood in a scene arguably depicting his acceptance into the Afterlife with his Ka (spiritual representation) standing besides him.

I then studied the Southern Wall of the burial chamber, which had been damaged by Carter. With no easy way to access the room, he had chiseled his way through, damaging the portrait of the Goddess Isis that I was now gazing at. I then slowly turned to view the Western Wall, covered with 12 baboons that represented the 12 hours of night, which the boy king passed through before entering the afterlife.

I made a steady pivot and turned towards the Eastern Wall, time melting away and my jaw, I am sure, wide upon and brushing the floor. This wall was much more dramatic. King Tut was shown being carried to his tomb by mourners and high officials in exquisite detail.

I stood at the edge of the wood barrier, getting as close as I could without stepping over the boundary. The image of Tut’s mummy on the Eastern Wall brought me slightly back to reality as I remembered that his remains were still housed in the tomb and were directly behind me. I felt my eyes tear up; I hadn’t even noticed the boy king when I stepped into the tomb. I was too entranced by the art on the walls to even comprehend that his mummy was still inside. His tomb is small, and I braced myself knowing that when I turned around I would be face to face with the famous pharaoh.

I turned to my left and saw where he was housed, in a glass case that stood a few feet high, with a sheet draped over his torso. I stepped up to his glass case slowly and laid my hands on top of it. There he was. In the flesh – well, the decomposed mummified flesh. I stared down, marveling at the fact that the only thing separating us was a one inch thick glass covering. I counted his fingers and toes like a mother and a newborn baby, still unable to believe I was looking at him, that I had made it. I started to cry; I was so proud of myself for being there. And here I was, alone, in King Tut’s tomb, with no sound around me other than my rapidly beating heart, staring at him. I was so grateful. “Hello, beautiful.” I whispered to him, smiling, “You really are a wonderful thing.”

After I had drunk in my visual fill of Tut, I sat in the middle of his tomb, where I had a good vantage point to see both his tomb walls and his mummy, for a full hour without any interruptions. The silence was deafening. After some time, I could hear the muffled Arabic coming from outside, “what is she still doing in there?” I heard the guards say, through my broken understanding. I grinned. “What am I doing here?” I thought to myself, “I am sitting alone in King Tut’s tomb, enjoying every minute that I can. Thinking of every moment of my childhood spent imagining what this would be like and feeling a renewed enthusiasm for pursing a career in the field. Isn’t it obvious?”

When my mom finally joined me, we spent another hour in the tomb before departing. Howard Carter himself described the day he discovered Tut’s tomb as “the day of days, the most wonderful that I have ever lived through.” As we drove back to our Nubian villa in Luxor, the sun setting behind the Theban cliffs and casting the world in a pale pink glow, I knew that it was the best day of my life too.

***

With the unfortunate decline in tourism to Egypt, travelers will most likely have the same experience I did: visiting King Tut’s tomb alone. For most of us, the thought of visiting the tomb in general is a once in a lifetime experience – but being there by yourself? Unheard of. Now is the time to go. Take advantage of it.

If the discovery of King Tut’s tomb symbolizes anything, it’s the importance of never giving up and believing in yourself. Year upon year Carter worked tirelessly to find a tomb that some believed didn’t exist and before visiting King Tut’s tomb, I too was ready to throw away my lifelong passion and settle for something mediocre. Perhaps that is why King Tut should remain the ever-shining symbol of Egypt, to remind us, both as scholars and tourists, to never give up on it and to travel to Egypt as soon as possible.


[1] Carter, Howard, The Tomb of Tutankhamen (1923); Hoving, Thomas, Tutankhamun – The Untold Story (1978).
[2] Carter, Howard, The Tomb of Tutankhamen (1923); Hoving, Thomas, Tutankhamun – The Untold Story (1978).

 

unnamedJoanie Maro is a writer, teacher, archaeologist, and self-proclaimed travel addict. She has worked abroad as an English teacher and archaeologist in numerous countries throughout the Middle East, and Europe. And has worked domestically for European tour operators. Joanie has only ever been completely sure about two things in her life. First, is her complete unfailing love for Egypt, both modern and ancient. Second is her lifelong ability and fondness for writing. She is excited to finally be able to combine these two passions to create this column, On The Road With Joanie Maro, for ArchaeoAdventures. She is also an Egyptology adviser for ArchaeoAdventures.

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