Slow Acting Curse

11 26 opening the tombIt was on this day, in 1922, that archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon first opened the tomb of Tutankhamen. The ancient Egyptians buried their Pharaohs with great ceremony and loads of precious objects to sustain them in their afterlife. They took great care to make sure that their kings were not disturbed. They built labyrinthine tombs with secret chambers, blocked passageways with huge pieces of stone and even, in some cases, placed a curse on the entrance. The secret chambers and enormous stones did not deter the thieves. I’ve no idea if the curses worked or not because I don’t know who the thieves were or what happened to them.

European interest in all things Egyptian had really taken off in the early eighteenth century but no one had yet found a tomb that had not been broken into and looted. Carter had been working with ancient Egyptian burial sites since 1891 and he was consumed by the idea that there might be a grave somewhere that had not been robbed in antiquity. He found that a little known Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, had been largely expunged from the records. Carter hoped that this meant his tomb had been forgotten too. Searching the Valley of the Kings was an expensive business, but in 1907, Carter was lucky enough to gain the patronage of Lord Carnarvon. Carter’s search of the valley was interrupted by the First World War but even so, he spent many years searching without turning up anything at all. By 1922, Carnavon was about to call off the search, but Carter travelled to England and managed to persuade him to fund one last season of digging.

When Carter returned to Egypt, he brought with him a yellow canary. His foreman, Ahmed Girigar, was delighted with the golden bird and it’s lovely song. He said: “The golden bird speaks the language of heaven. It will guide us.” Perhaps the bird did bring them luck because, on November 4th Girigar discover what looked like a step. The following day they dug down further and, after uncovering twelve steps, the top of a sealed entrance appeared. They made a hole in it just large enough to see that, beyond, was a rubble filled corridor. Carter thought his sponsor ought to be with him before they explored any further. He had the hole they had dug refilled and large stones dragged into place on top and wired Lord Carnarvon. Carnarvon arrived at the Valley of the Kings on November 23rd and by November 26th they had cleared the rubble and reached another sealed door. Carter chiselled a hole big enough to put a candle through and caught a first glimpse of the treasures inside.

While it was a massive cause for celebration and everyone knows what a wonderful discovery it was, there were rumours that Carter had found and hidden a tablet with a curse inscribed on it that read: “Death will come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the king.” There is also a story that, at the moment the tomb was opened, Carter’s lucky canary was swallowed by a cobra, just like the one that would be found on the Pharaoh’s death mask. Seemingly, it was the first victim of the curse. Then, a few months later, Lord Carnarvon was taken ill after a mosquito bite was infected when he cut himself shaving. He grew worse, developed pneumonia and, on April 5th, he died at the Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo. Legend tells us that, at the moment of his death, there was a power failure and all the lights in Cairo went out. Meanwhile, at his family home in England, his favourite dog howled and dropped dead. That wasn’t all. When Tutankhamen’s mummy was unwrapped in 1925, it was said to have a wound on the cheek in exactly the same place that Carnarvon had been bitten by the mosquito.

It was a great story. The press loved it. By 1929 they had attributed the deaths of eleven people connected with the discovery to the curse of Tutankhamen. By 1935, that number had risen to twenty-one. But was this all just press hype? How long do you have to live before you can be said to have survived a curse? Of the twenty-two people present at the opening of the tomb, only six died in the next twelve years. Carnarvon himself was not in the best of health and death from infection was actually quite common before the days of antibiotics.

As to the other phenomena, power cuts were really quite common in Cairo at that time, so all the lights going out was really nothing out of the ordinary. The story of the canary and the snake is a complete fabrication, it was not swallowed by a cobra, but given to a friend. I’m afraid I don’t know what happened to the dog. Carter himself, who actually opened the tomb survived until 1939 when he died of Hodgkin’s disease. I think, if I wanted to curse anyone, I’d like it to work a bit quicker than that.

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