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Visit to King Tutankhamun - 'the nothing pharaoh'


My impressions this summer on a first trip to Egypt were mostly of the usual sort: pyramids (and temples, too) out of scale with anything human, an unrelenting sun dictating still, as for millennia, the tempo of each day, and everywhere the press of bodies. But perhaps unusually, the Sphinx left me less with a feeling of timelessness and awe than with a sense of impending disaster - of the imminent collision of the now with the forever.

This huge, mutilated face, which has stared silently and mostly alone into nearly 5000 years of sunrises, now watches daily the inexorable advance across the Nile of a chaotic modern city, Cairo, that has more than doubled in size in my lifetime, to 15 million. One has difficulty imagining here the 21st century.

But I also learned something quite unexpected; namely, that King Tut (or more properly, Tutankhamun), that singular pharaoh who occupies in our collective consciousness a status not unlike that of President Kennedy, was in truth "the nothing pharaoh." (Note the nothing pharaoh, not simply a nothing pharaoh.)

These were not initially my words, but rather those that came at every opportunity from our Egyptian guides, as if they needed somehow to set the record straight. And they did.

A single day's excursion, encompassing Cairo's Egyptian Museum and the great pyramids at nearby Giza, was enough to convince me. Comprising 2,300,000 multi-ton blocks of limestone, the greatest pyramid of Egypt is that covering the burial chamber of Pharaoh Khufu, who ruled during the Old Kingdom (2600 BC).

The last surviving Wonder of the Ancient World, this truly incomprehensible monument to engineering and the afterlife is given only the slightest hint of personality in the Cairo Museum by way of a single tiny ivory statuette of its builder. By contrast, the face of King Tut, mostly rendered large and in gold, dominates the museum's entire second floor.

This is the famous "Treasure of Tutankhamun" discovered by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in November 1922. It was the subject of sensational news accounts then, and during the 1970s became firmly imprinted in America's popular imagination through what was the first and remains the greatest of all blockbuster museum tours.

Who was Tutankhamun? The facts, such as they exist, are remarkable for being so unremarkable.

But for what is still, despite Tut's historical "nothingness," a fabulous treasure and a wonderful story of discovery, I recommend Nicholas Reeves' "The Complete Tutankhamun" (1990, Thames and Hudson) where, over 200 pages of text and illustrations, Tut the historical figure gets just two pages!

There is much more, covering the entire spectrum from serious scholarship to entertaining nonsense, to play. A search for book titles on brings up 65 entries for Tutankhamun (in various spellings), although nearly half of the items are listed as being out of print. Of the remaining books, around 10 are for young readers ranging from 4 to 12 years. A number of others are coloring and activity books, including an entire book of scale architectural paper models of King Tut's tomb. You can have the fun of putting back together in an afternoon what it took Howard Carter more than six years to take apart!

At least six of the listed books are novels - which makes sense, what little we know of the historical figure. And four more are part of the "Tutankhamun's Tomb Series" of technical books on specific artifacts from the tomb, of which, for example, the ninth is "Model Boats from the Tomb of Tutankhamun" by Dilwyn Jones (1990, Aris & Phillips).

For adult readers seeking a broader look at King Tut, besides the Reeves' excellent book, there is "Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamun" by T.G.H. James (1992, Kegan Paul Intl.) and "The Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great" by Geoffrey T. Martin (1992, Thames and Hudson), which recounts the discovery of the hidden tombs of some of Tut's contemporaries.

The more recent books listed are I.E.S. Edwards' "From the Pyramids to Tutankhamun" released in May 2000 (Oxbow Books), and another book by T.G.H. James, "Tutankhamun," due in September (Michael Friedman/Fairfax Publishing). And then there is the remarkably creative "Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of a Boy-King," also due in September (St. Martin's Press), whose author, Christine El Mahdy ("a detective searching through time itself"), manages to conjure up a dramatic 300-page account of a living, breathing human being from the most circumstantial of evidence.

A flourishing trade for a nobody! Indeed, as a child pharaoh who died from a head injury at about 18 (as suggests his modern autopsy), King Tut seems to have provided little more than a bland 10-year (1333-1323 BC) interlude of quiet during the tumultuous 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom. Had there been a eulogy at his funeral, it would have been very brief indeed.

The New Kingdom was a time of foreign conquests, great building and intense religious controversy. Tut's father was the justly famous religious heretic Akhenaten, who precipitously withdrew from the traditional capital of Thebes to Akhetaten (now Amarna) and there, with his wife Nefertiti, devoted himself to the worship of an ancient form of the sun god (Aten) to the exclusion of the traditional Egyptian pantheon.

Unlike Ramesses II (of Abu Simbel fame,) Tutankhamun built no great temple, unlike Tuthmosis III he conquered no foreign nations, and unlike his father Akhenaten, he seems not to have gotten into religion.

"Normalcy" was his big contribution, as he allowed himself to be manipulated by traditionalist forces who succeeded in reversing his father's monotheistic experiments, reconciling the divided country, and returning to Thebes.

The irony is that King Tut is famous now because he was not famous then.

Fabulous tombs and tomb treasures in the Valley of the Kings in Western Thebes (the bank of the Nile of the setting sun and thus of death) were part of what it meant to be pharaoh during the New Kingdom. They were famous and they were plundered. Small and irregular by comparison with the others, King Tut's tomb was easily overlooked. As was the boy-king himself, whose name was consistently left off the official "pharaoh lists" of the period. Soon, Tutankhamun's identity was lost to history and his tomb was lost to thieves, behind the shifting sands of the hillside.

Unaware of it just 200 years later, Ramesses VI quarried his much larger tomb only a few yards above Tut's, thus virtually guaranteeing its long-term oblivion. The tomb robbers of the ancient world missed it, leaving it for Howard Carter, who, but for a combination of fanatical persistence and dumb luck, would have missed it as well. And King Tut would have remained the mere cipher that in fact he was.

Gary Vikan has written five books, the latest of which is "Two Unpublished Pilgrim Tokens in the Benaki Museum and the Group to Which They Belong." Before becoming director of the Walters Art Gallery, Vikan was the assistant

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