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Book Review: Tutankhamen

Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King

by Joyce Tyldesley

Basic Books, 2012

Author Joyce Tyldesley went into her wry, open-minded, and extremely enjoyable new biography of the famous ancient Egyptian boy-pharaoh fully aware of the perils of such an undertaking; in more ways than the obvious, her subject is cursed:

It is sad, but perhaps predictable, that his celebrity status has resulted in some Egyptologists drawing away from Tutankhamen lest they be perceived as pandering to, exploiting or even (perish the thought) enjoying popular taste. Confessing an interest in Tutankhamen is, for a few, the equivalent to confessing a preference for television soaps over Shakespeare or musical theatre over opera, while writing about Tutankhamen may be interpreted as a venal attempt to make money, which, in the world of academia, has not always been seen as a good thing.

“This elitism, however,” she concedes, with undue optimism, “is rare.” But even when it gives way, it gives way to yet another peril: “Many others have simply dismissed Tutankhamen as insignificant: a short-lived boy, weak, manipulated and unworthy of any detailed study”

That ‘short-lived’ part is of course correct: Tutankhamen, whose tomb was famously found virtually intact by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, very likely died before he turned 20. The rest – weak, manipulated, unworthy of detailed study – is open for endless interpretation. Manipulated will probably stay unprovable forever, although some elements of it seems likely at least at the start, when Tutankhamen was eight and surrounded by strong-willed retainers who’d survived the reign of his father Akhenaten. Unworthy of detailed study is certainly cavalier, as Tyldesley makes clear in Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King; it fell to Tutankhamen to restore the monarchy to its customary eternal efficiency after the social and religious upheavals it underwent during Akhenaten’s incendiary kingship. Surely these things alone (and Tyldesley hints at more – foreign wars, adventures, etc.) warrant studying Tutankhamen; his grandfather Amenhotep III was as dull as dishwater by comparison, and we study him.

The conditions of study are better for Tutankhamen than any other ancient Egyptian. We have an intact tomb, a museum wing full of artefacts unplundered by robbers and unravaged by time, still fresh to the sunlight after after an almost unimaginably vast stretch of time in dark and quiet. It wasn’t a shocking scene that Howard Carter uncovered 90 years ago – unless the shock was the eerie preservation itself:

Tutankhamen’s tomb is not the Egyptian equivalent of a shipwreck, or of Pompeii, or of any other disaster where death came in an instant, preserving the unaudited evidence of life actually lived. It is a frozen rite: a collection of artefacts deliberately selected because they had meaning for either the king or those who buried him.

But the last of those academic qualifications is the most persistent: weak. On that point, the whole weight those intervening centuries – not to mention the full-time efforts of the royal propagandists who did such a booming business in ancient Egypt – mitigates against accuracy. Pharaoh was an ideal, a god made flesh, and that can alter everything we think we know about him, as Tyldesley points out:

On his Painted Box he again stands triumphant in his chariot as he defeats his Syrian enemies. These images are conventional images of kingship. They conform to the centuries-old tradition which dictated that kings, whatever their actual appearance and character, should always appear physically perfect and brave.

She’s brave enough to admit honestly: “We can have no understanding of the king behind this propaganda: we cannot state whether Tutankhamen was either brave or physically whole. Nor can we be certain that he ever tested himself on the battlefield.”

Foreign battlefields are unlikely (although our author seems to fancy the idea), but one part of that statement grants even more murk to the mists of time than they already possess: we can be certain – as certain as we can be of anything – that Tutankhamen wasn’t “physically whole” when he met his death. Examination of his mummified corpse reveals a frightful mess: his chest had been badly damaged prior to mummification, his pelvic bones were almost entirely missing, his left thigh was broken, he had palsied bones in his right foot (his tomb contained 130 walking sticks and canes), a cleft palate, sciolosis, malaria … that teenager entombed in the Valley of Kings was almost certainly looking forward to dying.

Some of this is open to interpretation, naturally; drying and tightening of bandages, for instance, can cause feet to warp post-mortem, and ancient Egyptians used weighted walking sticks to bring down small game, so a collection of them might suggest the opposite of debility (the tomb also contained weapons and armor, and there’s no certainty these were empty gestures). But it’s unlikely that all of these medical horrors are products of misinterpretation – the far more likely surmise is that the teen-pharaoh was indeed weak, a sickly figure who eventually succumbed to a host of natural ailments. “There is, of course, no need to look for exotic or unusual illnesses. In Tutankhamen’s day simple diarrhoea was a killer,” Tyldesley somewhat brusquely puts it (‘simple’ diarrhoea kills plenty of people right here in the 21st century, after all). She’s probably right, although she resorts to actuarial tables at the oddest times:

Statistical evidence drawn from our own, risk averse society conforms what common sense already tells us. Accidents are far more common than murders, and accidents are the biggest cause of involuntary death among young males. The damage to Tutankhamen’s chest, and his shattered leg, lend support to the death-by-accident hypothesis. Could he have been killed as has recently been suggested by Benson Harer, by a hippopotamus? Alternatively, the fact that he as not mummified to the highest standard, and that his heart was missing (maybe it was already putrefied?), suggests that there may have been a delay in getting his body to the embalmers. Assuming that this is not simply the result of post-mortem damage in the undertaker’s workshop, it may well be evidence of death on a foreign battlefield.

You have to smile a little at that “young males”! Real-life actuarial accountants would probably point out that 99.9 percent of “young males” who make up a statistical pool aren’t vulnerable young rulers of ruthless kingdoms. It can upset the math something fierce if they are – just ask the Princes in the Tower.

Still, any full account of the life and afterlife of Tutankhamen must indulge the conspiracy theorists at least long enough to dispute them, and in the course of her professional career (she’s written some twenty books on ancient Egypt), Tyldesley has assuredly encountered every weird idea her subject has ever generated – hence her reference to “Tyldesley’s Law”: “Any theory about the behaviour, beliefs and abilities of the ancient Egyptians, no matter how unlikely, will be accepted as truth by someone.” The single most enjoyable part of reading Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King is the fun and fascinating experience of spending time in the mental company of the woman who’d devise Tyldesley’s Law.

But not even a trained expert on the past can see the future, and it turns out this book faces one obstacle Tyldesley couldn’t have guessed during her research: you see, Howard Carter wasn’t alone in his excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb. He was financed, encouraged, and almost upstaged by George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon. Who’s not to be confused with George Reginald Oliver Molyneux Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, although both men owned a certain rather excessive house: Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which all right-thinking readers will now know as the setting for “Downton Abbey.” The mere mention of which, these days, is enough to make some of those readers ask, “Tutank-who again?”

The boy-pharaoh endures even in the face of Lord Grantham and crew, and so does Tyldesley, and so must we.

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