One of the most famous teenagers in history, King Tutankhamun’s legacy is Egypt’s tourism boon. JACK ZINK heads to the Valley of the Kings.
He was a boy from a disgraced family, possibly assassinated and buried just off the beaten path in a tomb that, in pharaonic terms, is a broom closet. But King Tutankhamun’s is among the most-visited tombs in the Valley of the Kings, where the humidity makes the 40°C morning seem cool and refreshing when you re-emerge into daylight.
The tomb is empty except for the boy king himself, tucked back into his sarcophagus in the wake of his most recent trip topside for CT scans last January.
Gazing in at one of the most famous teenagers in history, and the gods painted on the surrounding walls to guide him (and his two also-mummified children) to the netherworld, my mind reels at the tiny size of the burial chamber. How could all those coffins, shrines and relics have been squeezed in here? That staggering hoard is what makes King Tut so famous. All his neighbours were robbed blind over the centuries, leaving their huge crypts pretty much as we see them today – empty mausoleums.
Beyond and to the right I can see the opening into what was Tut’s Treasury, full of the most valuable riches when Howard Carter uncovered it in 1922. Another 2000 artefacts were piled haphazardly around in the antechamber, including a chariot. I saw most, marvelled at many and touched some a few days earlier at the Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The most amazing are the four gilded nesting shrines in Cairo’s Tut display. The largest is the size of a small bedroom, with a sun canopy and three other shrines in descending size lined up along Tut’s main concourse.
Attia Shaban, our Egyptologist guide, explains that they were built inside the tomb itself, one over the top of the other, coffins within coffins, each with its own gilding, richly etched with drawings.
At the Cairo Museum, Tut’s display is spread out on two concourses on the topmost third floor, still only a minor part of the museum’s overwhelming collection. The open- windowed building is crammed with 160,000 pieces including giant stone shrines, ancient boats, chariots, mummies and weapons.
David Silverman, another Egyptologist, says Tut’s limestone and shale cave must have been hewn out larger to allow worker access, and at least one stone wall built back up against the shrines to confound any discoverers. It apparently worked. Although the outer chamber showed signs of grave robbers, the tomb and treasury caused a reassessment of ancient Egyptian wealth.
Meanwhile, in the fresh air above, Egyptologists and other would-be experts are waving tourists away from Tutankhamun’s tomb, calling it an extra-cost disappointment.
Only about a dozen of the 62 tombs in the valley are open to tourists at any one time. Those on view are impressive, although the climb back up is a challenge for those with respiratory ailments, arthritis, bad knees or muscle flab.
The guards and soldiers stationed at virtually all Egyptian tourist sites offer no protection from vendors and opportunists. At the main pyramid of Cheops, four Bedouins on camelback galloped up to our group, offering rides. Visitor Joyce Recupido, who had her hand extended for balance, was scooped up and seated behind the Bedouin, who turned and quickly rode off with her screaming and laughing. Half an hour later she returned and told us with a laugh: They wanted $20 to tour the place, and said they wouldn’t let me down. I wound up giving them $5. The kidnapping was worth that.”
The three pyramids at Giza, built around 2600BC, are a stunning introduction to Ancient Egypt. The oldest and largest is Cheops, more than 137m tall, whose blocks are each man-sized. Alongside it is a new building housing the Solar Barque, the oldest boat known to man that once ferried the pharaoh’s mummy to its final resting place, suspended in mid-air. The middle pyramid, built by his son Chephren, still has a remnant of the outer, smooth limestone facade at the top. The smallest is the tomb of Chephren’s son, Menkaure.
The three main pyramids are surrounded by smaller tombs of queens and other royalty. At the base of the hill is the Sphinx, equally impressive, which today stares across a short field at Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken.