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The Curse of King Tut's Tomb

 

Universal Studios' The Mummy (1999) constructs its plot from a curse inscribed on the fictional Canopic chest of Anck-su-Namun. This curse, read aloud by one of the ill-fated plunderers, is actually based on "a curse" associated with King Tut's tomb.  Here's the true story of that curse, as told by James M. Deem in his book How to Make a Mummy Talk. 

 

Although people are often frightened of mummies, it is untrue that finding a mummy can lead to a curse on the discoverer. Author Christine El Mahdy believes that those who first expressed fear of mummies were the Arabs, who conquered Egypt in A.D. 641. Arab writers warned people not to tamper with mummies or their tombs; they knew that Egyptians practiced magic during funerals. And the paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs seemed to suggest that mummies could return to life and seek revenge.

The idea that mummies had magic power eventually appealed to the imaginations of authors. After the first ghost story about a mummy's curse was published in 1699, many more followed. But the longest lasting episode involving a mummy's curse was the discovery and opening of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1923.

This story has been told many times, but fact and fiction are usually blended. Two recent authors who have separated the facts from the myths are Christopher Frayling and Nicholas Reeves.

 

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First, the facts: Lord Carnarvon, who had funded the search for King Tut's tomb, and archaeologist Howard Carter entered the king's burial chamber on February 17, 1923. On or about March 6, Lord Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito on his cheek and became ill. Reported in the media, this event caused many people to jump to the conclusion that King Tut's tomb was cursed.

Many famous people volunteered their theories to the press. For example, Marie Corelli, a popular novelist at the time, expressed her thoughts in a letter published in New York and London newspapers. In part, her letter read:

I cannot but think some risks are run by breaking into the last rest of a king in Egypt whose tomb is specially and solemnly guarded, and robbing him of his possessions. According to a rare book I possess . . . entitled The Egyptian History of the Pyramids [an ancient Arabic text], the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb. The book . . . names 'secret poisons enclosed in boxes in such wise that those who touch them shall not know how they come to suffer'. That is why I ask, Was it a mosquito bite that has so seriously infected Lord Carnarvon?

Corelli reported that the Egyptian author also warned: "Death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a pharaoh."

Her concerns seemed to be on target when Lord Carnarvon's condition worsened. The mosquito bite became infected, he contracted pneumonia, and on April 5, he died. The legend of the curse became fact and was enhanced by many rumors. Here are five of the most famous rumors - and the real truth behind them:

Rumor 1: On the day of the tomb opening, Carter's pet canary was eaten by a cobra (a symbol of the ancient pharaohs). The truth is that, although Carter had a pet canary, he gave it to a friend named Minnie Burton to watch, and she gave it (alive and well) to a bank manager.

Rumor 2: At the moment that Carnarvon died in Cairo Hospital, the lights across Cairo went out for five minutes. Actually, around the time that Carnarvon died, the hospital lights did go out for a few moments. Within a few weeks' time, this fact was twisted into the more interesting rumor. As Christine El Mahdy points out, the lights in Cairo are notorious for going out without warning - even today.

Rumor 3: Carnarvon's dog Susie, back in England, howled and dropped dead at exactly two o'clock in the morning, the time that Carnarvon died. No one knows whether this story is true or not, but it seems suspicious, especially since Egypt and England do not share the same time zone. The story might be a bit more believable if Susie had died at two o'clock Egyptian time.

Rumor 4: Over the door to King Tut's tomb was an inscription that read "Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh." Notice that this inscription closely matches the quotation Marie Corelli cited from the ancient Arabic text. Even today, it is easy to find books that report this inscription as fact. For example, in his recent book about mummies, author John Vornholt writes, "In an outer chamber, they [Carter and Carnarvon] found a clay tablet that read: 'Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the Pharaoh.'" This is simply not true.

Rumor 5: Most of the people present at the opening of the tomb met untimely deaths. Again, Vornholt writes that "13 of 20 people who were present at the opening of King Tut's burial chamber died within a few years." Vornholt does not give his source for this information, but it is clearly incorrect. The truth is that the newspapers at the time had a field day with the curse. Whenever anyone related to Carnarvon or the discovery of the tomb died, the death was taken as proof that the curse was in effect.

However, Egyptologist Herbert E. Winlock examined the evidence some 12 years after the tomb's opening. Of the 26 people present at the opening of the burial chamber, only 6 had died within the next 10 years. When King Tut's sarcophagus was opened, 22 of the 26 people were present, but only 2 of them had died within 10 years afterward. Finally, only 10 of the 26 people had watched the unwrapping of the mummy. And none of them had died within the next decade! In fact, many of the people who had the most contact with the king's mummy lived long and productive lives.

 

EVENT

NUMBER OF PEOPLE THERE

NUMBER OF DEATHS AFTER 10 YEARS

Burial chamber opening

26

6

Sarcophagus opening

22

2

Mummy unwrapping

10

0

 

Perhaps the last word about the Carnarvon curse should belong to Sir Henry Rider Haggard, who wrote at the time that the idea of the curse was simply nonsense and "dangerous because it goes to swell the rising tide of superstition which at present seems to be overflowing the world."


Of course, there never is a last word on such a famous curse.

In 1998, another theory was proposed in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. A French scientist (Sylvain Gandon) who had studied the apparent long lifespan of deadly bacterial spores (such as anthrax) published an article in which he wondered if Lord Carnarvon's death "could potentially be explained" by his coming into contact with "a highly virulent and very long-lived pathogen." This thought was also on the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes), when he suggested long ago that Egyptian priests may have placed spores in King Tut's tomb to punish graverobbers.

Did Carnarvon die after a mosquito bite became infected (as has been thought)? Or could he have inhaled anthrax spores in the tomb?

A Canadian doctor (James McSherry) agreed with the French scientist: "A malignant pustule in the oropharyngeal area could well produce an illness similar to the tragic event that caused Lord Carnarvon's demise." He went on to explain that "anthrax certainly existed in ancient times and is often assumed to have been responsible for the fifth and sixth plagues of Egypt, which are described in chapter nine of Exodus. Anthrax spores could well have been present in the tomb, and there would have been a real risk of exposure once the ancient dust was stirred." 

When Tut-expert Nicolas Reeves (author of The Complete Tutankhamun) was asked what he thought about this possibility, he pointed out that Carnarvon was already in poor health when he arrived in Egypt. He also discounted the idea of the curse, indicating that most of the people who explored the tomb with Carter and Carnarvon survived without any appearance of "the curse."

In the end, the scientist and the doctor who have presented anthrax spores as a cause of King Tut's curse are only guessing...and ignoring the fact that relatively few people who entered the tomb became sick and died. 

 

 

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