A boy king, a gold coffin, a mysterious curse—the elements of high intrigue came together when Howard Carter stumbled into King Tutankhamun’s final resting place 57 years ago. The fascination of ivory and alabaster, ebony and lapis lazuli still rages as the first of 800,000 visitors pass through the turnstiles of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto this week to see for themselves “the strange animals, statues and gold” that Carter, after a five-year quest, had discovered.
What the British archeologist found was a cache of priceless relics and a story told in gold and silver of a teenage king who died in 1325 BC. Death came to Tutankhamun, supreme ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt, from a blow to the back of his head. He was 18 or 19 and in his short life had ruled for a decade, fought a war with the Hittites and married the beautiful and loving Ankhesenamun. But the tomb’s 5,000 glittering artifacts, buried with Tut to ease his existence in the underworld, are only the tip of the pyramid of Egypt’s legacy from the past—a legacy that is rapidly being destroyed by both man and the elements.
If there was a curse of Tutankhamun, it was not death to the tomb’s discoverers, a speculation suggested by the demise of Carter’s patron, Lord Carnarvon, a year after the find. The true curse has turned out to be the destruction of ancient monuments that followed. Vandalism, crude archeological digs, urban growth, poverty and unrelenting nature have left the country’s wealth of antiquity in a shambles.
The once-majestic Sphinx in Giza is crumbling. Five years ago, its visage was reinforced with a protective coating of barium pigment, but now archeologists intent on permanent reconstruction face a more serious quandary. As the Cairo newspaper al Akhbar warned recently: “Unless the right medication and treatment is applied, the neck could give in.”
Looking from afar at the Great Pyramid, which stands in the same area, the past is almost palpable. Close up, the once-smooth blocks of its composition are obviously disintegrating. And the pyramid itself is not protected from man’s encroachment—a rowdy barbecue is being conducted part way up its side.
For Egyptologists, struggling to preserve the past, the task is immense and frustrating. At Chicago House in Luxor, scientists from the University of Chicago are persevering to document the evidence on pharaonic monuments before time and the environment erase them. But for some monuments their efforts are too late. Seepage has already damaged Queen Nefertiti’s tomb, and the murals of Seti I in Karnak in Upper Egypt are rapidly disappearing. As the director of Chicago House, Dr. Lanny Bell, observed: “You can watch the fabric of these monuments decompose in front of you.”
Egypt depends almost entirely on foreign aid and know-how to preserve its cultural heritage. Its most beautiful gallery, the new Luxor Museum, was designed and built by foreign firms. The
country’s older institutions, such as the 77-year-old Egyptian Museum in Cairo (compared by one American Egyptologist to “a condemned junior high school in Pittsburgh”), struggle to survive. There will be no direct bonuses from the travelling Tut show. Profit from the three-year project has instead been used to finance the sound-and-light shows at the Great Pyramids and at temples in Upper Egypt and to restore selected ancient monuments.
This fall, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization appealed to the 800-member International Association of Egyptologists for surveys of the country’s threatened sites. From a branch office in Cairo, a team of experts will establish a priority list of the country’s most endangered treasures. Still, the future looks bleak. Says the Royal Ontario Museum’s Egyptian curator, Nick Millet: “Unlike the concern that was expressed about the sinking of Venice, where people could see what they were losing, many of Egypt’s most valuable monuments still lie under the desert. It will take a lot of work to get people involved in saving them.”
On a trip to Cairo last fall, a group of Canadians was prevented from photographing the famous tombs of the City of the Dead, which now house thousands of homeless in its mosques and sepulchres. It is not just the ancient sites that are disintegrating; the city’s tenements themselves are collapsing and their inhabitants have been forced to dwell elsewhere.
Egypt’s past continues to exert its force—on the daily lives of its people and on its major source of foreign revenue, tourism. Official publicity calls Egypt “the biggest outdoor museum in the world” and, in spite of centuries of encroachment by desert, flooding rivers and the invader’s sword, the art of Egypt survives. Its beauty is weathered but retains its grace, its power and its lure—there are still the tombs of Imhotep and Alexander to find. While these ancient glories might rival King Tutankhamun’s fabulous tomb, the greater challenge will be to save what the past has already released.
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