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One of four golden shrines that contained Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus. At the Egyptian Museum. Photos by Mary O'Brien
One of four golden shrines that contained Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus. At the Egyptian Museum. Photos by Mary O'Brien

Egypt: Who WAS King Tut, Anyway?

When I was a child, I learned that Egypt was the desert home of the last surviving Wonder of the Ancient World - the pyramids and sphinx at Giza. It didn’t occur to me then that I would one day see them for myself but when I finally did land in Egypt, I did what every tourist does – I went to Giza.

The pyramids are just as pictured, only slightly the worse for wear after 4000 years, but they still take your breath away.

It comes as a shock when you realize that those enduring monuments rise not in some faraway desert, but just minutes from Cairo, a city of 18 million.

Another surprise is the small size of the sphinx. Usually cleverly photographed from below with a pyramid in the background, it only seems to be massive. It was carved from bedrock when the pyramids were built and through the centuries, it’s repeatedly had to be dug out from covering sand.

The lion’s body is 150 feet long and its pharaoh head only 40 feet high. Not exactly puny, but The Great Pyramid is about 450 feet high and weighs about six million tons.

Steve Martin's Iconic Dance

It was my seven-year-old granddaughter who told me about the sphinx when she learned I was going to Egypt.  She, like many Americans, had turned on to ancient Egyptian mysteries when she saw a Saturday Night Live DVD featuring Steve Martin performing his iconic “King Tut.”

She loved the song and the hieroglyphic dance movements, and she became interested in the exotic lives people lived a millennium or three ago.

Every visitor to Egypt takes a picture of the pyramids at Giza.
Every visitor to Egypt takes a picture of the pyramids at Giza.

Interest in the “Boy King” began in the 1920s with the discovery of his tomb and its fabulous contents. Current interest started in 1977 when museums around the world showcased a blockbuster exhibit, “ Treasures of Tutankhamun.” 

Again in 2007, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” started another phenomenal tour still showing in cities across the US. 

But who was King Tut? And why was he so famous? He was a pivotal figure whose short reign ended with his death at nineteen, too young for significant achievements, especially since Egypt was in turmoil during that time.

Akenaten's One God

Tut’s father was the infamous pharaoh, Akhenaten, who claimed there was only one god – the sun god, Aten. His subjects believed in many gods and revered them all but Akhenaten purged the old cults, destroying temples and defacing statues.

Egyptian children play atop a replica of The Great Sphinx at the entrance to the Egyptian Museum, permanent home of the King Tut Exhibit.
Egyptian children play atop a replica of The Great Sphinx at the entrance to the Egyptian Museum, permanent home of the King Tut Exhibit.

He moved his court from Thebes to a new city and ignored the defenses of Egypt’s frontiers. His son, Tutankhamun, became king at the age of nine, and for most of his reign, his advisors made the necessary decisions.

He was very young when he died and a recent CT scan of his mummy has revealed a badly broken, probably infected leg. It could have happened when he was racing his chariot – like any other teenage pharaoh. But Tut was king when the capital was returned to Thebes and the old gods were restored. 

When British archeologist Howard Carter discovered Tut’s tomb in 1926, 20th Century newspapers and radio broadcast the news worldwide. The discovery of the immense treasure inside the tomb was an immediate sensation. 

In the eyes of the modern world at least, King Tut became famous because his tomb was preserved virtually intact.

The Valley of the Kings

The discovery came at an opportune time for Howard Carter whose financial backer, Lord Carnarvon, was on the verge of withdrawing funds for his five-year search in the Valley of the Kings, where many royal tombs had been found, most of them already sacked by grave robbers.

All the treasure found in Tut’s tomb has been removed except for the solid gold coffin that holds his mummy. The tomb is always guarded.
All the treasure found in Tut’s tomb has been removed except for the solid gold coffin that holds his mummy. The tomb is always guarded.

Sun-baked and rocky, the desolate, inhospitable valley across the Nile from ancient Thebes became a royal burying ground because so many of the earlier pharaohs’ graves had been robbed. 

Ancient Egyptians were preoccupied with death and life thereafter. Kings were mummified and interred in elaborate coffins, their tombs filled with treasure to ease their journey to the afterlife.

So the tombs in the valley were hidden behind sealed entrances and covered with rocky debris. But the thievery persisted.

After his untimely death, Tut had been buried in an unfinished tomb that was well concealed and smaller than most. Said to be the last royal tomb that will ever be found in the Valley of the Kings, it is the richest ever discovered.

Most Egyptian women wear artfully draped headscarves. This girl poses on a temple wall at Luxor.
Most Egyptian women wear artfully draped headscarves. This girl poses on a temple wall at Luxor.

"I See Wonderful Things"

With time and funds running out, Howard Carter had finally uncovered what was obviously the entrance to a tomb. After digging his way down a stairway, he came upon a door that bore the cartouche of Tutankhamun.

His heart fell when he saw that it had been opened and then resealed.  He expected to find that long ago grave robbers had pillaged this tomb as they had the others in the valley, but there were signs that the thieves may have been intercepted. And at the end of the passageway, there was another door.

The archeologist telegraphed his benefactor and Carnarvon came to the site as quickly as possible so that he could be present at the opening of the tomb. Carter chipped away at an upper corner of the door, making a hole big enough for him to stick a candle through the opening. He looked inside and he was speechless.

“What do you see?” asked Lord Carnarvon.

“I see wonderful things!” was the answer. It was not the burial chamber, but a large anteroom where an immense treasure had been disturbed by grave robbers who must have been caught before they could carry it away. 

An imposing granite statue of the great pharaoh Ramses II, with one of his daughters at his feet, guards the entrance to the Hypostyle Hall.
An imposing granite statue of the great pharaoh Ramses II, with one of his daughters at his feet, guards the entrance to the Hypostyle Hall.

There was gold and silver, ebony and alabaster, jewelry made of amethyst, turquoise and lapis lazuli, sculptures of animal gods to guide and protect, statues of the king, a golden throne and golden chariots, alabaster jars that still contained the scent of perfumes and precious oils, and toys that the “Boy King” must have played with just a few years before he died.

In another room that was undiscovered by the thieves was another treasure trove. It took two and a half months to photograph and remove more than 1700 objects from these rooms. You can see many of them in fascinating display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

One More Door

There remained one more door – the tomb itself.  As Carter and Carnarvon removed the stone slabs at the entrance, they were mystified by what appeared to be a solid gold wall that filled the small room to within two feet of its four walls. 

It was a box-like shrine, nine feet high. It held three more boxes, also overlaid with gold and packed one inside another. Inside the last was a stone sarcophagus containing three mummiform coffins.

Two of these are at the Egyptian Museum and the last, made of solid gold, remains in the tomb. In it rests the Boy King’s body.

The Temple of Hathor, built to honor the pharaoh’s favorite wife, is one of two temples at Abu Simbel that were moved to higher ground when newly formed Lake Nasser threatened to engulf them.
The Temple of Hathor, built to honor the pharaoh’s favorite wife, is one of two temples at Abu Simbel that were moved to higher ground when newly formed Lake Nasser threatened to engulf them.

For an extra fee, you can enter the guarded tomb and go through the empty rooms to see the burial chamber. The pricey fee is to discourage visitors, because carbon dioxide from mere human presence is damaging the 3000-year-old paintings on the plain rock walls.

Entrance to more elaborate tombs is included in the general admission. The tomb of  Ramses VI, in particular, is larger and its sculpted rooms hold some amazing color. That’s unusual, but even when the paint has faded, the Egyptian gods and goddesses, kings and queens live on in chiseled stone on ancient tomb and temple walls.

I didn’t pay the fee to see Tut’s tomb when I visited the Valley of the Kings one hot and dusty afternoon last February. Obviously, I was fascinated by the story of King Tut, but that’s a small part of Egypt’s deep history. 

A Stolen Obelisk

The 134 carved columns in Karnak’s mammoth Hypostyle Hall dwarf mere humans who come to admire them.
The 134 carved columns in Karnak’s mammoth Hypostyle Hall dwarf mere humans who come to admire them.

Just across the Nile was Thebes, a city that doesn’t exist any more. It was the spiritual home of the ancient civilization, its importance proved by two restored temples.

The oldest is beautiful Luxor, where there’s a statue of Tutankhamun and an alabaster sphinx with the young king’s head and where a pair of soaring pink granite obelisks once stood until Napoleon stole one of them and planted it on the Place de la Concorde.

Only a mile or so away is huge, sprawling Karnak, enlarged by a succession of pharaohs through a period of 1300 years. Everything at Karnak is mammoth, especially the Hypostyle Hall with its 134 giant sculpted pillars, each so large it takes ten people with arms outstretched to surround it.

The Rising Water Table

Both temples were three-fourths buried in the sand until the mid-19th century, when their excavation started. Now they are at risk from salt and water damage.

The water table, rising ever since the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s, has caused considerable damage to their foundations. One can only hope they will be saved.

A pre-dawn felluca sail is a splendid way to view the Nile and the awakening city of Cairo.
A pre-dawn felluca sail is a splendid way to view the Nile and the awakening city of Cairo.

The encroachment of Lake Nasser has already caused a UNESCO-led project to move majestic Abu Simbel stone by stone to higher ground. They even moved the magical Temple of Isis at Philae.

Already half drowned when water covered the island it stood on, it was moved to a different island that had been landscaped to look like the original. UNESCO’s reason for its efforts: “This belongs to the world.”

Who knows what still lies buried under Saharan sands? Or even under the sea where the remains of the court of Cleopatra were found in 1996? One thing is certain. More secrets will be uncovered.

 

Links for more information: 

www.egypt.travel

I toured Egypt’s ancient sites, spending three nights in Cairo and four “cruising the Nile,” on one of over 300 comfortable “floating hotels.” These can be booked in different price categories from budget to luxury.  All include private rooms with bath, three meals a day and guided tours of the important sites.  www.nile-cruise-egypt.com

 

 

 

 

 

Mary O'Brien

 


Mary O'Brien is a travel writer and editor for newspapers and magazines. She lives in the Chicago area, but she'd rather be on the road. 

 

 

Read more stories by Mary O'Brien:

The Crazy Horse Memorial: Larger Than Life in South Dakota

Quebec: A City for All Seasons

 

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