King Tut's glory bought at great human price

  • December 4, 2009
{mosimage}In the enormously rich drama of dynastic Egypt, the pharaoh Tutankamun played a very minor role. He was born around 1343 B.C., a century after the traditional date of Israel’s Exodus from Egyptian subjugation and during the period when the People of God were settling in Canaan. He assumed the crown of his politically troubled empire at age nine, and died when he was just 19. During his short reign, Tutankhamun (“living image of the god Amun”) appears to have backed a restoration of Egypt’s elaborate polytheism, which had been forcefully suppressed by his father, the pharaoh Akhenaten. If so, Tutankamun was still never forgiven for being the heretic Akhenaten’s son: His statues were defaced after his death and his name was largely written out of Egyptian history.

But despite his long obscurity, no ancient Egyptian is more popular today or more familiar to us than this royal young man. We know his serene and handsome face from the portrait-casket of solid gold that enclosed him in death. We know the games he liked to play, the beautiful wooden boxes he handled, even the bed he slept on. We know Tutankhamun so well because, in 1922, the British archeologist Howard Carter broke the seal on his tomb and found its treasury of grave-goods unplundered. The discovery of this trove of household furniture, jewellery, statuary and much else — interred for the king’s use in the afterlife — made headlines around the world. It also set in motion a wave of Egyptomania that persisted through the 1920s and, in some sense, has never subsided to this day.

The excellent exhibition called King Tut: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs, now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario , is the latest episode in the love affair between Tutankhamun and the modern public that has been going on for the last 90 years. Organized by the National Geographic Society and the government of Egypt, the show features more than 100 objects from Tut’s tomb and the graves of other Egyptian pharaohs and notables. Only a couple of these marvellous things came to Toronto in 1979 with the blockbuster, Treasures of Tutankhamun. Taken together, the works on display offer visitors a fresh glimpse of the splendour and artistic refinement of the pharaohs in various ages — upper-class fashion in furnishings and adornment changed very little during the millennia of Egyptian civilization — and many insights into the way these attractive people lived, what they loved and whom they worshipped.

There is much gold and gilt here, of course. (What would a Tut show be without lots of both?) A gold collar in the shape of a winged cobra, found in the wrappings around the boy-king’s mummy, is a superb example of Egyptian engraving, though even this piece of exquisite jewellery dims when seen alongside the gold sandals Tutankhamun wore in death. For those who come to this show looking for gold, however, the most memorable item will probably be the miniature coffin, made of the precious metal, carnelian and coloured glass, that depicts Tutankhamun as Osiris, the god of resurrection and rebirth.

Most objects presented here are of lighter stuff, and are more everyday. Boats, for example, were important to the Egyptians for commerce and travel in life and, in death, for the long journey of the deceased through the dangerous night-world to the place of eternal dawn. To equip Tutankhamun for his last adventure, his undertakers put into his tomb more than a dozen model boats made of painted wood. After he had undergone his resurrection, he would also need writing materials, a place to sleep, the companionship of the gods who look after the dead. Hence the presence, among the grave-goods here, of a slate scribe’s palette (with carved reed pens and pots for red and black ink), a fine bed with lions’ paws for feet, and sublime gilded wooden images of the divinities.

King Tut is a more subtle and more interesting show than Toronto’s Tutankhamun exhibition of 30 years ago — laid out better, larger and richer in artifacts, and, because it includes statuary, sumptuous jewellery and other specimens from several episodes in Egyptian history, more generous in terms of context. It tells a brilliant story, but an incomplete one.

For the other, darker side of Egyptian culture, we turn to the biblical account of Israel’s 400 years of bondage, pharaoh’s savage pursuit of Israel after the Exodus, the thundering witness of the Hebrew prophets against Egypt’s vanity and imperial overreach. Christians who know the Bible will find that viewing King Tut can be a bittersweet experience — a taste of high cultural attainment, surely, but an accomplishment, like every other glory of the ancient Mediterranean world, that was bought at a great price in human life and suffering.

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