The Last Tour Of King Tut
On Sunday morning I went to the Tutankhamun exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery, where the club-footed boy king is on a last world tour before heading off to the new purpose-built Giza Museum overcooking the Great Pyramid. There, its 150 artefacts will be reunited with the items that cannot leave Egypt, like his golden death mask and the outer coffins.
Tutankhamun became pharaoh when he was nine, after the death of his father, Akhenaten. A frail lad, he nevertheless fathered two stillborn children before his death at 19. He was subsequently erased from history.
I saw the rest of his artefacts in the old, dusty, underlit Cairo Museum. Since then Egypt suffered a disastrous tourism slump. I was in Luxor shortly after 62 tourists were gunned to death in 1997. Since then suicide bombers have tried and failed to repeat the atrocity (as recently as four years ago). So King Tut is back on the road hitting 10 cities before heading home, drumming up renewed interest in Egypt.
The exhibition is the first since 1974’s tour at the British Museum which I queued forever to see (no online timed bookings then), and which was greeted with the same level of public adulation. What has changed in the interim is the showmanship of the tour. His display is now a blingy, glitzy pop culture show that concentrates on the boy, his spiritual journey and Howard Carter’s discovery. Although it’s largely shorn of context in order to wow the crowds, with a heavily audiovisual son et lumiere presentation, fancy lighting and music, nothing can detract from the extraordinary items on display.
Here are his carved guardians through the netherworld, his gold-leaf bed, the organ boxes and catafalques, representations of the gods, lowly cases holding food for his journey. Many of the best pieces are the smallest; a carved walking stick in the shape of a bending man, an intricately woven elbow-length glove, a board game and markers that remind us that the ruler was a slightly-built teenager. The paradox lies in the fact that this minor king was meant to have been forgotten, but Carter’s meticulous preservation of the find, which changed the methodology of archaeology, means that his is the only complete royal excavation in 33 centuries.
This point is brought home by a link to the Egyptian belief that we die twice; once when the soul departs the body and again when the last person who remembers our name dies. Howard Carter, it is suggested, with his lifelong dedication to finding the boy-king, restored him to memorability and thus returned him to spiritual life.