Tutankhamun's outermost coffin. Photo: Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford
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Discovering Tutankhamun: How “Tutmania” drowned out Egypt’s reaction to the great discovery

A new exhibition telling the story of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb at the Ashmolean is briliant on “Tutmania”, but fails to explore the Egyptians’ attitudes. 

The hollow-eyed, snake-bearded death mask of Tutankhamun, gleaming with gold, is so often replicated that it packs less punch than a scrunched-up ball of papyrus for western audiences these days. Its ubiquity as a symbol of ancient history makes the Ashmolean’s set-piece exhibition this year a bit of gamble. Whether it is due to repeated sticky school trips to the British Museum or a well-thumbed copy of Terry Deary’s kid-history classic the Awesome Egyptians, from a young age the magic of the Pharaoh, and the story of its discovery, begins to wear thin.

But this isn’t the case in modern Egypt. As revolution has shaken Cairo’s foundations, graffiti of the iconic resplendent face of the boy king, and other images of pharaohs – sometimes given a soldier’s beret or a Guy Fawkes mask – have been plastered across Tahrir Square and beyond. It is modern Egyptians’ “sense of ownership” of their country’s ancient past that the co-curator of the Ashmolean’s Discovering Tutankhamun exhibition, Paul Collins, finds so fascinating.

After wandering through the exhibition and being treated to six modern-day flappers Lindy Hopping to the 1923 hit Old King Tut, written in response to the tomb’s discovery (Old King Tut was a wise old nut/He got into his royal bed three thousand years BC and left a call for 12 o’ clock in 1923), I ask Collins about the resonance of Tutankhamun’s story today.

“I think it is a symbol of nationalist success that the imperialist occupiers couldn’t take the objects out of Egypt. They decided its fate,” he says. “That notion [of ownership] surfaces in the time of revolution. In this recent revolution, you have the amalgam of Islamic identity, modern identity and the relationship with the west, and the ancient identity. That’s what you see in the graffiti.”

Collins’ perspective is compelling, and even more so considering Discovering Tutankhamun – for all its colourful and detailed story-telling – doesn’t really touch on how Egypt was affected by the discovery, a turning-point made even more poignant by happening the same year as the country’s independence from Britain.

The exhibition is rich in detail, mainly due to the curators Collins and Liam McNamara ploughing for years through archives, displaying a whole host of material that has never been public before, mainly from the Ashmolean’s neighbour, the University of Oxford’s Griffith Institute, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. It consists of archaeologist Howard Carter’s hand-written diaries, meticulous sketches recording every object in the tomb, fan letters following the discovery with advice on how to ward off the pharaoh’s curse, and negatives of photographs taken during the dig.

The first part of the exhibition tracks the relationship of the two men who discovered the tomb – Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon ­– and how they came to work together in Egypt. There is a handy wall map marking the journey to Cairo from the Carnarvon seat, and current Downton Abbey location, Highclere Castle.

Carter was an artist down on his luck who had started out painting Egypt’s ancient tombs, and Carnarvon was an adventurous and academic aristocrat who had been advised by his doctor to move to warmer climes because of his bronchitis. The year following Tutanhkamun’s discovery, he grew weak and died died of pneumonia, leading to press hysteria about the “Mummy’s curse”.

Together, they led excavations of ancient tombs, and in 1914 were granted a concession by the Egyptian government to dig in the Valley of the Kings. Years of futile searching followed until the two men, low on funds, were ready to give up. They risked one last excavation in 1922, and the young pharaoh – whose reign, cut short when he died at 19, would have been insignificant in his time – obliged by storming into the world of the living.

Old King Tut. Photo: Copyright Brier-Remner Collection

Discovering Tutankhamun does a thorough job of presenting how the discovery affected the world. The exhibition refers to “Tutmania” to describe the flurry of influence the tomb’s wonders had on design, fashion, jewellery and culture.

Among Art Deco designs spun with gold and hieroglyph patterns, Old King Tut sheet music, newspaper front pages, exhibition posters and London Underground advertisements (“Yes, it is odd living in the tomb of Tutankhamun… but we thought the agent said a room in Tooting Common…”), is the controversial tale of how the world heard the news.

Carnarvon sold the exclusive to the Times for £5000, a practice that was almost unheard-of in those days. It riled other journalists, and made the Egyptian press and public feel shut-out from their own story. This nugget is a hint at Egyptians’ reaction to the way the discovery was handled and how they were denied access to their own history by their occupiers.

Tutankhamun reared his golden head when nationalist roots in Egypt felt most precious and precarious. Not only was it the year of Egypt’s independence, but it closely followed a time when the Middle East’s borders were crudely carved up with a pencil and ruler. This is what makes a retelling of the excavation resonate today, when the Egyptians are again trying to define and cling to their national identity. In light of this, the Ashmolean should have explored Egypt’s role and told its visitors a whole other story of the tomb’s discovery.
 

Discovering Tutankhamun is on at the Ashmolean, Oxford, until 2 November

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem