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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser