Walk with the Egyptians

By Anna Harrison

Egypt is stuffed full of ancient marvels, from the Pyramids and the Sphinx to the temples at Luxor and Karnak as well as Abu Simbel. But it's a world away in time and distance so if you can't get there, how about flying to Melbourne to see the exhibition Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs? The exhibition, which is on show at the Melbourne Museum for its sole Australasian outing, contains the most wonderful treasure of golden statues, jewellery and artefacts found in the boy king's tomb.

Ascending the throne in about 1333BC at the age of 9, Tutankhamun reigned during the 18th dynasty of Egypt's golden age when its empire, built on trade and conquest, stretched from Sudan to Syria. However, Tutankhamun was not destined to rule for long, dying at the age of just 19 from indeterminate causes. He would have been only a footnote in history had his tomb in the Valley of the Kings not been unearthed thousands of years later by famed British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.

Carter had been excavating in the valley, a resting place for the kingdom's rulers, for years with little success and his backer, Lord Carnarvon, was losing interest but the archaeologist convinced him to take one last punt. He was particularly interested in an area of the dig that contained the foundations of workmen's huts and it was there that his workers found steps leading to a sealed door covered in royal symbols.

Although robbers had plundered most of the tombs in the valley, Carter was amazed to find this tomb was full of the most stunning riches: jewellery, gold coffins, engraved boxes, life-size statues, thrones, a chariot - "everywhere the glint of gold".

The discovery set off a stir internationally and renewed interest in the ancient civilisation - as well as creating legends of its own: the curse of Tutankhamun. Tradition had it that anyone who disturbed a mummy would incur the pharaoh's wrath so, when a cobra, the symbolic protector of the pharaohs, ate Carter's pet canary on the day the tomb was opened, the perceived omen set the public imagination alight. Lord Carnarvon's death from an infected mosquito bite a few months after the discovery added fuel to the fire as did the revelation that his dog reportedly howled and dropped dead at the same time as his master. But Carter - the first person to enter the tomb - lived for many years after, cataloguing the artefacts in the tomb, and died from lymphoma in 1939.

Curses aside, a highlight of the Melbourne exhibition, the most successful in Australian history attracting more than 500,000 people so far, is one of four gold coffinettes fashioned in the young king's likeness which once contained his dried-out liver.

Tutankhamun was mummified upon his death. First, the organs were extracted and put in jars to be buried alongside the corpse which was dried for several days in salts before being wrapped in linen bandages containing amulets to protect the pharaoh in the afterlife. The mummified corpse was then put in a coffin that was placed in a series of others, like Russian dolls. The gold coffin containing Tutankhamun's corpse weighs 110kg and displays extraordinary workmanship but is not on show in Melbourne, nor are the other coffins or the famous funerary mask. Tutankhamun's mummified corpse has also remained in Egypt as it was deemed too delicate to travel but a model is on display and videos show the original at all angles while scientists discuss efforts to determine the cause of his death and ascertain more about his life.

Items in Melbourne demonstrating the luxurious life Tutankhamun lived include a gold dagger, a falcon-shaped collar of sheet gold and a royal diadem that were wrapped in his linen bandages. Other personal items include a gilt mirror case, necklaces inlaid with semi-precious stones, a gilt fan that would have held ostrich feathers, board games and a tiny ebony and ivory throne he would have used as a child.

Several canes found in the tomb suggest Tutankhamun had trouble walking and this has been attributed to a genetic condition resulting from familial incest; his parents were brother and sister. However, two life-sized statues of Tutankhamun on display, which he commissioned, portray him as a young virile ruler, indicating a certain vanity. They show him wearing the crowns of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt, while a wooden mannequin, complete with the dark eye make-up of the day, gives a more natural depiction of how he looked.

Tutankhamun's royal crook and flail are the official emblems representing his sovereignty but, in reality, his advisers would have made most of the state decisions for him, including reversing the religious reforms introduced by his father, Akhenaten.

A sculpture of Akhenaten's wife Nefertiti, regarded as one of history's great beauties, a colossal head of Akhenaten and a carved relief showing the pair worshipping the sun are fashioned in the Amarna style of elongated limbs, wide hips and thighs, almond-shaped eyes and long faces. Tutankhamun's great-grandmother, Tyuya, is also represented, by her gilt funerary mask which sports an inscrutable expression, plus her gold coffin.

What was found in Tutankhamun's tomb gives a glimpse of the breathtaking wealth and workmanship of the Egyptian empire that lasted more than 3000 years and has given the world some of its greatest monuments and treasures. If you think you will never get to Egypt, this Melbourne exhibition is the next best thing.

Tut, tut...

* King Tutankhamun Exhibition. On until December 4.

* Melbourne Museum, 11 Nicholson St.

* Tickets are from A$29.50 ($37.60) for adults and A$17.50 for children and can be ordered online.

* Take the kids to the short 3D movie at the museum before you see the exhibition. Tickets are A$8.50.

* Visit  kingtutmelbourne.com.au for more info.

- The Aucklander

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