Escapism

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Egypt: Dazzled by the contents of Tutankhamun's tomb

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The death mask of Egypt's boy king, Tutankhamun, can be seen at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo / Wikimedia Commons image by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
The death mask of Egypt's boy king, Tutankhamun, can be seen at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo / Wikimedia Commons image by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

In 1922 archaeologist Howard Carter, exploring in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor in Egypt, uncovered the entrance into a long forgotten tomb of a pharaoh.

Revealed in flickering candlelight were, as he described it, a: "strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another".

Carter and his team had found the tomb of Tutankhamun, the boy king, who had ruled Egypt from the age of nine until his death aged just 19 in about 1323 BC.

It took them 10 years to catalogue, preserve and remove the more than 1700 objects crammed in the burial chamber and its anterooms. What they had discovered was the most complete ancient Egyptian royal tomb ever found and nearly 100 years later that is still the case.

The treasures, which caused a world-wide sensation, were transported to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where they remain today.

What I didn't realise until I visited recently was that it appears that many haven't been dusted since.

More seriously, the lack of the usual essential equipment such temperature and humidity control also seemed to be largely absent.

Carter in his diary also said the chambers: "suggested the property-room of an opera of a vanished civilisation".

The Tutunkhamun Galleries have a similar feel.

Egypt's appalling polluted environment is coupled with the impact of the millions of visitors who breathe over the mostly Carter-era cases. This neglect seems to be nothing short of a tragedy.

But no doubt greater minds than mine are grappling with this problem.

I simply want to tell you that the display of Tutankhamun's treasures was one of the most truly breathtaking, moving and astonishing that I have seen in any museum in the world.

I emerged after an all too-quick visit reeling from the experience ... I can only imagine what Howard Carter must have felt to have been among the first to have seen all these glorious things that had been sealed up for 3245 years.

Although Room 3 (which houses the most valuable of the items, including the pharoah's solid gold death mask), is the key attraction, I would have left happy after just the first 10 metres or so of the Tutankhamun galleries.

The entry is flanked by two life-size statues that guarded the tomb and displayed in the centre of the long gallery are the king's thrones ... one exquisitely inlaid with gold and ebony and another with golden lion heads and a gold embossed panel showing Tutankhamun and his wife.

In preparation for the afterlife, the King was equipped with everything he might need, including the traditional Egyptian board game senet, vessels full of food and wine, chariots and other furniture including gilded beds, and even the ancient equivalent of fold-up camp beds and stools.

Ranged down the centre of the second gallery are the great gilded sarcophagi that fitted inside each other.

The actual mummy, now returned to its tomb in the Valley of the King was found in the innermost sarcophagi within a series of gold inlaid coffins.

I had to work my way around a guard praying on the floor to look at the crumbling garlands of flowers that Egyptologists think were probably thrown into the tomb at the last minute by his young and grieving wife.

That Carter and his team managed to preserve these (apparently they used paraffin wax) is a miracle but I am sure he'd weep to see their state now.

And then to Room 3, where remarkably, there was no queue in front of the mask.

The few people already gazing at it were silent. Even if I had had company I would have been left speechless too (a rare occurrence).

Is it the exceptional workmanship, the sheer dazzling beauty of the gold and lapis, the youthful features of the king or that moment of connection with those inlaid eyes created more than 3000 years ago that so bewitches onlookers?

Arrayed around the mask were cases of stunning jewellery most of which were found within the mummy's wrappings (grave robbers had reached the tomb before Carter and apparently stolen the most easily accessible portable jewellery).

There are few precious stones here - the Egyptians used gold, lapis, turquoise, ivory and carnelian but the work is breathtaking - goldsmiths had fashioned scarabs, falcons and cobras, images of their gods and also simply-made adornments of exceptional beauty.

I fell in love, bizarrely maybe, with the alabaster canopic jars that held Tutankhamun's embalmed stomach, intestines, liver and lungs (the heart was usually left inside the body as the deceased would need this for the weighing of the heart ... the final stage of their journey into the afterlife). Unlike most canopic jars, which bear the heads of a baboon, a jackal, a human figure and a falcon, each of the four was topped with carvings of the young king's head.

There were walking sticks, statues, model boats complete with rigging, a fan that still had its ostrich plumes and a headrest made of turquoise glass.

I couldn't absorb any more. If it took Carter and his team more than 10 years to safely extract all these wonders it's going to need more than a few hours to take it all in.

I will have to go back. It's bewitching. And you should go too ... before Cairo's poisonous air destroys in just a few years what has stood the test of time for three millennia.

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