The Real Reason Tutankhamun, Akhenaten, and Cleopatra are the Superstars of Ancient Egypt
Archaeology, like every discipline on Earth, cannot be free from the rules of marketing and public relations. The impact of promotion in media and other places affects the lives of millions of people. Sometimes the role of journalists and public relations experts becomes so significant that the descriptions of discoveries decide the position of a find in the scientific world. Sadly, very often the words of the journalists are more relevant to the acceptance of the discovery as an important one, than the true significance of the find.
The time when the ancient remnants of a remarkable civilization started to appear from the sands of the desert, came before the beginning of the era of cameras. The adventurous stories of rebellious amateur archaeologists, like Italian Giovanni Battista Belzoni, took place without the making of photo and video documentation. Therefore, the story about a man who uncovered from the sands of the desert most of the world’s legendary architectural treasures of Egypt, stays less attractive than the uncovering of the small tomb of young pharaoh Tutankhamun. A similar, sad fate touched the works of dozens of remarkable researchers whose work remains in the shadows of the more sensationalized stories. The reason for all these untold stories probably comes down to inadequate press coverage and public relations at the time.
One of the earliest photographs of the discoveries of Ancient Egypt. The Great Temple, Abu Simbel by John Beasley Greene, 1854 ( Public Domain )
For instance, why don't we encounter the name of Djoser (3rd Dynasty) the great builder of the first pyramid, among the ones loved so much by the Hollywood productions? Finding the right answer is easy. The number of artifacts and evidence telling stories related to his life weren’t enough to make the people who write popular texts about Ancient Egypt interested in him. The stories related to his architect and vizier Imhotep conquered the imagination of the authors of the movie ''The Mummy'' and ''The Mummy Returns''. However, the plot of this film was placed in times of Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty – Sety I. This mixture of the two different periods in history, separated from each other by more than a thousand years, was caused by the lack of press around to record the fascinating times of Djoser.
Sorting the Truth from the Hyperbole
What if Akhenaten didn't have such unusual statues and incredibly beautiful wife? Would he still be so appealing to the people with his 'religious revolution’? In fact, many researchers claim that the monotheism of Akhenaten is highly overrated. The change in the hierarchy of the temples wasn't something unusual in Ancient Egypt. On at least a few occasions, the dominating deity of the country was changing, but only in the case of Akhenaten did the researchers try to identify the motif of monotheism. This misunderstanding was perhaps caused by the mentality of the first researchers who discovered Egyptian treasures related to the mysterious pharaoh. In this case, the researchers created an image of the domination of a monotheistic religion that had never been correct.
Statue of Akhenaten, Father of Tutankhamun ( CC BY SA 2.0 )
The Media Might of King Tut
In fact, what made Tutankhamun, son of Akhenaten, the most famous pharaoh around the world, was good press. The Valley of the Kings saw many spectacular discoveries, but in the case of the achievement by Howard Carter, the important role lied in the hands of ''Egyptian fever'' that started to grow in Western Europe. Understanding that, although the treasures from the tomb of the young king were impressive they were not the only ones that were worth such attention, some of the journalists tried to solve the mystery of Tutankhamun's popularity. In the article published by The Telegraph:
''According to Paul Collins, of the Ashmolean, the coming together of all these factors produced a perfect storm of publicity for Tutankhamun. “The extraordinary coincidence of the development of mass media and a flourishing economy, especially in the United States, combined with the moment of discovery, fueled the rise of Tut,” he says. “Everybody wanted a piece of Tutankhamun – and mass production meant that they could have one, whatever their social standing.”
Howard Carter opens the innermost shrine of King Tutankhamun's tomb near Luxor, Egypt which one of Carter's water boys found the steps to. ( Public Domain )
In other words, ‘Tut-mania’ was a symptom of the times. “If the tomb had been discovered before the enormous cultural changes wrought by the First World War,” Collins says, “I don’t believe it would have had the same impact.”
In 1938 the French archaeologist Pierre Montet discovered the remarkable tomb of Pharaoh Psusennes I. This unlooted grave full of treasures and dating back to the Third Intermediate Period, should be considered the most important and so be the most famous opening of an Ancient Egyptian tomb in the first half of the 20th century. The funerary equipment of Psusennes included tons of silver, which was much more appreciated and expensive than gold in many periods in the history of ancient Egypt. Therefore, the treasures that Montet saw just days before the beginning of the terrible World War II, stay some of the finest found on an ancient site near the Nile River. And yet this story lives in the shadows of the superstar Tutankhamun.
Silver Antropoid coffin of Psusennes I, discovered by Pierre Montet, Egyptian Museum ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Of course, it does not mean that the discoveries or the historical persons whose modern fame was created by the media were not meaningful. However, among the tons of books about the 'celebrity' rulers of Egypt, many incredibly fascinating people have been forgotten. Instead of the popularity of spectacular beauty of Nefertiti, we should read more often about her mother-in-law Tiye. While writers produce yet another book about Tutankhamun, the life of Seqenenre Tao II and his court could be more interesting and fresher to the readers.
The Next Celebrity of the Ancient Red Carpet?
The power of pop culture supports the growth of the popularity of Egyptology. The most famous personality of ancient Egypt remains the last queen who ruled from her throne in Alexandria – Cleopatra. Portrayed in numerous movies, paintings, books, etc., she endures as a heroine of people's imagination. Since she received the face of Elizabeth Taylor, people identify her as an endless beauty. Nowadays, the team of researchers led by Kathleen Martinez is trying to find her lost tomb. If the excavations succeed, the forecast that Cleopatra-mania will spread around the world seems to be very realistic.
Feature Image: The Saccara Pyramid of Djoser, Egypt. Photo Credit: Charlesjsharp ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Howard Carter, ‘The Tomb of Tutankhamun’, 2002
Nicholas Reeves, Richard H. Wilkinson, ‘The complete Valley of the Kings’, 2006
Joyce Tyldesley, ‘Tutankhamun: The Search for an Egyptian King’, 2012.
‘Why the world went wild for King Tut’, available at: