The Curse of Tutankhamen’s Tomb – Part 1
On 29th November, 1922, Egyptologists Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon were confronted by the tomb of King Tutankhamen apparentely guarded by a stone inscribed with the ominous threat: “Death Shall Come on Swift Wings to Him Who Disturbs the Peace of the King." Undeterred, they later opened the tomb and discovered the famous pharaoh along with a wealth of treasures, launching the world into the modern era of Egyptology.
The first incident fuelling local rumours of a curse occurred on the very day that the King’s tomb was broken into when Carter came home and found his bird cage occupied by a cobra, the symbol of Egyptian monarchy. Carter’s canary had died in its mouth and the story was reported in the New York Times with claims that the Royal Cobra, the same as that worn on the King’s head to strike enemies, was the first sign of a curse in action.
Shortly thereafter, strange fates befell those who had entered the tomb. Six weeks after the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb, Lord Carnarvon died from an infected mosquito bite and a few hours after his death, back in England, Carnarvon’s beloved dog Susie let out a yelp and died. An international media frenzy ensued and talk of the King’s curse was spreading far and wide.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, suggested that Lord Carnarvon's death had been caused by "elementals" created by Tutankhamen’s priests to guard the royal tomb, and this further fuelled the media interest. British journalist Arthur Weigall reported that six weeks before Carnarvon's death, he had watched the Earl laughing and joking as he entered the King's tomb and said to a nearby reporter, "I give him six weeks to live."
The next to befall the apparent curse was Egypt’s Prince Ali Kamel Gahmy Bey, shot dead by his wife, followed by Carnarvon’s half-brother, who died from blood poisoning. Then there was Woolf Joel, a South African millionaire who was murdered a few months after his visit to the tomb, then financier George Jay Gould who died of a fever six months after his visit.
Other deaths attributed to the curse include Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid, a radiologist who x-rayed Tutankhamen’s mummy (died from a mysterious illness), Sir Lee Stack, Governor-General of Sudan (assassinated while driving through Cairo), A. C. Mace, a member of Carter's excavation team (died from arsenic poisoning), Captain The Hon. Richard Bethell, Carter's personal secretary (smothered in his bed), Richard Luttrell Pilkington Bethell, father of the above (threw himself off his seventh floor apartment) and finally Howard Carter who opened the tomb and died well over a decade later on March 2, 1939.
However, it was not just the deaths that led to widespread panic of a curse. Other mysterious events perpetuated the belief that King Tutankhamen’s spirit had lived on and was protecting his place of burial. In 1925, anthropologist Henry Field reported how a paperweight given to Carter's friend Sir Bruce Ingham was composed of a mummified hand with its wrist adorned with a scarab bracelet marked with, "Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence." Soon after receiving the gift, Ingram's house burned down, followed by a flood when it was rebuilt.
Although Howard Carter was entirely skeptical of such curses, he did report in his diary a "strange" account in May 1926, when he saw jackals of the same type as Anubis, the guardian of the dead, for the first time in over thirty-five years of working in the desert.
Skeptics have pointed out that many others who visited the tomb or helped to discover it lived long and healthy lives. A study showed that of the 58 people who were present when the tomb and sarcophagus were opened, only eight died within a dozen years. All the others were still alive, including Howard Carter, who died of lymphoma in 1939 at the age of 64.
The ‘curse’ continues over decades
An interesting aspect of the curse theory, however, is that the apparent bad luck has not only struck those that visited the tomb but has affected individuals who have had any kind of involvement in its disruption, even decades later.
In 1972, the treasures of Tutankhamen’s tomb were transported to London for an exhibition at the British Museum. Dr Gamal Mehrez, Director of Antiquities, scoffed at the curse saying that all the deaths and misfortune through the decades had been the result of ‘pure coincidence’. He died the night after supervising the packaging of the relics for transport to England.
Then there were the cases involving the crew members of the aircraft involved in transportation who suffered death, injury, misfortune and disaster in the years that followed their cursed flight. Ken Parkinson, a flight engineer suffered a heart attack each year at the same time as the flight which brought the treasures to England until a final fatal one in 1978. Then there was Flight Lieutenant Jim Webb, who lost everything he owned after a fire devastated his home, and steward Brian Rounsfall who suffered two heart attacks after confessing that he played cards on the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen.
While the validity of the curse has never been confirmed, the frequency of death and misfortune is indeed remarkable. In part 2 we will examine possible explanations for the mysterious curse of Tutankhamen.
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