THE CURSE OF KING TUT
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After Tutankhamen's tomb was unearthed in 1922, a number of people associated with the discovery died mysterious deaths. Was it coincidence...or was it a curse?
King Tutankhamen reigned from about 1334 to 1325 B.C., at the height of ancient Egypt's glory. The "boy king" was only about 9 when he was crowned, and died mysteriously at the age of 18 or 19. He was buried beside other pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings, near the Nile River at Luxor, the capital of ancient Egypt.
King Tutankhamen's tomb remained undisturbed for more than 3,000 years until it was unearthed in November 1922 by Howard Carter, an amateur archeologist commissioned by the English nobleman Lord Carnarvon to find it. Carter's discovery was due largely to luck; having exhausted a number of other leads, he finally decided to dig in a rocky patch of ground between the tombs of three other pharaohs. Three feet under the soil he found the first of a series of 16 steps, which led down to a sealed stone door. Markings on the door confirmed that it was a royal tomb. Realizing what he had discovered, Carter ordered the steps buried again, and wired Lord Carnarvon in London to join him.
Three weeks later, Carnarvon arrived and digging resumed. The first stone door was opened, revealing a 30-foot-long passageway leading to a second stone door. Carter opened the second door and, peeking into the darkness with the light of a single candle, was greeted by an amazing sight---two entire rooms stuffed with priceless gold artifacts that had not seen the light of day for more than 30 centuries. The room was so crammed with statues, chariots, furniture, and other objects that it took two full months to catalog and remove items in the first room alone. Tutankhamen's body lay in a solid gold coffin in the next room; the gold coffin was itself encased inside three other coffins, which rested inside a huge golden shrine that took up nearly the entire room.
The discovery of the site was hailed as "the greatest find in the annals of archeology." Unlike other tombs, Tutankhamen's was almost completely undisturbed by grave robbers; its hundreds of artifacts provided a glimpse of ancient Egyptian cultural life that had never been seen before.
But unearthing the treasures may have been a dangerous move---soon after the Tut discovery was announced, rumors about a curse on his tomb's defilers began to circulate. They weren't taken seriously---until Lord Carnarvon came down with a mysterious fever and died.
The curse gained credibility when word came from Lord Carnarvon's home in England at 1:50 a.m.-the exact moment of Lord Carnarvon's death---that his favorite dog had suddenly collapsed and died. And at precisely the same moment, Cairo was plunged into darkness, due to an unexplainable power failure.
Over the next several years, a series of people associated with the Tut excavation died unexpectedly, often under mysterious circumstances. The dead in 1923 alone included Lord Carnarvon's brother, Col. Aubrey Herbert; Cairo archaeologist Achmed Kamal, and American Egyptologist William Henry Goodyear.
The following year, British radiologist Archibald Reed died on his way to Luxor, where he planned to X-ray Tut's still-unopened coffin. Oxford archeologist Hugh Evelyn-White, who had dug in the necropolis at Thebes, also died in 1924.
Edouard Neville, Carter's teacher, as well as George Jay-Gould, Carnarvon's friend, papyrus expert Bernard Greenfell, American Egyptologist Aaron Ember, and the nurse who attended to Lord Carnarvon all died in 1926. Ember's death was particularly spooky---he was attempting to rescue from his burning house a manuscript he had worked on for years: The Egyptian Book of the Dead. In 1929 Lord Carnarvon's wife, Lady Almina, died, as did John Maxwell, the Earl's friend and executor, and Carter's secretary, Richard Bethell, who was found dead in bed, apparently from circulatory failure, at the age of 35.
Fallout from the rumors of the curse continued for years, as did the string of mysterious deaths.
As accounts of the deaths circulated, hysteria spread. In England, hundreds of people shipped everything they had that was even remotely Egyptian to the British Museum---including an arm from a mummy.
The popularity of the curse legend led to a series of classic horror films: "The Mummy" (1932), starring Boris Karloff, and "The Mummy's Hand" (1940) and three sequels starring Lon Chaney, --- "The Mummy's Tomb" (1942), "The Mummy's Ghost" and "The Mummy's Curse" (both 1944).
Was the curse for real? Many prominent people insisted that it wasn't; they argued that the mortality rates of people associated with the Tutankhamen discovery and other finds were no higher than that of the general public. Dr. Gamal Mehrez, Director-General of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, disputed the curse in an interview made several years after the discovery of Tut's tomb. "All my life," he said, "I have had to deal with pharaonic tombs and mummies. I am surely the best proof that it is all coincidence." Four weeks later he dropped dead of circulatory failure, as workers were moving Tutankhamen's gold mask for transport to London.
For what it's worth, Lord Carnarvon's son, the sixth Earl of Carnarvon, accepts the curse at face value. Shortly after the fifth earl's burial, a woman claiming psychic powers appeared at Highclere Castle and warned the sixth earl, "Don't go near your father's grave! It will bring you bad luck!" The wary earl heeded her advice and never visited the grave. In 1977 he told an NBC interviewer that he "neither believed nor disbelieved" the curse---but added that he would "not accept a million pounds to enter the tomb of Tutankhamen."