Why do so many people believe in the curse of the Pharaohs? Why do they want to believe that the ancient Egyptians would wish to reach out over thousands of years and do us harm?
The curse of the Pharaohs became famous all over the world after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. This was a remarkable find, one of the few royal tombs from ancient Egypt which had not been stripped of its treasures long ago. No one had believed that the British Egyptologist Howard Carter and his wealthy sponsor Lord Carnarvon would find the tomb, but after years of disappointment they struck gold.
In late February 1923, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito. The next day, he cut open the bite shaving and developed a severe infection. Then he contracted pneumonia. He died on 5 April 1923, only five months after the discovery of the tomb.
The death of Carnarvon triggered a spate of stories about the “curse of the Pharaohs”, many of them by disgruntled journalists who were tired of constantly being scooped by the London Times newspaper, and the legend of the curse grew.
Many other stories of mysterious events supposedly related to the curse appeared and spread. Any death connected with Egypt or its antiquities in any way, even from before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, was said to be the result of the curse.
Did the ancient Egyptians themselves believe in curses and magic? The answer to the second question at least is yes. The ancient Egyptians often inscribed threatening curses on the walls and doorways of their tombs. The curses warn people not to damage the sacred monuments:
Oh, all people who enter this tomb,
Who will make evil against this tomb, and destroy it,
May the crocodile be against them in water.
And snakes against them on land,
May the hippopotamus be against them on water,
The scorpion against them on land.
But if there was an age-old curse that punished those who disturbed the resting place of the dead, it was not powerful enough to scare away the ancient grave-robbers. Indeed, it is clear from these ancient texts that such thieves feared only the living, not the dead.
So, is there an ancient curse that haunts those who disturb the dead? I believe that all the curse stories about the tomb of Tutankhamun, and the other tragedies attributed to the curse, either were made up completely or have natural explanations.
Those believing in Tutankhamun’s curse should surely have expected that the people most closely associated with the excavation would be in the most danger. But Carter himself lived for more than 17 years after the discovery, dying at the age of 64 in his home in England, and Carnarvon’s daughter, who was one of the first people to enter the tomb, lived for another 58 years, dying at the age of 79.
In my own 30 years of excavating, I have never had an experience I would attribute to an ancient curse. Instead, I have felt blessed by my work and have felt the gratitude of the ancient monuments that I have spent my life uncovering and preserving for the generations to come.
Yet, some strange things have happened to me that have me wonder whether some sort of ancient Egyptian magic might be at work.
THE TUTANKHAMUN CURSE
We know that Carnarvon was responsible of the existence of the Tutankhamun curse for two reasons.
The first was because he gave exclusive permission to the London Times to publish everything about the tomb, making the rest of the press unhappy because they could not write anything about the tomb.
The second reason was his sudden death three months after the discovery while shaving when he was bitten by an insect and died. His death opened the door to many false stories, such as that he had been bitten by a cobra. Or that when he had stayed at the Shepherd Hotel in Cairo, the lights had gone on and off. However, the electricity system in Cairo was bad at the time.
Carnarvon’s dog died at the same time as its master, it was claimed. But the dog was in Carnarvon’s castle in England, and at that time it was impossible to know it was dead because communications were bad.
There was also a famous book written by a German reporter called the Curse of the Pharaohs, on which the author wrote that “I met Gamal Mehrez, director of antiquities in Cairo. I asked him, ‘Dr Mehrez, do you believe in the curse of the Pharaohs?’
He said, ‘No, I have discovered many tombs, temples and mummies, and nothing has happened to me.’ Yet, the next day Mehrez died.”
If anyone reads this excerpt, he might believe in the curse, but I have to explain the truth. Firstly, Mehrez was a specialist in Islamic monuments, and he never excavated tombs or mummies. Secondly, he was always nervous and once fainted in his office. His death was not unexpected.
When I decided to do a CT scan of the mummy of Tutankhamun, I found that all the media people wanted to record this moment. So, I decided to go without telling anyone I was doing it. I left Cairo at 5am and went to my hotel in Luxor. I stayed until the evening, and then Mansour Boric and Mustafa Waziri, in charge of antiquities in Luxor at the time, came to pick me up to go to the Valley of the Kings by car.
After a few minutes of driving, the driver stopped suddenly, for in front of him was a young boy. Mansour laughed and said this was the beginning of the curse of Tutankhamun. We were on our way to the valley once more when my sister called me to say that her husband had died. When we arrived in the valley, I received a phone call from Yasser, the secretary of former minister of culture Farouk Hosni, to tell me that Hosni had had a heart attack and was in the Dar Al-Fouad Hospital.
I was met by a team from a Japanese TV company that was there to shoot the experiment. Suddenly, a big storm took over the valley with heavy rain and thunder. The Japanese team ran, shouting “the curse, the curse, the curse of Tutankhamun.”
I began to think there was something to be said for the curse of Tutankhamun, but when we opened the lid of the sarcophagus inside the tomb of Tutankhamun and saw the third wooden coffin we were still able to see the boy-king face to face.
A gilded mummy mask of a nobleman at the valley of the golden mummies (left)
We moved the mummy from the tomb and put it inside the CT machine. Hani Abdel-Rahman began to operate the machine, but it didn’t work. I could not believe it, and I sat down to think more about the curse of Tutankhamun.
But in the end, there is no such curse of Tutankhamun. In my opinion, these are just stories that happen to coincide.
Later, when I was excavating in the Bahariya Oasis we found tombs 15 metres underground that we had to install electricity to see. I was excavating with a tool in my right hand to remove the sand, and in my left hand I was holding a lamp. I saw a statue and moved to the left to see it, but as I did so the electricity wire broke and I received an electric shock. I fainted. Beside me was Mahmoud Afifi, my assistant. I had earlier told him that if I died, everyone would believe in the curse.
I can explain the truth about the curse. If we find a tomb that has been sealed for thousands of years, and inside there is a mummy, this mummy could exude bacteria and chemicals. Archaeologists in the past were in a hurry to open such tombs, and they could be affected by the sealed air.
What I do now when I discover a tomb it to open it up for a few hours to relieve it of its toxic air and permit fresh air to enter. Then we enter to excavate.
There is no curse of Tutankhamun.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.