What can there possibly be in common between the Real Downtown Abbey, and 12th Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty known as Tutankhamun? As it turns out, more than one could have first imagined. The Highclere Castle, the actual setting for the Downtown Abbey film series, was the seat of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who, with his trusted friend and colleague Howard Carter, was credited with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
“We had worked for months at a stretch and found nothing... We had almost made up our minds that we were beaten, and were preparing to leave the Valley; and then – hardly had we set hoe to ground in our last despairing effort than we made a discovery that far exceeded our wildest dreams” – reminisced Howard Carter about his fateful discovery in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes (modern Luxor), on the west bank of the Nile.
On November 6, 1922, Lord Carnarvon, who had been waiting for this moment for seven long years, received a telegram sent by Howard Carter from Luxor. It read: “At last have made wonderful discovery. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Congratulations!" On receiving this message, Lord Carnarvon immediately set out for Egypt with his daughter and arrived there on November 24. The rest is history. The finding of Tutankhamun’s tomb is still considered the greatest archaeological discovery in the history of mankind. The premature death of Lord Carnarvon in Cairo few weeks after his arrival only added to the enigma and mystery surrounding the Ancient Egypt and its pharaohs.
Overflowing with dazzling artefacts meant to assist Tutankhamun in the afterlife, the site yielded more than 5,000 objects, many exquisitely wrought in gold, decorated with enamel or studded with precious stones. Surprisingly, Tutankhamun’s burial chamber was very modest by general Egyptian standards, since there were only 4 rooms in it. Nevertheless, the site still remains the only ancient pharaoh’s tomb found intact – all others have been raided by Bedouins. Ironically, the very efforts of Tutankhamun’s adversaries to make his name fade into oblivion, ensured that the tomb remained hidden and secure for thousands of years.
The ancient Egyptians believed that a person died twice: first time, when their physical death approached, and the second time -- when the last human being, who remembered the name of the deceased, disappeared off the face of the earth. From this point of view, Pharaoh Tutankhamun was incredibly lucky: despite millennia of oblivion and all attempts of his haters to erase posthumously his name from history, it is now on everyone’s lips. Millions of books were written about Tutankhamun, fashion trends of the early 20th century sprang up because of Tutankhamun, pop-singers were crooning songs about him (just think of King Tut sang by Steve Martin) and various exhibitions involving Tutankhamun’s treasures were always bound to become blockbusters. And Tutankahmun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, which is running at the Saatchi Gallery in London until May 3, 2020, seems to be no exception.
It is the largest collection of Tutankhamun’s treasures to travel outside of Egypt to date. Of course, the Egyptian museum jealously guards the world-famous golden mask of the pharaoh – it is far too fragile. And that means that only a small part of what had been found in the tomb of Tutankhamun went on display at the Saatchi, a total of 150 items. And yet, even these 150 artefacts are amazing and sizeable enough to fill the seven exhibition rooms of the gallery. Almost half of the exhibits (60 objects, to be precise) left Egypt for the first time: among them a small sculpture of the god Horus in the guise of a falcon with a symbolic golden solar disk above his head; a golden casket in the form of a bird “Ba” (an ancient Egyptian symbol of the soul), an exquisite lotus-shaped alabaster wishing cup with an inscription “Let your eyes see wonderful things”, and, incredibly, Tutankhamun’s linen patterned gloves, God knows by which miracle preserved until our days. You will also see his intricately carved ceremonial and hunting bows for shooting; his boomerangs and the carved bed covered in gold leaf (after all, the Egyptians believed that the dead only fell into deep oblivion and talked with gods as they dreamt). A remarkably preserved wooden throne inlaid with bone and mother-of-pearl, a rare carved and gilded pharaoh’s wooden ceremonial shield, and the impressive black-and-gold statue that once stood guard outside the sealed inner door of the tomb will in turns astonish and terrify you, as you progress from room to room. The statue – arresting and menacing at the same time – portrays the king’s “Ka” (a “Ba’s” counterpart of the soul). The objects reveal the rituals intended to transport the young King safely through the underworld, swarming with terrifying monsters. Visitors will contemplate protective statuettes, staffs and royal regalia adorned with enamel and precious stones, and household items, including young King's fan and a pencil case. The latter is particularly moving, as Tutankhamun became pharaoh after the death of his father Akhenaten at the tender age of only nine years. The pencil case reminds us of the young pharaoh who was still a child learning to read and write while being simultaneously instructed to govern and rule. There will also be myriad of exquisite Ancient Egyptian jewellery, caskets and pottery on display.
Do not overlook the minute senet set (the oldest board game, a forefather of chess) with feet carved like lion paws – something to provide an entertainment-cum-guidance for the departed young pharaoh. According to the ancient legend, senet was invented by the ancient Egyptian god of knowledge, Thoth, in order to win a few extra days for the goddess of sky Nut. Eventually, Thoth won 5 days, which resulted in the solar year increasing to 365 days and the lunar year waning to 355. And this was how people got a new game and five extra days of sunshine. Originally a court entertainment, senet gradually acquired a sacred meaning: the main deities of the Egyptian pantheon began to associate with certain chips, and the game itself began to symbolise the events of the kingdom of the dead. As it transpired, Tutankhamun greatly needed this set in the afterlife. Moreover, some scholars believe that the senet chips became prototypes for 22 trump cards of the Egyptian tarot card deck.
Gliding from one exhibition room to another, all bathed in bluish light, you will imperceptibly learn a fair lot about Ancient Egyptian burial practices, including some important spells from the Book of the Dead. You will also obtain answers to such burning questions as: “Who was Tutankhamun’s wife?”, “Was Nefertiti Tutankhamun’s mother?” “What did he die of?” etc. Rare documentary footage of Carter's famous archaeological excavation, played in a continuous loop on large exhibition screens, will also vividly recreate the chain of the events leading to the fateful discovery.
Apparently, London is the third stop on a Golden Pharaoh’s tour, following two record-breaking shows in Los Angeles and Paris. The tour will finish at the new building of the Grand Egyptian Museum of Archaeology in Cairo in 2022: Tutankhamun with his treasures will finally move into new and spacious royal apartments, equipped with new cutting-edge technology that he could have never imagined in his lifetime. To this new destination he will travel as befits an Egyptian king – in a procession. The opening of the new museum is scheduled for November 4, 2022 to mark the centenary of Carter's greatest discovery. It has also been officially announced that an opera dedicated to Tutankhamun will be performed in one of the newly completed buildings of the Grand Egyptian Museum in November 2020. Remarkably, the opera was co-written with the famous Egyptian archaeologist and historian, a former Minister of Antiquities Dr. Zahi Hawass. He co-authored the libretto of the opera with Francesco Santocono, while the music score was composed by Lino Zimbone. “History is boring. You need to bring the feeling,” – believes Hawass, who has lovingly dubbed Tutankhamun a “golden youth”. By the end of 2020, the indefatigable scholar also promises to reveal the secret of the early death of the young pharaoh (he died at the age 19). So far, Hawass is quite sure that the murder was definitely not the cause of Tutankhamun’s death.
In addition to the exciting VR-Experience recreating the contents of Tutankhamun's tomb, the organisers of the exhibition (IMG and Viking Tours) scheduled an exclusive evening with the present owner of the Highclere Castle, the great grandson of the 5th Earl, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, who will share stories of his great grandfather’s passion for Egyptology and various family anecdotes about the discovery of King Tut’s treasures.