The story is better known as the mummy curse. Which targets that of the pharaoh Tutankhamun discovered in 1922 by an Egyptologist and his team. Following this historic find, 27 people were killed, all considered suspicious. A look back at a fascinating ancient history, which has been the basis of many films and books on the subject, but above all, of a myth.
(Credit : national oto compagny collection)
On April 4, 1922, the renowned Egyptologist Howard Carter and his team discovered one of the greatest finds of their time: the inviolate tomb of a pharaoh forgotten by history, that of Tutankhaton (Tutankhamun).
The Pharaoh was the son of Pharaoh Akhenaten and one of his sisters whose identity remains unknown to this day. Following the death of his father at the age of 9, he is considered too young to rule. His father’s ministers then dealt with the affairs of the pharaonic court under the yoke of Queen Ânkh-Khéperouré, the first wife and sister of the former pharaoh. When it mysteriously disappears, the young Tutankhaton becomes the pharaoh of Egypt. He was advised by his father’s advisers, Aÿ (who later succeeded him) and General Horemheb (who later succeeded him).
(Pharaoh’s funeral mask, credit Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)
He married his sister Ânkhésenpatoon (daughter of the illustrious Nefertititi and Amenhotep IV) and had two daughters die young with his wife. He won’t have any more children. During his short reign, the pharaoh abandoned the cult of Aton in which he was raised and whose father worshipped. Moreover, Tutankhaton means “earthly reincarnation of Aten”. He set up again the cult of the god Amun. He then changes his name to Tutankhamun and thus becomes the earthly reincarnation of Amen while his wife becomes Amenkhesenamun. He abandoned the town of Ankénaton to build temples near Thebes and Karnac to restore the cult of Amen. The pharaoh thus restores worship celebrations of the gods abandoned by his father and allows Egypt to regain its financial strength since the death of the former pharaoh had left the country indebted and unstable. Nevertheless, despite his battles against the Nubians and Asiis, the other traces of his reign were erased and stolen for the benefit of Horemheb during his reign, just like those of his father until Pharaoh Amenhotep III.
Toutânkhamon had a handicap in his leg following a bone necrosis forcing him to walk with a cane on a daily basis. In his tomb, more than a hundred canes were found. The causes of his death are still debated, many felt that he was murdered because his skull had a fracture. However, new research has highlighted the fact that he had died from an infection he had contracted by breaking his leg. He would only have survived his fracture for a few days. The king also had a fragile bone system, as did his incestuous family. He contracted malaria and osteochondritis (malformation of bones and cartilage). His reign was erased from Egyptian memories until 1922.
If the discovery of the mummy had had the effect of a bomb, it is especially the dramatic circumstances that have remained in memory nowadays. On November 4, 1922, Howard Carter discovers the tomb of the forgotten pharaoh, after long days of archaeological excavations, the Egyptologist manages to enter the tomb with his friend Lord Carnavron: on November 19, 1922 they enter the tomb. Between two the canary of Carter is devoured by a cobra, for the workers it is a bad omen and many speak at this time of the curse of the mummy which will fall on all those who would dare to desecrate the tomb of the pharaoh.
(Lord Carnavron, credit : Mykreeve)
The official story of the curse began on 5 April 1923 when Lord George Carnavron died from a mosquito bite. Indeed, having failed to cure his bite and having made an infection causing a fatal septicaemia combined with a pneumonia. In May 1923, it was around Professor La Fleur, a friend of Howard Carter and archaeologist who had contributed to the discovery of the tomb that died of blistering pneumonia. The financier George Gould also died of violent pneumonia on May 16, 1923, after visiting the tomb. Colonel Aubrey Herbert, Lord Carnavron’s half brother, died on 26 September 1923 of a sepsis (general infection) following dental surgery at the age of 43, shortly after leaving Cairo and visiting the tomb.
The curse continues in 1924 with the suicide of Hugh Evelyn White, who was one of the first contributors to enter the royal tomb. It was the turn of the mummy’s radiologist, Archibald Douglas Reed, to die of an infection the same year. The story continues in 1926 with the mysterious death of the nurse who looked after Lord Carnavron during his fever, who was present on the site. In 1929 the archaeologist Arthur C. Mace died a natural death, he had knocked down the wall of the burial chamber with Howard Carter. Then in 1928 it was Carter’s secretary, Richard Bathell, who died of a stroke in bed at the age of 35.
The curse takes a pause to recharge its batteries to resume on November 2, 1935 with the death by streptococcal infection of James Henry Breasted, archaeologist who led new excavations in the tomb of the pharaoh and published a book on this subject in 1923. Then it was Howard Carter’s turn to give his last breath on March 2, 1939 of cirrhosis of the liver. In 1964 Mohammed Mehri, director of the department of antiquities of the museum of Cairo died in his turn after having signed so that the treasure of the pharaoh is transmitted to the museum of the small palace in Paris, he dies of a cerebral haemorrhage. In 1969 Lord Carnavron’s widow, Lady Almina, died of pneumonia and in February 1972 Gamal Mehrez, Mohammed Mehri’s successor at the Cairo Museum, died in the same way after signing for the Tutankhamun Treasure Exhibition in London. There were also the deaths of other people who were not recorded in time, history reports that they were workers who participated in the opening of the tomb and curious who also suffered the lightning of the pharaoh.
(Lord Carnavron, Lady Herbert and Howard Carter on the steps of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Harry Burton credit).
The last victim of the mummy’s curse is Lady Evelyn Herbert in 1980, at the age of 79 years of natural cause. She was Lord Carnavron’s daughter and had visited the tomb at the time of the discovery.
The newspapers of the time very quickly propagated the story as soon as Lord Carnavron passed away, highlighting the curse of the mummy and very quickly spreading it around the world. Many theories are put forward on the real causes of death, sleeping bacteria, gas on the mummy’s flakes, etc…. But many of the victims died from pneumonia or bacterial infection. A scientific theory of Dr Caroline Steigner-Philipp believes that the culprits of the curse are mushrooms. Indeed the Egyptian customs were to put food in the tombs so that the mummies could eat during the journey to the afterlife. According to her, mushrooms would have their origin in the mould of rotten food without ambient air then combined with humidity would thus give an allergenic virus which could kill slowly fire. The doctor had observed this phenomenon during the discovery of the tomb of Ramses II, many people die mysteriously under deadly forms of infection.
But, this virus could then survive only in the presence of air, it is another theory which is put forward. During the autopsy of the Ramses II mummy, bacteria and fungi that can survive without air are discovered, possessing properties particularly bad for the human body (notably spores and allergenic bacteria that can be fatal). This combination then gives a particularly harmful mould which can lead by its toxicity to pathologies such as depression, internal diseases or infections but also pneumonia. Worse still, this mould can remain asleep for years, possessing properties of straphylococcus or Pseudomonas.
In the end, was it Tutankhamun and his spirit who avenged the violation of his den (even if no threat was inscribed on his grave) or simply an invisible little pathogenic virus having done his work in deceit. The mystery remains intact and the story will always remain as a curse from the beyond of a forgotten pharaoh once again become popular through his discovery and the death of 27 people.
Credit featured ciImage à la une : JF Bradu