Seated on a cushion at the Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s feet, Ankhesenamun hands her young husband an arrow to shoot at ducks in a papyrus thicket. Delicately engraved on a gilt shrine, it’s a scene (above) of touching intimacy, a window into the lives of the ancient Egyptian monarchs who reigned more than 3,300 years ago. Unfortunately, the window closes fast. Despite recent findings indicating that Tut, as he has come to be known, was probably not murdered, the life and death of the celebrated boy-king remain a tantalizing mystery.
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“The problem with Tutankhamun is that you have an embarrassment of riches of objects, but when you get down to the historical documents and what we actually know, there is very little,” says Kathlyn Cooney, a Stanford University Egyptologist and one of the curators of the first Tutankhamun exhibition to visit the United States in more than a quarter-century. (The show opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on June 16 and travels to the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.)
On display are 50 stunning funerary objects from the pharaoh’s tomb and 70 pieces from other ancient tombs and temples, dating from 1550 to 1305 B.C. On loan from the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo, this astonishingly well-preserved assemblage includes jewelry, furniture and exquisitely carved and painted cosmetics vessels.
Negotiations for the exhibition dragged on for three years while the Egyptian Parliament and many archaeologists resisted lifting a travel ban imposed in 1982 after a gilt goddess from Tut’s tomb was broken while on tour in Germany. In the end, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, intervened.
“Once the president decided to put Egypt’s collections back on the museum circuit, we obtained the green light for the project,” says Wenzel Jacob, director of the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle museum in Bonn, Germany, where the exhibition was on display before moving to Los Angeles.
Most of the objects were excavated in the Valley of the Kings, two desert canyons on the west bank of the Nile, 416 miles south of Cairo. Covering half a square mile, the valley is the site of some 62 tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and nobles. Unlike the blockbuster show of the 1970s that focused exclusively on Tut and the discovery of his tomb by English archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, the current exhibition also highlights the ruler’s illustrious ancestors.
“This period was like a fantastic play with magnificent actors and actresses,” says Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. “Look at the beautiful Nefertiti and her six daughters; King Tut married one of them. Look at her husband, the heretic monarch Akhenaten; his domineering father, Amenhotep III; and his powerful mother, Queen Tiye. Look at the people around them: Maya, the treasurer; Ay, the power behind the throne; and Horemheb, the ruthless general.”
Born circa 1341 B.C., most likely in Ankhetaten (present-day Tell el-Amarna), Tutankhamun was first called Tutankhaten, a name that meant “the living image of the Aten,” the sole official divinity by the end of the rule of Akhenaten (1353 to 1335 B.C.). Tut was probably Akhenaten’s son by Kiya, a secondary wife, but may have been the son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, making him Akhenaten’s younger brother.
While Tut was being educated at the palace, the empire was losing its grip on its northern territories in what is now Syria. But there is no indication that Akhenaten, perhaps reluctant to send his troops to foreign fields while he attempted to recast the established religion, took any action against invading Hittite warriors from Anatolia.
Although little is known of Tut’s childhood, British historian Paul Johnson speculates that life in a new capital city, Amarna, must have been insular and claustrophobic. Five or six years before Tut’s birth, Akhenaten had created Amarna, in part, perhaps, to escape the bubonic plague that was ravaging Egypt’s congested cities as well as to make a clean break with the cult of Amun, then Thebes’ chief god. Declaring Aten as the supreme and only god, Akhenaten closed the temples of rival gods and had his soldiers deface images of Amun and other deities, tossing out, to widespread consternation, a system that for two millennia had brought stability to this world and promised eternal life in the next. “The [new] religion was followed only in Amarna,” says André Wiese, curator of the Antikenmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, where the exhibition originated. “In Memphis and elsewhere, people continued to worship the pantheon of old.”