The Curse of Tutankhamen?

The Valley of the Kings, located on the western bank of the Nile River opposite modern-day Luxor, had long been a site of “antiquity tourism,” dating all the way back to the time of the Roman Empire. Housing the principal burial location for many major royal figure in the Egyptian New Kingdom, as well as being the site of the ancient city of Thebes, the area was a popular place for travelers to come and explore, as well as a spot archaeologists could discover artifacts that would assist in a great understanding of the past civilization. However, in the late 19th century, a French Egyptologist by the name of Gaston Maspero became head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service; his goal was to shift from gathering artifacts to preserving them. As such, he appointed Howard Carter, a British archaeologist and fellow Egyptologist, as Chief Inspector of Upper Egypt.

Carter had been born in Kensington but spent most of his life in Swaffham where the nearby mansion of the Amherst Family, Didlington Hall, which had benefited immensely from the earlier practice of gathering relics, housed an impressive collection of Egyptian objects. Young Carter was fascinated and, in 1891, at the behest of Lady Amherst, accompanied Amherst family friend Percy Newberry on an excavation of tombs in Beni Hasan, an experience that would lead to several more expeditions and, eventually, a career choice as an archaeologist specializing in Egyptian culture.

In 1907, he began working for George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (also know as Lord Carnarvon, who financed many digs along the Nile River. In 1914, he was granted concession to dig in the Valley of Kings, and he chose Carter to lead the team. Tasked with finding any tombs that may have been missed by previous explorers, particularly that of Pharaoh Tutankhamen, the last of a family who ruled during the 18th Dynasty. Little was found during the expedition, however, and Carter grew frustrated, a sentiment interrupted by the arrival of the First World War, during which Carter served as a diplomatic courier and translator. After the war, however, Carnarvon agreed to fund one more dig in the Valley of the Kings, with both he and Carter agreeing that an unfruitful endeavor would seal the end of their quest.

In 1922, Carter and his team returned to Luxor and resumed their work on the western bank of the Nile. They decided to begin by clearing rocks from a line of huts they had abandoned during their earlier exploration. On November 4–one hundred years ago today–a young water boy stumbled on a stone that turned out to be the top of a flight of steps cut into the bedrock. Upon a partial digging out of the steps, Carter discovered a mud-plastered doorway covered in cartouches, a specific type of hieroglyphic indicating a royal name. In an effort to keep his discovery secret, Carter had the stairway refilled until he could send a telegram to Lord Carnarvon, who arrived two and half weeks later with his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, in tow.

On November 24, the stairway was cleared and the door, upon which had been discovered Tutankhamen’s cartouche, removed, revealing the door of the tomb itself at the other end of a long corridor. The tomb was to be entered in the presence of an Egyptian official on November 27 but Carter, Carnarvon, Herbert, and an assistant named Arthur Callendar, supposedly made an unauthorized, nocturnal visit the night before, entering through the inner burial chamber and becoming the first modern people ever within the tomb walls.

And that’s when it started to get weird.

Less than a month later, a messenger, running an errand for Carter, reported that he heard a “faint, almost human” cry as he approached Carter’s house. Upon reaching the entrance, the messenger discovered a cobra inside the birdcage of Carter’s beloved pet canary. The canary itself was inside the snake’s mouth; it did not survive. Rumors of a curse immediately began to swirl, as cobras were a symbol of ancient Egyptian monarchy–pharaohs would wear castings of them upon their heads as a reminder of how they “strike down” their enemies. Many theorized the “Royal Cobra” had broken into Carter’s house just as he had broken into King Tutankhamen’s.

Then, in March 1923, Lord Carnarvon suffered a mosquito bite that became infected after he accidentally slashed it while shaving. He died on April 5 at the Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo of blood poisoning that had progressed to pneumonia.


Two weeks before his death, an English novelist by the name of Marie Corelli wrote a letter to New York World magazine, citing sources that claimed “dire punishment” for anyone who dared enter a sealed tomb. A media frenzy was ignited, bolstered shortly thereafter by Carnarvon’s death, and precipitated by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who speculated that Carnarvon’s demise could have been a result of “elementals” created by Tutankhamen’s priests to guard the tomb. Rumors also persisted that the mosquito bite that had ultimately spelled the end for Carnarvon was in the same exact location as lesion on Tutankhamen’s cheek.

There were other deaths as well. George Jay Gould I, a wealthy railroad executive, died in May 1923 after developing a fever after his visit to the tomb. A.C. Mace, an English archaeologist and member of Carter’s team, died in April 1928, having suffered for several years from pleurisy and pneumonia–both diseases of the lungs–after his work in the tomb. In 1929, Richard Bethell, Howard Carter’s 46-year-old personal secretary, was found dead in his bed from a cause that could not be determined. Another one of Carter’s acquaintances, Sir Bruce Ingham, lost his home and all his possessions–twice–in separate house fires after receiving paperweight made of mummified hand with its wrist adorned with a scarab bracelet inscribed with the words: “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence.”

So was the curse of Tutankhamen real?

Fascinated historians and scientists have sought logical explanations for these events for years. They’ve reasoned everything from toxins or mold within the tomb’s walls to murder by smothering (in the case of Richard Bethell) to just plain bad luck. Many are also quick to point out that of the 44 people present at the opening of the tomb, only a handful died in the dozen years that followed. Most telling, of course, was the long life of Evelyn Herbert, who died in 1980, not to mention Howard Carter himself who died in 1939 at the age of 64, a perfectly normal lifespan for men of that time.

Just to be safe, though, if you’re in Egypt, I’d stay away from any ancient tombs.

Just in case.

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