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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Behold, King Tut, in All His Majesty and Mystery - The New York Times

Behold, King Tut, in All His Majesty and Mystery

Howard Carter and an                  excavation foreman with King Tutankhamun's coffin.

Uncovering Tutankhamun's Tomb
By Candace Fleming

Written by Chris Naunton
Illustrated by Guilherme Karsten

What is it about Tutankhamun that inspires such fascination? Believed to be the son of Akhenaten and one of his wives, possibly Nefertiti, Tutankhamun ascended the throne when he was 9 years old and died almost a decade later, after an inconsequential reign that caused barely a ripple in the three-millennium history of ancient Egypt. Yet, in the century since Howard Carter discovered his tomb, a flow of books, documentaries and sold-out exhibitions — not to mention Steve Martin's 1978 parody-tribute on "Saturday Night Live" — has paid the pharaoh homage. The discovery of his near-intact tomb and his mummified corpse after more than 3,000 years, the questions surrounding his demise, and the violent deaths that befell many visitors to his burial chamber have all contributed to the aura surrounding him. Now two new books rekindle his majesty and mystery for young readers.

In "The Curse of the Mummy: Uncovering Tutankhamun's Tomb," Candace Fleming recounts the meticulous detective work that led Carter to the young pharaoh's secret burial chamber and the wondrous things he found inside. Fleming has a knack for crafting fast-paced true tales aimed at middle grade and teenage readers, with previous books on topics such as the last flight of Amelia Earhart and the assassination of the Romanovs. In her latest historical yarn, she interweaves the narrative about uncovering Tutankhamun's tomb with mini-chapters about the alleged curse on those who disturb his grave, steeping the story in an atmosphere of spookiness and intrigue.

Fleming's book starts with an evocative scene: the burial of Tutankhamun in an underground crypt in the Valley of the Kings, the desert necropolis near Thebes (now Luxor). A stroke of luck spared the tomb from being picked clean by grave robbers. After two hurried thefts of jewelry and other small objects within weeks of his burial, a freakish deluge washed a sea of sand, stone and boulders across the valley. "And when the storm ended and the floodwaters drifted away, not a sign of Tutankhamun's tomb remained," Fleming writes. "It had vanished beneath a thick layer of mud, shale and limestone." Over the centuries, the ground above the tomb became a waste dump for workers on other archaeological digs, the inhabitant below lost.

Then, in the early 1900s, a pair of intrepid archaeologists descended on the Valley of the Kings. Fleming draws vivid portraits of the odd couple whose partnership produced arguably the greatest archaeological find in history. George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, had unlimited funds, a fascination with Egyptology and a weakness for paranormal phenomena. Foraging in the desert for relics, Lord Carnarvon selected locations based on the advice of a psychic and spared no expense to cushion himself from his environment. Howard Carter was his opposite. The rough-edged, barely educated son of a near-penniless portraitist in northern England, he had talked his way onto a British expedition to Egypt as a teenage "non-gentleman artist" in 1891. Two decades of subsequent digging in the desert gave Carter a thorough grounding in archaeology: "How to move boulders, how to read the gorges and sand dunes; how to keep tunnels from collapsing; how to keep from being eaten alive by the sand fleas."

The pair had an auspicious first meeting at Lord Carnarvon's suite at the Winter Palace in Luxor in 1908. With Lord Carnarvon providing the funds and Carter the know-how, they set their sights on Tutankhamun. A decade after they began their search, they zeroed in on an unexplored corner of the Valley of the Kings.

The story of the find has been told countless times, but Fleming makes it fresh: the clearing of the steps leading down to the tomb, Carter's flashlight beam illuminating "wonderful things," the awe-struck archaeologists making their way, inch by inch, into the chamber where the pharaoh had lain encased inside a sarcophagus and three coffins for more than 3,300 years. In "The Curse of the Mummy," there are wonderful descriptions, as well as photos, of the statuary and other treasures meant to accompany Tutankhamun in his afterlife, as well as a poignant account of the peeling away of the pharaoh's golden face mask and wrappings to reveal the delicate-featured visage of a teenager. Fleming doesn't shy away from grisly details: Although Carter's team inventoried the treasures with great care, they showed little reverence for the pharaoh's body. At one point, the archaeologists twisted off the mummy's desiccated arms in order to remove some golden bracelets.

The story of Tutankhamun took a tragic turn after the discovery of his body. In the midst of media hysteria, a dispute with the Egyptian government over the treasure's proceeds and a spat with Carter, Lord Carnarvon made his way in a huff to Cairo. There a mosquito bite became grossly infected and killed him in April 1923. In the coming years, a succession of fatal accidents, suicides, murders and other premature deaths strengthened superstitions about a curse surrounding the tomb. Is there anything to it? Fleming tantalizingly makes a case, and then convincingly exposes it as a fraud.

Carter, meanwhile, was never able to escape his status as a "non-gentleman" in a field dominated by the British upper class. At Carter's funeral following his death from cancer in March 1939, a mere five people came to bury him. Only one was connected to the tomb discovery. "The rest of his professional colleagues stayed away," Fleming writes. "They didn't even send flowers."

Credit...Guilherme Karsten

If you're looking for a lighter take on the doomed pharaoh, then feast your eyes on "King Tutankhamun Tells All!," by Chris Naunton, with illustrations by Guilherme Karsten. A British Egyptologist whose books for adults include "Searching for the Last Tombs of Egypt," Naunton has written an irreverent biography for children, packed with tasty nuggets about ancient Egyptian history and culture. Naunton's narrator is the 3,300-year-old pharaoh himself, simultaneously annoyed by the streams of visitors who won't leave him in peace and flattered by all the attention he's getting.

In the book, Tutankhamun gossips about his "bonkers" family, led by the pharaoh believed to be his father, Akhenaten, who forced Egyptians to worship new gods and moved the entire population of Thebes to a new capital named for him up the Nile. By the time Akhenaten died and Tutankhamun took the throne at 9, the family had become so unpopular that the boy feared their tombs would be defaced. "I mark everything with my royal seal to make sure no one touches anything," he divulges. All that drama suggests that something nefarious might have been behind Tutankhamun's early death a decade later. The dead king advances a few theories — murder, chariot accident, infected broken knee — before deciding to keep it all a mystery.

Naunton's deep expertise about ancient Egypt infuses every page of the book, especially his fascinating details about Tutankhamun's burial and the preparations for his afterlife. The pharaoh's demise was so unexpected, we learn, that he was jammed into someone else's ill-fitting sarcophagus, forcing the priests to saw off one end of it. The objects crammed into his tomb were both aesthetically pleasing and practical, including a golden chariot meant to speed his spirit, or ka, to its next destination, known in Egyptian cosmology as Duat. Twelve baboons painted on the wall signified the 12 hours that it would take to get there.

Karsten's colorful drawings make an appealing accompaniment to Naunton's explainers about hieroglyphics, mummy making and the banquet prepared for the dead king's corpse. That slumber was interrupted when a certain British archaeologist came prowling through the Valley of the Kings nearly 100 years ago. "I've been asleep for some centuries now, enjoying my afterlife in full," the dead pharaoh declares. "So you can imagine how annoyed I am when Howard Carter digs me up in 1922."

Both of these enjoyable books are reminders that the search for and discovery of Tutankhamun is an adventure story that, like the pharaoh's mummy, doesn't spoil with age.

Joshua Hammer is the author of "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu" and "The Falcon Thief."

Uncovering Tutankhamun's Tomb
By Candace Fleming
304 pp. Scholastic Focus. $18.99.
(Ages 8 to 12)

Written by Chris Naunton
Illustrated by Guilherme Karsten
48 pp. Thames & Hudson. $16.95.
(Ages 7 and up)

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