Why the 'Pharaoh's Curse' is a myth: how a 1904 media report gave rise to a legend

A series of recent tragedies has been linked to the parade of mummies in Cairo, but many claims don't stand up to scrutiny

This picture taken on January 31, 2019 shows the golden sarcophagus of the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun (1332–1323 BC), displayed in his burial chamber in his underground tomb (KV62) in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile river opposite the southern Egyptian city of Luxor (650 kilometres south of the capital Cairo). - The famous tomb underwent a nine-year conservation by a team of international specialists. (Photo by MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP)
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"I read it in the Daily Express". Information that should always be treated with caution when it comes from a British tabloid with a reputation for unreliable weather predictions and dubious accounts of the life of Diana, Princess of Wales.

In this instance, it is a 1904 report from ace reporter Bernard Fletcher Robinson on an ancient mummy case in the British Museum, alleged to be that of an Egyptian priestess.

All is reasonably straightforward in the article, until the point at which Robinson types the words: “Facts I will presently relate are true.”

This satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, Sunday, March 28, 2021. Two additional tugboats sped Sunday to Egypt's Suez Canal to aid efforts to free the skyscraper-sized container ship wedged for days across the crucial waterway, even as major shippers increasingly divert their boats out of fear the vessel may take even longer to free. (©Maxar Technologies via AP)
This satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt. Some have attributed the incident to the so-called 'Pharaoh's Curse'. AP

What follows is an entirely unverified claim that various unnamed tragedies are the result of an ancient curse.

“I have now in my possession proofs of the identity of all those who suffered from the anger of the priestess of Amen Ra. But for the sake of friends and relatives I have been requested to suppress the names,” Robinson writes, conveniently.

The mummy myth returns

The idea of a mummy’s curse is one that will not lie down. It stumbles, wrapped in bandages and growling with menace even into the 21st century.

Most recently it has arisen in Egypt again with everything from the container ship Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal to a deadly building collapse and a fatal train crash blamed on a parade of the mummified bodies of pharaohs through Cairo to the new National Museum.

Scroll through the gallery below for images from Egypt's Pharaohs' Golden Parade:

How it all began

Robinson’s account, over a century ago, popularised the idea, which had been around since hieroglyphs were first properly decoded in the 1820s and the discovery of dire warnings on the walls of Egyptian tombs intended to deter tomb robbers – almost entirely without success.

It only really took hold with the discovery, in 1922, of the fabulous tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun in an expedition funded by the British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon.

Four months later, Carnarvon was dead in a Cairo hotel. A mosquito bite, made worse by a shaving cut, led to blood poisoning and pneumonia. He was 56 and had been in poor health following a near fatal car crash in 1903 – one of the reasons he frequently visited the warmer climate of North Africa.

At this point, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle enters the story. The creator of Sherlock Holmes had been devastated by the deaths of his son and brother both from pneumonia and had developed an intense interest in the spirit world.

He was also a close friend of Robinson, who had given him the idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Ask for his views on the cause of Carnarvon’s death, the great man, now in his early sixties, pronounced: “The ancient Egyptians were very anxious to guard the tombs of their Kings. There is reason to believe that they placed elementals on guard, and such may have caused Lord Carnarvon’s death.”

It was tabloid fodder, as newspapers scavenged for other titbits, including the death of his lordship’s pet canary, which was eaten by a snake, and a wealthy American who died of pneumonia after visiting the tomb.

In fact, no curse was ever discovered on Tutankhamun's tomb. Carnarvon's death can be easily explained on his very poor health and the fact antibiotics were not available for another 20 years. A simple course of penicillin would have probably saved his life.

Even Robinson’s original story does not quite stand up to fact checking. There is no body accompanying the mummy he described in the British Museum, or any evidence it belonged to a priestess.

Not that anyone ever challenged the Daily Express journalist on his account. At the age of 37 in 1907, Conan Doyle's old friend had died from a bout of typhoid fever. There were those who looked at his most famous story from three years earlier and wondered "what if?"

Scroll through the gallery below for Egypt's most famous mummies: