Luxor marks centenary of discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb with little fanfare

Academics and diplomats offer mixed views on British archaeologist Howard Carter's role in the find

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Dozens gathered in Egypt's Luxor on Friday to mark 100 years since a youth aged 12 stumbled upon what would turn out to be one of the century's most important discoveries.

Egyptian Hussein Abdel Rasool was employed by British archaeologist Howard Carter’s team to bring water to labourers working on a dig to find the boy king's resting place, when he spotted the opening that led to the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun and its treasures, which continue to astound audiences the world over.

His descendants and those of Ahmed Gerigar, another Egyptian who was employed at the site, joined experts, officials and diplomats at the reopening of Carter's former home on the west bank of the Nile after nine months of renovation.

The reopening ceremony was organised by the American Research Center in Egypt which also secured the funds for the renovations.

The work was carried out to protect the mud-brick structure from rising groundwater.

A replica of Tutankhamun's tomb, dug into the ground at Carter House, featured a photo exhibit of the artist-turned-archaeologist's time in Luxor and his work.

Several tours were arranged to the actual tomb, about three kilometres away, where the mummy of Tutankhamun is displayed beneath a glass case.

But there was little else to mark the occasion, apart from a giant model of the pharaoh's golden funerary mask, which was installed at the starting point of the Avenue of the Sphinxes that connects the Luxor Temple to nearby Karnak Temple.

Several speakers at the Carter House reopening praised the roles played by Abdel Rasool and Gerigar in the tomb's discovery.

Criticism has grown over the years that the two have largely been written out of historical accounts, to put Carter and his benefactor George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, at the centre of the story.

But Sayed Abdel Rasool, a descendant of Hussein, said Carter deserved his share of credit for the discovery.

"It's certainly a nice story that a child found the tomb, but I think it would be wrong to give the credit of the discovery to him when so much else went into it," he told The National.

"Carter's work and the funds he secured should certainly not be undermined since he laboured for so long to find it.

"But it's also important to recognise that without Abdul Rasool, Hussein's uncle and his familiarity with the valley, Carter would have never reached the tomb on his own."

Britain’s ambassador to Egypt Gareth Bayley and his US counterpart Daneil Rubenstein said that although the discovery was made during a contentious time in Egypt’s relationship with the West, this was all water under the bridge.

King Tutankhamun over the past century served as a bridge between the two sides, amid a media craze that put Egypt’s pharaonic relics on the world map and invigorated tourism to the city, they said.

Renowned Egyptologist Dr Zahi Hawass, who gave a lecture about the boy king on Friday night at a Luxor conference hall, said he would refrain from criticising Carter and Carnarvon because of a prior promise he had made to George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and the great-grandson of Carter’s benefactor, and his wife, Lady Fiona. The two were in Luxor for the centennial.

Aside from being criticised for taking much of the credit for the discovery, Carter has been accused of stealing some of the contents of the tomb and smuggling them out of the country.

“I was going to say some bad things tonight, but after I spoke with Lady Fiona, I decided to have peace,” Dr Hawass said jokingly.

“But I ultimately think Carter was a great man. I have the utmost respect for him because he taught himself archaeology and when I look at how he excavated the tomb back then, I would change nothing about what he did if I were the one digging for it today.”

Dr Hawass also expressed a deep relief that the discovery happened in November of 1922 and not in January, as in February of that year Egypt gained a nominal independence from Britain after being a protectorate of its empire for 40 years.

He said that, had the tomb been found before Egypt was recognised as a sovereign state, the entirety of its contents might have suffered the same fate as many other important antiquities that were smuggled out of country in the early 20th century.

Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who made it a point to deliver his speech at Carter House in Arabic, said that Egypt today was in full control of its heritage, and lauded the many discoveries by Egyptian missions at several archaeological sites in the country.

Tourists stand by a model of the golden mask of King Tutankhamun, on the Avenue of Sphinxes in Luxor, on Friday. AP

Dr Hawass also mentioned Morcos Hanna, Egypt’s first antiquities minister who, at the behest of famed statesman and revolutionary Saad Zaghloul, replaced all foreign workers in the country’s antiquities sector with Egyptians in an effort to keep Egypt’s history in the hands of its people.

Hanna famously rejected the British high commissioner’s request to remove any Egyptian interference in the newly opened tomb of King Tutankhamun and, when he became overly suspicious of Carter’s conduct, he sent an Egyptian force to guard the tomb and prevent any of the items from being taken.

In addition to thanking Hanna for his patriotic preservation of the country’s culture, Dr Hawass also gave an honourable mention to Pierre Lacau, a French Egyptologist and philologist who served as Egypt's director of antiquities from 1914 until 1936. Lacau issued a law at the time that the contents of any tombs excavated in Egypt must remain in the country.

ِThe discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb remains a sore point for many Luxor residents, several of whom told The National that, in the historic city, Carter was considered a thief who used locals to achieve his own ends.

Some tourism workers in the city said they had hoped for a larger celebration of the centenary, like the one held for the inauguration of the Avenue of the Sphinxes in November last year.

One worker said that ceremony worked wonders for Luxor's tourism sector after a lean spell caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Tutankhamun artefacts, 5,398 pieces in all, most of which are made of gold, are stored at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which is still under construction. Dr Hawass said its opening was supposed to coincide with Friday's centenary but had been pushed back to next year.

Eighteen of the more modest pieces from the collection are on display at the Egyptian Museum in the capital's Tahrir Square.

Updated: November 05, 2022, 6:17 PM
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