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King Tut’s afterlife…in Denver

King TutankhamunIMAGINE you are dead. Family and friends make condolence calls at your home, casually observing the artifacts of your life: books, photographs, clothes, dried cans of paint, furniture, kitsch.

Now pretend that your home is actually an airtight tomb that archaeologists stumble over 2,500 years later. All your possessions are meticulously preserved — including your body.

“Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs,” on exhibit at the Denver Art Museum through Jan. 9, 2011, is a voyeur’s paradise.


Inside DAM’s Hamilton Building, 130 objects ranging from 2,600 BCE to 660 CE vividly recall the earthly sovereigns who ruled ancient Egypt for 2,000 years.


On one of the hottest mid-summer mornings of the season, the Intermountain Jewish News attended a special press tour of “Tutankhamun,” now making its Rocky Mountain debut.

A press conference for the local media includes brief remarks by Mayor John Hickenlooper, museum director Christoph Heinrich, Colorado Lt. Governor Barbara O’Brien, national curator David Silverman and Terry Garcia of the National Geographic Society.

Dr. Zahi Hawass, head of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, speaks last.

The ebullient Dr. Hawass is familiar to fans of the History channel and anyone else hungering for the latest King Tut updates.

A flamboyant, well-dressed, silver-haired man whose heavy accent plays games with his English, Dr. Hawass wows the audience.

Next to Tut, he seems like the second king in the building.

“I think it was 25 years ago that the Ramses II exhibit came to the Natural History Museum in Denver,” he says. “One million people saw it — and Egypt made nothing. Zero. At that time, the Egyptian antiquities were falling apart and there was no money for restoration.

“Now, more than 25 years later, King Tut is in the US. And for the first time, he’s making money for the restoration and conservation of our Egyptian monuments.”

Dr. Hawass, who has spent his life in the shadow of the pyramids researching mummies and artifacts, also spearheads the Egyptian Mummy Project, a collaborative venture between scientists and archaeologists linking pharaonic dynasties through DNA.

Describing the first time he was present for the opening of King Tut’s sarcophagus, his words falter.

“The first time I looked into his face — I cannot explain the moment. This is the Golden King!  I looked at his bucked teeth. I looked at this guy who fascinates everyone around the world!”

DR. Hawass says that new findings shed light on the Boy King nearly every month — and July is no exception.

It took a while for researchers to assess that Akhenaten was indeed Tut’s father.

“We found a mummy of the woman we believe to be King Tut’s mother, but she had no name,” Dr. Hawass says. “We’re still working on this.

“We’ve also found another tomb, which we believe belongs to Tut’s wife Ankhesenpaaten. We should have an answer in a few weeks.”

King Tut’s two stillborn daughters were placed in his resplendent tomb — as were six full-sized chariots and 130 walking canes.

But Dr. Hawass’ interests extend beyond the exalted.

“We have gained lots of knowledge about the kings and queens, but we knew very little about the workmen who built the pyramids,” he says.

The recent discovery of an ancient cemetery for laborers now shows that “they did not eat only bread and wine. This is not true. They ate meat every day. They were respected, because they were building these pyramids for the whole nation.”

After years of watching developers duplicate treasured Egyptian monuments for commercial use, Egypt has finally enacted a copyright law.

“The most important thing is that we’re copyrighting Egyptian monuments for the first time,” Dr. Hawass says.

“You’ll not be able build a casino in Las Vegas without asking our permission,” he says, perhaps referring to the Luxor Hotel and Casino.

Additionally, lawsuits are being filed to retrieve stolen or appropriated Egyptian artifacts — but diplomatic channels remain open.

“We would like to see the return of the Rosetta Stone (from the British Museum),” Dr. Hawass says. “And we are sending a letter to the Berlin Museum asking for the return of the Bust of Nefertiti.”

He emphasizes that Egypt’s antiquities authority is an equal-opportunity restorer.

“We recently restored four Jewish synagogues in Cairo, and we’re working on more. There is no difference between Jewish monuments or Coptic monuments or Islamic monuments.”

Dr. Hawass has repeatedly insisted that no archaeological evidence exists to support the narrative of a massive Jewish exodus from Egypt.

In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, he said that the archaeological record “sometimes” confirms the history of the faithful.

If this upsets the faithful, “I don’t care,” he told the Times. “This is my career as an archaeologist. I should tell them the truth.”

So what is the great truth of Tutankhamun?

“This king is amazing. He has touched people everywhere.”

THE first part of “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs” is devoted to some of ancient Egypt’s most powerful kings and queens: Khafre, builder of the Great Sphinx and one of the pyramids at Giza; Hatshepsut, the queen who became a pharaoh; Psusennes I; Ramses.

The exhibit artfully reiterates the essence of ancient Egyptian beauty: the kohl-rimmed eyes, perfect lips, luxurious costumes, regal profiles, impenetrable gazes.

Eighty richly decorated objects — a golden mummy mask, gilded jewelry box, jewelry, perfume jars, statues — line the dimly yet sufficiently lit corridors. Each item has a unique attraction and special significance, for these rulers fully expected to enter another realm after death.

All ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife. But pharaohs, who were considered divine during their earthly existence, were transformed into veritable gods upon their demise.

To secure this transformation of body and soul, everything needed to be perfect.

In anticipation of their end, pharaohs issued instructions to begin work on their pyramids as soon as they assumed the throne.

Upon death, their bodies were mummified, a delicate process that required about 70 days. Public rituals and special prayers were performed to ensure the safety of the pharaoh’s soul.

After 70 days, the ruler’s body was escorted to the pyramid for its final burial.

For the Jewish visitor, the exhibit serves as a stunning reminder that Jews did not merely escape a tyrannical pharaoh and slavery’s oppression.

They entered into a new covenant with the here and now.

Strolling through the galleries at DAM, one wonders what Moses would make of all this majestic fuss and fanfare.

KING Tut’s treasure-filled tomb, discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, has spawned Hollywood films, popular fashion, hairstyle trends and pharaoh-inspired dances.

It also generated grim tales of curses inflicted upon Carter’s team as a punishment for disturbing Tut’s hidden, womb-like sanctuary.

The Golden King ruled Egypt for nine brief years (1333 BCE-1324 BCE). Tutankhamun inherited a chaotic regime from his father Akhenaten, previously called Amenhotep.

Akhenaten revolutionized ancient Egypt’s polytheistic religion by instituting the monotheistic worship of a single deity called the Aten, depicted as the sun disc.

When Tut was seven, the autocratic Akhenaten was forced to abdicate the throne due to rising opposition to the new religion. Two years later, Tutankhamun became pharaoh.

Little more than a puppet king, the thin, feminine-looking, club-footed royal relied on the advice of his regent Ay and had the support of the military, led by General Horemheb.

He married his half-sister Ankhesenpaaten, but their union produced only two stillborn children.

King Tut died at the age of 19.

Contrary to scientific, historical and media speculation, he was not murdered.

CAT scans have revealed that Tut apparently died of a leg injury complicated by bone disease and a contributing bout of malaria.

“We think he fell from his chariot,” says Dr. Hawass, who was instrumental in determining the exact cause of Tut’s death.

Before visitors reach the exhibit galleries on the upper floors, they notice a large reproduction of one of Tutankhamun’s 3-D CAT scans.

Stripped of funereal trappings, it is a stark reminder that this young king ultimately bowed to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

THE gallery devoted to the pharaohs feels like a teasing prelude to the real man of the hour — King Tut.

From 1976-1979, approximately eight million visitors attended “The Treasures of Tutankhamun” in the US.

One million people — including this reporter — received their initial glimpse of King Tut at Chicago’s Field Museum in 1977. The curious traveled from all over the Midwest and beyond to wait for hours in the broiling sun until museum officials finally took their tickets.

The exhibit broke all existing museum records during its seven-city tour and raised tiny hairs on the backs of innumerable necks in the process.

Decades later, despite disparate and often distorted recollections, the memory still tickles.

No one touring 2010’s “King Tutankhamun and the Great Pharaohs” will walk away empty-handed — but those present at the King Tut extravaganza in the 1970s will notice a few changes.

For example, King Tut’s gold Death Mask was prominently featured during the first tour. More than 21 inches high and sparkling with colored glass and precious stones, it suspended one’s breath.

The Death Mask, long considered a national treasure, is no longer allowed to leave Egypt, where it is displayed at The Egyptian Museum.

(King Tut’s mummy has never been exhibited in the US. Ever since its discovery in 1922, the mummy has been safely enshrined in its tomb in the Valley of the Kings.)

For patrons who witnessed the full glory of Tut in past years, “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs” feels like an eerie homecoming. And for those who never before stood in such close proximity to King Tut, it’s a resounding aesthetic success.

The 50 rare and glorious objects rescued from King Tut’s final resting place evoke a haunting, intimate ambience as captivating as the enigmatic subject himself.

They include an intricate coffinette that once contained Tut’s mummified stomach, the pharaoh’s golden sandals, miniature statuettes, perfume jars, exquisite jewelry and much more.

Although the exhibition space dedicated to King Tut and his compatriots occupies 16,000 square feet, everything seems to fly past in a wondrous blur.

MUSEUM Director Christoph Heinrich stands rather contemplatively near a statue.

He says that the current exhibit differs from the 1970s tour “for a couple of reasons. In Chicago, there were only a handful of objects. But one of them was the unforgettable Death Mask.

“But we have a beautiful coffinette. Did you see it? The details are incredible, and the colors are laid in golden frames. It’s stunning.”

Heinrich admits that King Tut “never really did a lot in his life. So why does he fascinate us?”

He parts the still air with his hands.

“He’s beautiful,” says Heinrich. “That’s it. That’s it! That’s the reason. It’s his physical beauty — and that his death was such a mystery for a long time.

“Also, this was the most recent major excavation where they discovered artifacts that were barely touched. By the 1920s, a lot of the tombs had already been plundered.”

Another thought erupts in a smile across his face.

“If the Death Mask people saw in the 1970s had a really ugly face” — he laughs — “perhaps there would be no fascination with Tut.”

Howard Carter, whose tent has been reconstructed for the exhibit, searched for King Tut “for many years,” Heinrich adds.

“Carter spent all his money on this endeavor. He was so focused on finding this tomb. It’s truly a great success story.”

DR. Sharon Keller, visiting professor of Bible and the Near East at JTS and a specialist in ancient Egypt, tells the IJN from New York, “The shovel should not be used to prove faith.”

She suggests that the artifacts on display at the DAM exhibit serve a dual function.

“This is iconic Egypt,” Dr. Keller comments. “It is the backdrop that we in the 21st century see, and also the backdrop that the biblical audience had to some extent.

“We tell our story through the Exodus model. It is our national story — the story of a people, our nation and how we ended up with this G-d.

“It holds an eternal, universal truth for those who ultimately became the Jewish people.”

A towering statue of Tutankhamun  concludes the exhibit.

The largest image of King Tut ever unearthed, it was found in the remains of a funerary temple belonging to two of his high officials.

Standing 10-feet tall and retaining most of its original paint, it’s been ravaged by the centuries.

The elements have devoured a large section of King Tut’s face and amputated his stone limbs — yet the sovereign is no less imposing.

Ancient Egyptians believed the pharaohs achieved the immortality of gods in death.

They also understood that art has the singular power to elevate a sickly young man into a vision of lasting beauty.

“Tutankhamun” imparts many invaluable lessons — but upon leaving the exhibit, this final thought resonates the loudest.

The Tutankhamun exhibit was organized by the National Geographic Society, Arts and Exhibitions International and AEG Exhibitions in cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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