Tutmania and More – Agatha Christie’s Egypt:
I am old enough to remember the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in London in 1972. I didn’t get a chance to go – though I remember every school in the UK had special lessons, every paper ran special features and there was even an episode of Blue Peter devoted to the story of Tutankhamun. It was a sell-out and over 1.3 million people saw the treasures in London that year.
A more recent exhibition in 2007 was equally popular. But, I hadn’t realised that ‘Tutmania’ actually started in the 1920s and that it touched the lives of so many people despite the lack of television or internet. In the 1920s, all things ancient Egyptian became high fashion – from songs written to celebrate the lives of the ancient civilisation to fashion and beauty products designed to enable every woman to look like Cleopatra. Born in 1890, Agatha Christie would have been a young woman right in the height of Tutmania. Her life, though, gave her a privileged insight into the wonders of the Middle East, at a time when travel was a rare luxury for the wealthy.
Agatha Christie’s Egypt must have been a far cry from our perception of the Country today and her experience was a world just beginning to uncover some of the wonders of the ancient civilisation. It was only at the beginning of November 1922 when the discovery of a single step by a young boy working with Howard Carter’s team in the Valley of the Kings led to the excavation of 15 more steps – the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb. Three weeks later, Lord Carnarvon and his daughter arrived in Luxor. As the benefactor who had funded the excavation project, he was expected to be present at what proved to be a historic moment.
The door to the tomb was opened by Carter
With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hold a little, I inserted the candle and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.
Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tutankhamen (E.P. Dutton, 1972)
Although the tomb was one of the smallest in the Valley of the Kings, it was remarkable in that it had lain undiscovered for thousands of years. When Carter opened the doors, he was literally breaking a vacuum seal that had been created when the young King Tutankhamun had been interred. Unlike the other tombs in the valley, it had remained untouched, missed by the Grave Robbers. Even today, regarded as too delicate to be moved, the black mummy of Tutankhamun remains in the tomb on display to visitors (although photography is strictly forbidden – so many of the photos here are sourced from creative commons on the internet.
Tutmania, a feverish enthusiasm for all things Egyptian, swept the world.
Fascination with Ancient Egypt was only heightened by the death of Lord Carnarvon less than a year later. Having been badly bitten by a mosquito on 19th March 1923, he died just a few weeks later in Cairo, on the 5th of April. His death was probably caused by blood poisoning, but a superstitious world at the time blamed the ‘Mummy’s Curse’. It only seemed to flame the fever.
Agatha herself had initially turned down the opportunity to visit the Middle East. Around the time of her coming-out, winter 2010, her mother appears to have dragged her to the Egyptian Museum and proposed a trip up the Nile to see the glories of Luxor. But Agatha at the time was not in the least bit interested. It wasn’t until much later, 1928, that she changed a planned trip to the Caribbean, and journeyed to Baghdad. There she met her second husband, Max Mallowan, a junior archaeologist.
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.
I first learnt of Agatha Christie’s involvement with the Middle East on a visit to Greenway in Torquay. The house, now owned by the National Trust, has been preserved as it would have been when Max and Agatha last used it and is full of the equipment that Max would have used as a working archaeologist. It was more recently on my own first visit to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings followed by a Nile Cruise and then a trip to Cairo to visit the Pyramids, the Sphinx and to see the treasures in the Museum that I became aware of how much a part of her life it was.
In Luxor, our first stop, we passed the Winter Palace, now managed by Accor as part of the Sofitel hotel group. Opened in 1907, it was the base used by Lord Carnarvon. And, Agatha Christie stayed there, writing her famous novel Death on the Nile. A great British colonial style construction, it looks out over the Nile, adjacent to the Temple of Luxor.
And, as we drifted along the Nile enjoying the contemporary luxuries of the Oberoi Philae, we passed what on first glance appeared to be a slightly ramshackle River Cruiser. It was the Sudan, the boat gifted to King Fouad in 1885 which carried Agatha Christie in 1933 and which she used in Death on the Nile.
It is hardly surprising that Agatha Christie developed such a fascination with Egypt and the Middle East. It was a golden age of discovery and those people fortunate enough to be able to travel and see the discoveries with their own eyes must have felt truly privileged. But, what I personally found remarkable about Egypt was that much of the ancient civilisation is still being uncovered. At Karnak, we were privileged to be shown the Ptolemaic and Roman baths, which are believed to have been created from around 250BC to 200AD. A remarkable set of engineered systems which allowed visitors to the temple to bath before entering the temple.
And, we went on to see some of the cleaning and restoration in one of the temples which are not yet open to the public.
In the Valley of the Kings, we learnt that there is a real possibility another tomb lies hidden behind that of Tutankhamun. If that proves to be the case it may well hold a similar set of treasures to those found by Howard Carter in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
And, even at Giza, current research suggests there may be hidden rooms inside the Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of the pyramids of Giza and the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence.
There is a joy in discovery for me. It is immensely special to visit countries and see the wonders of ancient civilisations at first hand. A unique experience to be one of the first members of the public invited to see a newly uncovered wall of hieroglyphics, to learn from the chief archaeologist about his current work, uncovering a complex of public baths that date back over two thousand years with plumbing and sanitations systems to challenge our own.
I understand why Tutmania swept the world in the 1920s and wonder whether the current discoveries might just be the catalyst for a new wave of enthusiasm. Of course, this is in a country well worth visiting for the treasures which have already been uncovered and which are easily accessible to the public. It wasn’t until I visited that I could put the treasures I had seen in museums and in books into any kind of context. In many ways, it was an overwhelming experience. Now, I want to return so that I can appreciate a little more.
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I flew to Luxor direct from Heathrow with EgyptAir, The National Airline of Egypt.
EgyptAir runs 14 flights weekly from London Heathrow to Cairo and 1 flight weekly from London Heathrow to Luxor *Subject to seasonality
For Reservations: 0844 822 1110, Website:www.egyptair.com, Email: email@example.com
I travelled to Egypt as a guest of Cyplon Holidays. Four day cruises of the Nile River on the Oberoi Philae include visits to the temples with an Egyptologist and full board. Please call freephone 0800 074 8888 Quoting Cyplonnile for further details
For more information on Egypt, visit the Egyptian Tourism Authority’s website.