Saturday, May 16, 2009

Tutankhamun- The Exodus Conspiracy

What do you get when you mix British colonialism, Oriental mystery and the occult? Questionable history and a stonking good story, that's what. (Dashed horrible cover, though. Bad early-noughties' CG married with overly dramatic use of religious symbolism? No thanks.) Tutankhamun- The Exodus Conspiracy is at least partly a retelling of one of the classic tales of discovery. True to form, the details of the case make fascinating reading, even disregarding the authors' bizarre claims in the latter half of the book.

Cast your mind back to Egypt at the beginning of the twentieth century. As western countries became more rational, they increasingly needed to view the East as somewhere strange and Other. Life at home may have had all the mystery sucked out of it long ago, but elsewhere- the inscrutable Orient- were lands where the impossible could still happen. To men like Howard Carter and Lord Canarvon, Egypt was still a land of myth and mystery. And it was here, amid the burning sands of the desolate Valley of the Kings, that an extraordinary narrative was about to unfold.

Talk about having your cake and eating it too- the authors behind The Exodus Conspiracy cram in various (and sometimes tenously connected) aspects of the Tutankhamun story, each fascinating in its own way. So, the story of Canarvon funding just one more year's dig (after several fruitless seasons) resulting in Carter's lifelong dream coming true's not enough for you? How about Carter's personal and moral struggles against ruthless pressmen and Arab beaurocrats who (quite rightly, to be honest!) had the nerve to suggest that maybe the priceless treasures of Egypt shouldn't go directly to the British Museum? How about Carter's secret entering and resealing of the burial chamber three months before the official opening? What? You want more? I haven't even gotten to the curse yet!

Authors Collins and Ogilvie-Herald place this classic tale of discovery where they feel it belongs- squarely in the occult-obsessed culture of the upper-class Brits of the time. Belief in weird things was still common as tables floated in darkened parlours all over London and Paris. Lord Canarvon in particular is painted as having been strongly influenced by the occult. He held seances in his Gothic castle in England. He visited several psychics and mystics, some of whom warned him that if he continued desecrating tombs, he would never leave Egypt alive again... Several famous occult figures of the time turn out to have been linked to him- even old A. C. Doyle found time to comment on his doings in Egypt. And all the while, newsmen spun tales of creeping dread that preyed on Canarvon's mind. A popular fiction in newspapers of the time stated that 'death shall come on swift wings to he who disturbs the rest of the Pharoah'.

In this atmosphere, the 'curse' of Tutankhamun seems almost like the next logical step. Canarvon seems like the kind of man who would have taken such things rather seriously. By the time he dies from an infected mosquito-bite in a Cairo hotel room, raving that 'a bird' is scratching his face (and during a mysterious blackout, to boot!), you'll begin to wonder if there isn't something to this 'curse' nonesense after all. Even Carter, who famously scoffed at the curse till his dying day, turns out to have had his moments of private uncertainty and fear.

Perhaps I'm giving the wrong impression. The authors aren't writing to convince you that the curse was real- they spend quite a few pages trying to explain how several deaths associated with the tomb could have more logical explanations. But the fact remains that its a damn weird story, and some of the coincidences are very striking. But that's how conspiracy theorists think, and we're not here to read about them. Or are we?

Well, hold onto your pith helmets, because this is where things start to get really weird. I'm not going to get into it here (this review is damn-near long enough already), so if you want to read about how Tutankhamun was also the Pharoah from the Exodus story, you'll have to track this book down yourself. And if you're a conspiracy theorist who'd love to know about how Carter tried to blackmail the British authorities regarding the controversial birth of the Nation of Israel, then put on your tinfoil hat and head off to some other blog.

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