from ‘The Shadow King:
The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy’
Émile Brugsch was out of breath, and nervous. The slight German curator was used to tending antiquities in Egypt’s first national museum, a chaotic and desperately crowded establishment in the bustling Cairo port of Bulaq. Now he was scrambling up a remote desert path in the foothills of Thebes with little idea of his destination and a shoulder sore from the weight of a loaded rifle.
Along with two trusted colleagues from Cairo, Brugsch was following a dark, wiry figure in a white galabiya robe, who led them wordlessly along the valley floor. His name was Mohammed Abd el-Rassul. He had brought with him a group of local workmen, and Brugsch eyed them anxiously as he walked, aware that they had every reason to kill him and his friends if given the chance.
Centuries after Egypt’s rulers built their huge pyramids at Giza, near Cairo, the seat of power moved south to Thebes. Some of the richest and most mighty kings in Egypt’s history built a series of impressive temples, palaces, and tombs by the river here. The east bank of the Nile was for the living, hosting among other things the densely populated city of Thebes itself and a sprawling temple complex a couple of miles away at Karnak. The west bank—where Abd el-Rassul led the curator on that stifling July day—was for the dead, with a string of memorial temples and desert cliffs dotted with tombs.
Brugsch’s guide headed uphill toward Deir el-Bahri, a natural amphitheater in the rock that’s bounded by steep cliffs. The air was oven hot and the soft sand underfoot made for a tiring, monotonous walk. As the group reached the foot of the cliffs, the path turned sharp right and they saw a small nook, shaped like a chimney, almost hidden in the rock face. At its base was a deep shaft, around ten feet across, with jagged, roughly cut sides that were covered in treacherous-looking rocks and boulders.
“There,” said Abd el-Rassul, as Brugsch stepped forward to peer down the hole. The secrets it held were about to change the field of Egyptology forever.
After the decline of the great civilizations of the ancient world—including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans—this area’s prestigious past was forgotten. Thebes was a fabulous legend, described in classical accounts from the Bible to Homer, but no one knew where it actually was. The site became home to a little village called Luxor, whose inhabitants had no interest in the ancient stone ruins that surrounded them, save for use as building materials.
A French Jesuit priest called Father Claude Sicard was the first to realize Luxor’s glorious claim to fame when he visited at the beginning of the 1700s, and scholars sent by Napoleon at the end of that century later described and publicized the ancient wonders there. After that, Luxor started to attract a growing stream of explorers, adventurers, merchants, and scholars from Europe, who wrote about their experiences to the excitement of audiences back home.
By the 1880s, Luxor was growing fast from rural backwater to fashionable tourist destination—the tour operator Thomas Cook even led steamboat trips down the Nile—and archaeology was booming, with a new discovery practically every day. Awesome statues and columns at Karnak and Luxor temples were being excavated from the piles of rubbish that had hidden them for centuries. On the west bank, a series of tombs had been found, yielding items from amulets and jewelry to tools, furniture, and papyri. And mummies. Quite apart from the impressive structures and antiquities being discovered, what distinguished Egypt from other regions with a past was that its ancient inhabitants were still around.
The Egyptians had gone to great lengths to ensure that their bodies didn’t decompose after death—removing the organs and drying out the flesh before embalming with preservative oils and resins and wrapping in bandages. It captured the imagination, coming face to face with these individuals—male, female, fat, thin, young, old—who all shared one thing: their absolute determination to live forever.
As in other areas of Egypt, there were a lot of them. Further north in Saqqara, near Cairo, vast underground chambers containing thousands of bodies had already been unearthed. In Thebes itself, excavators were finding everything from elegantly painted tombs containing one or two individuals to “mummy pits”—tunnels running into the hillside that were stuffed full of bodies. An Italian explorer and ex-strongman called Giovanni Belzoni, excavating in 1817 for the British consul Henry Salt, described being almost suffocated by them when he ventured down one particular passage: “It was choked with mummies, and I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian…. I could not avoid being covered with bones, legs, arms, and heads rolling from above.”
Soon, no self-respecting tourist could go home without their own Egyptian mummy, or part of one, and these trophies were carried triumphantly to the libraries and salons of Europe. Not that they all made it. In 1874, one pair of well-to-do ladies, the Misses Brocklehurst, reportedly bought from a local dealer a papyrus and mummy, in a bidding war against a well-known English writer called Amelia Edwards. According to Edwards, the women brought the prized items aboard their houseboat on the Nile, but “unable to endure the perfume of the ancient Egyptian they drowned the dear departed at the end of the week.”
One of the most exciting archaeological developments was an ongoing string of discoveries in Biban el-Moluk—now known as the Valley of the Kings—a remote, barren spot tucked away behind the cliffs of Deir el-Bahri. Here, travelers and archaeologists were uncovering the resting places of the pharaohs themselves. Stunning paintings and reliefs on the walls were initially indecipherable, but the decoding of hieroglyphs in the 1820s soon allowed scholars to identify the monarchs who had built these tombs and to read about their lives and beliefs.
The pharaohs buried here had abandoned the ostentatious pyramid tombs of their predecessors. They had seen how one by one, despite security devices such as false doors and blind tunnels, each was inevitably robbed for the treasures inside—a king needed an awful lot of stuff to get by in the afterlife. Instead, these pharaohs opted for quiet, hidden burials in this remote valley that they hoped would be better protected from looters. Thutmose I, the third king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, seems to have been the first to break with tradition and build a secret tomb in the valley. His architect, Ineni, wrote proudly on the wall of his funeral chapel that he alone oversaw the excavation of the tomb, “no one seeing, no one hearing.” In doing so, he began a tradition that continued for five hundred years.
Ultimately, however, this cunning plan was in vain. The big disappointment for archaeologists was that every single royal tomb found in the valley had been robbed bare. Some had lain open for centuries, ancient tourist attractions that were scrawled with Greek and Latin graffiti before being gradually forgotten about. Others had been buried by rocks and rubble since ancient Egyptian times, but even they were already looted in antiquity.
Of the original riches buried with the pharaohs, only a few scraps were left—a damaged stone sarcophagus perhaps, or pieces of pottery and wooden figures. The finest tomb discovered was a series of chambers dug by a Nineteenth-Dynasty ruler called Seti I, entered for the first time in three thousand years by Belzoni in 1817. The walls were covered with brightly colored paintings, while the floor was littered with statues and pieces of broken burial equipment. Belzoni found hundreds of glazed blue figures of the king, the carcass of a bull, and a gorgeous alabaster coffin, which he shipped to London. But even here, the hoped-for treasures were long since gone.
There were no royal mummies in these tombs either—none of the kings and queens were still to be found in their original resting places. It was assumed they had long ago been destroyed. Egyptologists like the expansive and easygoing Frenchman Gaston Maspero, head of the Bulaq museum, began to doubt that an undisturbed royal burial would ever be found.
Then in the 1870s, that changed. A series of intriguing antiquities began to appear on the international market. Hundreds of scarabs, statues, and scrolls of papyri from the burials of Twenty-First Dynasty kings and queens were popping up as far afield as Suez and Syria. To Maspero, the only explanation was that looters had discovered an unspoiled royal tomb or tombs and were gradually pilfering and selling the contents.
For decades, Egypt had been a kind of lucky dip, a free-for-all treasure-hunters’ paradise where you couldn’t turn around for stumbling over priceless antiquities and there was nothing to stop you from taking home as much as you could carry. Adventurers descended, shipping everything from delicate jewelry to entire monuments home with them to the west. Some of this was done by private individuals, but much was carried out on behalf of governments such as those of Britain and France. The heritage of an entire country was slowly but surely being drained.
In 1858, the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette had set up Egypt’s antiquities service in an attempt to stamp out the illegal antiquities trade and stem the flow of artifacts abroad. In the spring of 1881, Maspero was appointed his successor, which meant that if ancient royal treasures were being looted and sold, it was his job to stop it. Along with Brugsch, his deputy, Maspero sailed the antiquities service steamboat down the Nile to Luxor, desperate to track down the looters and uncover the lost tomb before its priceless contents were completely gone.
It wasn’t hard to discover that the main seller of antiquities in the area was a certain Ahmed Abd el-Rassul. He was one of several brothers who lived in Gurna, a village on a hill that forms the south side of Deir el-Bahri. The villagers had intimate knowledge of the tombs in the area—in fact the houses of Gurna were built onto ancient nobles’ tombs, ingeniously using their outer chambers as extra rooms. Many of the inhabitants made a living from selling antiquities they unearthed, but the Abd el-Rassul family, who lived in a particularly extravagant white-painted house, were widely known to be at the center of this illicit trade.
Maspero interrogated Ahmed on board his steamboat but the Egyptian revealed nothing, so Maspero had him and his brother Hussein arrested and taken to the capital of the province, Kena, to be questioned with rather less compunction by the governor, Daoud Pasha. Despite techniques that ranged from offering bribes to beating the soles of their feet (a torture technique known as bastinado), the brothers staunchly denied all knowledge of looting or tombs. After two months of this, they were provisionally released, and a disappointed Maspero left Luxor, vowing to renew his search the next winter.
A few weeks later, however, on June 25, a third Abd el-Rassul brother, Mohammed, handed himself in to the Pasha. In return for a £500 reward, he promised to reveal the location of the long lost tomb.
By this time, Maspero was on his way to France for the summer, so Brugsch was sent back to Luxor in his place to meet Mohammed and track down the precious find. On July 6, Brugsch followed Abd el-Rassul and his workmen up the sandy path. He had high hopes that he was about to see a royal tomb complete with at least some of its treasures—though probably just one belonging to an obscure king or queen of the weak Twenty-First Dynasty, as this was the period of the antiquities that the Abd el-Rassuls had been selling.
Then again…. Above Brugsch’s head, up past the top of the cliffs, were the tiny silhouettes of soaring vultures. The Abd el-Rassul family would be desperate to prevent such a valuable source of income falling into the hands of the authorities. Maybe Mohammed’s story was nothing but an elaborate—and deadly—trap.
Today, it’s easy enough to climb onto the cliff top above Deir el-Bahri. From the eastern edge of the Valley of the Kings, you scramble up a stony slope to the top of the ridge, now lined with satellite dishes rather than loitering vultures. Then, walk over the top and hold your breath as the entire sweep of the Nile valley opens out before you. It’s one of the best vantage points around (save for a hot air balloon) to see how this dramatic landscape is laid out.
In the distance, the blue ribbon of the Nile runs south to north, parallel to the horizon as you look east. It’s bordered on each side by a bright green strip a mile or two wide—fields of wheat, sugar cane, and berseem fed by fertile black silt from the river and tended by the local villagers. Then the green turns abruptly to the amber of the desert sand, which rises to the cliffs on which you’re standing.
For the ancient Egyptians, this border between green and amber, fields and desert, marked the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead. Look along this line and you can see the remains of the pharaohs’ memorial temples dotted along it—from the once-glittering achievement of Amenhotep III, now marked chiefly by two giant statues (known as the Colossi of Memnon) rising tall from the fields, to the ruined columns of the Ramesseum, built by Rameses II. Here the two worlds met—where the people would visit and pay respect to the eternal spirits of their dead kings.
Back the way you’ve just come, the Valley of the Kings nestles behind the ridge, overlooked by El-Qurn, a naturally pyramid-shaped peak with its sloping shoulders spread protectively over the valley. This is where the pharaohs thought they would be safe for eternity. Beyond it, the desert stretches, harsh and featureless, all the way to the sea.
The cliffs beneath you are dotted with less grandiose noblemen’s tombs—visible from the plain below as rows of small, dark holes, like windows peeping out of the rock. And down to your right, a collection of square mud-brick houses painted orange, yellow, and blue is perched on the hillside: all that’s now left of the village of Gurna. Thousands of people used to live here, but most of the houses were recently bulldozed by the Egyptian government as part of an effort to turn the entire area into the equivalent of an open-air museum. The residents, who now mostly make their living as taxi drivers and tour guides, were relocated to a new village at the base of the hills.
As you stand looking over the valley, you can turn left and walk along the top of the ridge for a few minutes, then gradually pick your way down toward the Temple of Hatshepsut, a grand columned structure built right into the base of the cliffs. Or you can turn right and almost immediately scramble down through a cleft in the rock, on a near-vertical cliff path—a treacherous short-cut traditionally used by Gurna’s villagers. The bottom of the path deposits you very close to the shaft where Mohammed Abd el-Rassul once led the nervous curator and his friends.
The details of Brugsch’s experiences were recorded in just three places—two academic reports (in French) published by Maspero in 1881 and 1889, and an 1887 magazine article in which Brugsch described what happened to the U.S. photographer Edward Wilson.
To find out what he had to say, I visit the British Library in London, a modern-day treasure-hunters’ delight, where tapping a few computer keys is all it takes to unearth the most obscure, forgotten gems.
Maspero’s reports are tied up with string, with battered corners and yellowed, brittle pages. They’re also huge, landing with a satisfying thud on my desk. I untie the string and start to read the century-old words, scanning for the key passages—“Le premier objet qui frappa les yeux de M. Émile Brugsch … ” (“The first object that caught Mr. Émile Brugsch’s eye … ”)—and the story comes to life once more.
Brugsch had to admit that the ancient Egyptians chose their hiding place well. They had dug their shaft at the base of a hollow chimney that ran up through the cliff, and was invisible from most lines of sight. One place you can see it from, however, is that steep cliff path.
Abd el-Rassul’s men had been carrying with them a sturdy palm log. They now tied a rope to it, heaved it across the top of the hole, and used the rope to haul up the most dangerously balanced rocks from its walls and floor. Then, led by Abd el-Rassul, Brugsch lowered himself into the shaft— a neat figure in a dark suit and fez, swaying precariously from side to side as he descended.
At the bottom was a tiny doorway that led to a low corridor, less than three feet high. Brugsch had to drop to his knees to get through and in the darkness almost bumped into a huge wooden coffin, shaped like a mummy and decorated in yellow paint, that half-filled the corridor just beyond the entrance. It was inscribed with the name of a priest: Nebseny. Behind it were three more coffins. Brugsch crawled past them all with a candle in one hand, gingerly placing his knees and remaining hand on a floor that was scattered with small statuettes, vases, and jars.
After about twenty feet, the corridor turned sharp right and continued north into the heart of the mountain. A princess’s crumpled funeral tent was carelessly thrown into the corner. This passage was higher so Brugsch could stand, but the floor was still strewn with antiquities that glittered in the candlelight. About seventy feet farther on, he found a side chamber, nearly twenty feet square. Piles of huge coffins were stacked upright against its walls, some of them more than twice his height.
Brugsch raised his candle over the coffins to read some of the inscriptions inked onto their lids, and was stunned. The looted antiquities that had appeared for sale belonged to the family of high priests who ruled Thebes during the Twenty-First Dynasty. But here, all in one place, were the most famous rulers of the great Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, who ruled when ancient Egypt’s power was at its height, with an empire that stretched north as far as Syria and south into Sudan. Scholars had read about these pharaohs in the hieroglyphs carved in stone all over the country: on statues, temples, palaces, and of course the empty royal tombs.
There was Ahmose I—first pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, who famously founded the New Kingdom when he liberated Egypt from an Asiatic people called the Hyksos. He was joined by Amenhotep I and Thutmose I, II, and III—several of whom had reputations as great warriors—and one of the best-known Egyptian queens, Ahmose-Nefertari. Most impressive of all, here lay Rameses II—in Brugsch’s time (when Tutankhamun was barely heard of ) the most famous pharaoh of all. Nicknamed Rameses the Great, he was a mighty conqueror king, often compared with Napoleon, and many scholars then thought he was the biblical ruler responsible for enslaving the Israelites. It was widely believed that without Rameses II, there would never have been a Moses.
Stunned at coming face to face with such an illustrious assembly, Brugsch felt as if he was dreaming. He later described the experience of being surrounded by ancient royals to Wilson: “Their gold coffins and their polished surfaces so plainly reflected my own excited visage that it seemed as though I was looking into the faces of my own ancestors. The gilt face on the coffin of the amiable Queen Nefertari seemed to smile upon me like an old acquaintance.”
After reading the names, Brugsch withdrew from the chamber, aware that if he stumbled or fainted in such a tinder-dry environment, his candle could easily spark a fire. As he continued, the corridor became gradually wider and taller, until a hundred feet or so further on, it opened into a large, final chamber.
This room was again filled with coffins, but this time they were from the expected Twenty-First Dynasty. Here lay the family of Pinedjem—high priests who ruled the southern part of Egypt on behalf of the official pharaohs who were based in the north. Overall, Brugsch found nearly forty mummies of kings, queens, princes, and priests, and even more enormous coffins.
After nearly two hours in the tomb, Brugsch emerged back into the valley. It was almost sunset, and not far off he could hear the howl of hyenas. He had stumbled across one of the greatest archaeological finds of the century, and its safety now depended on him. Previously the Abd el-Rassul brothers had kept their knowledge of the tomb closely guarded. Now, thanks to the presence of the workmen, its secret was out. He had to get the coffins out of the shaft and to safety before the villagers of Gurna, who now knew that a great treasure was being taken from them, came to claim it for themselves.
Brugsch went back across the river to Luxor and spent nearly the whole night hiring men to help remove the precious relics from their hiding place. Already rumors were starting to spread among the locals—stories of coffins filled with diamonds, rubies, and gold. By the next morning, he had a team of three hundred workers assembled at the shaft. One by one, they wrapped each coffin in matting, sewed it in white sailcloth, and hoisted it up using the rope tied to the palm log.
Then the precious packages had to be carried through the fields to the river. It was an eight-hour trudge across the plain, often with twelve or sixteen men to a coffin, carrying the dead kings past the ruins of the ancient temples that they themselves had built. As Brugsch watched the strange procession, he felt closer than usual to the stories he had read in the Bible: “As the Red Sea opened and allowed Israel to pass across dry-shod, so opened the silence of the Theban plain, allowed the strange funeral procession to pass—and then all was hushed again.”
The royal haul was then ferried across the river to Luxor and loaded onto the antiquities service steamer. It had taken six days in all to empty the tomb—later dubbed the Deir el-Bahri cache. A unique ancient treasure had been rescued, but at the same time, an invaluable source of knowledge was lost forever. Brugsch was so keen to get the mummies to safety that even though he was a skilled photographer, he didn’t take a single picture of the coffins in their resting place, or make a single drawing of how they were arranged—much to the frustration and disappointment of generations of archaeologists since.
When Brugsch and his colleagues set off on the steamer back to the museum in Cairo, they found that news of their cargo had traveled down the Nile ahead of them. At each town they passed, crowds gathered at the quays, gesticulating wildly. Men fired their guns. Disheveled women ran after the boat, tearing their hair and wailing. The pharaohs were being treated to traditional mourning rites that had barely changed since ancient times.
According to one version of the story, when the steamer finally arrived in Cairo, the government customs officer had no suitable category on his lists for imports of royal mummies. Eventually he chose farseekh—dried fish.
Excerpted from “The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy” by Jo Marchant. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Da Capo Press.
Jo Marchant is an award-winning science journalist and author. She has worked as an editor at New Scientist and at Nature and writes on topics from the future of genetic engineering to underwater archaeology. Her articles appear regularly in publications including New Scientist, Nature, and The Observer.