Murder on the Nile?

There is nothing in the ancient world that so transfixes us in the modern world as Egypt and particularly King Tut. I just visited the King Tut exhibit at the MFAH, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Room after room of magnificence and fascination. And the museum doesn’t shy away from the fact that Tut was a minor pharaoh, a young king who didn’t leave much of a mark, yet now he is the face of ancient Egypt. One of the great historical ironies!

I greatly enjoyed the AIA’s King Tut events. The Insites reading club met at Café Byblos, and Dirk van Tuerenhot led us through the thesis of Dr. Bob Brier’s book The Murder of Tutankhamun. Brier believes that Tut was murdered by his vizier, Aye, who then claimed the throne for himself.  Dr. van Teurenhot is not so sure. We had a lively discussion and some good food.

The following week, Dr. Brier came to the MFAH and presented his thesis to a more than overflow crowd. There were about 450 people in the auditorium, sitting on the steps and standing in the back, and they turned away about 100 more people! I have to say that he presents a very convincing case of Tut being murdered, but the truth is, we’re never going to know. We aren’t even sure who his parents are.

And that brings me to an issue that always bothers me. Brier speaks in his book about how Tut and his bride Ankhenasamun truly loved each other. There are pictures of his pouring perfume on her and of her offering him flowers. After he died, it seems like she so desperately wanted to marry royalty that she sent a letter to the Hittite king asking him to send her a prince. But I wonder…I think it’s a common flaw to attribute modern sensibilities to ancient people. Certainly ancient people experienced love, but modern romantic love is, I believe, a modern construct. The idea that two people meet, fall in love, marry and live happily ever after is a pretty new idea in human history. Among the royalty of ancient Egypt, marrying one’s sibling was the norm, and if that is what you know is going to happen, that is what is normal and expected, and that is what you do. Do we really KNOW that these two loved each other the way we love each other now? (As an aside, I was driven crazy by the documentary March of the Penguins, which anthropomorphized the birds until they were, apparently, just black and white waddling humans. I seriously doubt they have human emotions. And yes, King Tut and his wife were human beings and not penguins, but they lived an awfully long time ago in a culture very different from our modern one.)

Maybe Tut hated his child bride/sister and thought she smelled bad, so he regularly poured perfume on her. Maybe they slept together only because they knew they had to produce an heir for the kingdom and hardly saw each other except for those times. We don’t even know the details of our neighbors’ private lives; how can we possibly know the private life of a king who lived about 3500 years ago?

And that brings me back to the exhibit at the MFAH. As I mentioned, there are hundreds of magnificent artifacts there, but none so magnificent as the colossal head of Akhenaten, the possibly deformed religious reformer of ancientEgyptand maybe the father of Tutankhamun. The head is massive, carved of sandstone, with all the features that make the Amarna period of Egyptian art so distinctive. Akhenaten has narrow, highly slanted eyes, an extremely long thin face with a large, strong chin, impossibly high cheekbones and thick, curvaceous lips. He is magnificent. And as I stood looking up at this huge statue, I almost expected the warm stone to start moving. I could almost believe that Akhenaten was about to speak to me. He seemed so human.

Imagine the secrets he could reveal…

One thought on “Murder on the Nile?

  1. I attended both the Bob Brier lecture and the talk by Cheryl Ward on perfumes from ancient Egypt. GREATLY enjoyed them both. The talk on perfumes was especially fascinating because, through chemical analysis, it truly is possible to know about something as ephemeral as scent

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