Published: May 1923
At the Tomb of Tutankhamen
An Account of the Opening of the Royal Egyptian Sepulcher Which Contained the Most Remarkable Funeral Treasures Unearthed in Historic Times
By Maynard Owen Williams, staff correspondent

This article was published in the May 1923 National Geographic. We've retained the originally used names and spellings here.

Probably no great graveyard occupies so unusual a site as the Tombs of the Egyptian Kings at Thebes.

Across the Nile from the Temple of Karnak the western skyline is broken by rough limestone cliffs whose color varies from hour to hour. Nature here changes her complexion with the passing of the day, now softly seductive under a filmy veil before the footlights of the sun's first level rays, now savagely sharp under the fierce floodlight of noonday, now darkly mysterious beneath the glowing evening sky. The monotony of rich fields so familiar in the flat delta of Lower Egypt here gives way to the variety of barren waste where tomb robbers and scientists have sought so long the hiding places of the Pharaohs.

Ten thousand tourists have tramped above the spot where the latest find has just been made. Other archeologists, looking for the needle entrance to the royal tomb of Tutankhamen in the limestone haystack of el Qorn, came within a few feet of where, after sixteen years of labor, the late Lord Carnarvon and Mr. Howard Carter found their reward.

A pile of empty mineral-water bottles, just across the narrow road, marks the spot where Theodore M. Davis and Arthur Weigall, after discovering the tomb of Queen Tiyi (also spelled Taia, Tyi, and Teye), stopped work. Almost in a straight line beyond is the tomb of Horemheb, successor to Tutankhamen, to enter which they hurdled the hidden entrance to the greatest treasure-house that archeologists have ever entered, centuries after grave-robbers had fled in fear. Both in the realm of space and time, the American excavator, Mr. Davis, to whom so many discoveries are due, "bracketed" the tomb which holds the center of the stage to-day.

Tutankhamen was the king who came back to the fold of Ammon, god of Thebes, and reestablished the royal residence there, after his father-in-law, Akhenaton, or Amenophis IV (also spelled Amenhotep), having made a spectacular break with the powerful priesthood, moved his capital to Tell-el-Amarna. In gratitude for this return, which ushered in to Thebes the glories of Seti I and Rameses II and conserved the spiritual hegemony of the local priests until they could seize temporal power as well, King Tutankhamen was sent out on his journey through the underworld equipped with such funeral vessels and mortuary implements as have never before been discovered.

It is unlikely that the comparatively small tomb itself will have more than a passing interest; but the rich store of rare and valuable funeral furniture with which the hiding place of Tutankhamen was packed almost surely contains such wonders from the distant past as have never before been seen by modern man.

On February 17th I arrived in Luxor, crossed the river and started on foot for the Tombs of the Kings. It is nearly eleven years since I last visited them, but my memory of the event is vivid. I still feel that September sun which beat upon us as we climbed the ridge on the way to Deir-el-Bahri and collapsed in the shade of an ancient temple to gulp down great goolahs of Nile water after the water in our bottles was gone. I still remember the fake curios we bought, the hagglings we had, the smell of the hot donkeys' sweat under the saddles.

This time I did not hasten toward my goal. I wanted to plod along on foot, to exchange Arabic salutations with the white-toothed village girls, to feel the African sun on my back, and to watch the camels stalk by on their way to the cane fields.

APPROACHING THE VALLEY OF THE TOMBS ON FOOT

The morning freshness was still in the air. Gangs of prisoners were grading and watering the road which Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of Belgium would use on the morrow, when she came to pay the first royal visit to Tutankhamen in more than thirty centuries. But I did not keep to the winding way, made smooth for automobiles, which glides a chalk-white serpent trail between the tawny hills. Beyond green fields which I had last passed over in a boat, I saw the Colossi of Memnon and I made for them. I wanted to pass the many lesser gaping tomb-mouths before I finally came to the royal tombs behind the limestone ridge.

Camels and oxen were slowly turning the awkward sâkiyehs and bringing full water-jars to the top of the loop to empty their precious burdens in mud troughs, protected by woven mats, from which they were carried out to the thirsty fields.

As I passed through a mud-walled village, with its narrow alleys almost black under that hot light which lacks reflective power, a girl of ten or so stopped stripping sugar cane with her gleaming teeth to wish that my day be blessed and to offer to share her store.

Across the narrow opening of the street an inky form glided by with a water-jar upon her head. A turtledove sat on the wall and cooed. A small child, with a scarlet robe and shiny decorations on her headdress, leaped into a square of light and then faded away into the almost tangible shadow. Lying prone in the thick dust of the road, an unpedigreed "pup" diverted the traffic of the day.

I stopped for lunch at the rest-house near the temple, which was built by Hatshepsut, the sister, wife, and queen of Thothmes II (also spelled Tahutmes and Tethmosis). In the valley a string of tip-cars was dumping rubbish down the steep slope.

On the side of the wall which forms a thin partition between this ravine and the amphitheater of the Kings' Tombs hundreds of men and boys were working for the Metropolitan Museum of New York. They stopped to eat their meager lunches amid the piles of dirt where they had toiled.

In the courtyard of the rest-house a clever sleight-of-hand artist spread his cloth, arranged his shining cups, made his tiny chickens peep, and passed a wedding ring from inside a close-held handkerchief on to a stick, both ends of which were tightly clutched by his astonished spectators.

WAITING AT THE TOMB

The noonday sun was hot and getting hotter. I shouldered my heavy camera and started up the steep path. Thus should one approach that hell-hole in the hills where the greatest Pharaohs hid themselves and where not more than two or three still lie undisturbed by modern man.

As I passed the tomb of Seti I and turned toward the lower entrance of the valley, I saw below me a small white tent, a wooden shelter for the armed guard, the clutter of lumber which archeologists use, and the new wall of irregular stones which hid the entrance to Tutankhamen's mausoleum.

Two correspondents sat there and another roamed about waiting for news. For weeks they had waited under the glare of the sun, compelled by the force of circumstances to be detectives rather than scribes. Suddenly and without warning some wondrous treasure would be brought forth in its rough but easy-riding ambulance, to be rushed to another tomb which was used as storehouse and preserving laboratory.

Now and then some rumor would escape the portals, to be weighed and considered before it was put upon the telegraph wire or in the discard.

A press photographer was there, wearing a tarboosh to render himself less conspicuous among Moslem crowds. If it had not been so bright he could have used his nose for a red light in the dark room, and on his cheeks he was raising skin as the farmers of Szechuan raise crops, with new growth showing between the older ones, which were ready to harvest.

These were the men who were trying to give the news of this great discovery to the world.

AN AIR OF MYSTERY EVEN IN BROAD DAYLIGHT

This superheated graveyard, which was to become a picnic ground and levee for royalty on the morrow, was a silent place. The correspondents spoke in whispers, as though the secrets of the spot would be violated by loud talk. Mystery hung as heavy on the place as mystery ever can in the full light of day.

One of the bosses quietly called two white-robed natives, who removed the curtain and the wooden hatch-work which closed the outer portal and carried two limp boards down into the shadowy depths.

Conjecture at once began. It wanted only a "My dear Watson" to make the scene complete. "They're too weak for shorings and not stiff enough to carry anything on." But the photographer looked once more at his shutter and once more judged the well-known distance to the gate through which anything removed from the tomb must pass.

It was late when I left, and the third correspondent rode beside me as I walked; but the two men I had first met and the tarbooshed press photographer hung there at the mouth of the silent tomb, hoping that some secret would yet be revealed that day.

GAIETY AND TENSION ON THE EVE OF THE OFFICIAL OPENING

After dinner I sat in the lobby of the big tourist hotel at Luxor and watched the serio-comedy on the eve of the official opening, where the gaiety of Brussels on the eve of Waterloo was combined with a tenseness that was evident to all.

This tenseness was not all on the side of the anxious reporters who had for so long put up a nerve-racking fight to get the news; for they had beaten the diggers themselves in telling the world that the wall into the inner chamber had been pierced the day before and that the hoped-for sarcophagus had been seen.

Now and then some one went to speak to Lord Carnarvon and his charming daughter. But few seemed to care to announce their bridge scores or their opinions of the League of Nations, and the subject about which all were thinking was taboo.

PREPARATIONS FOR ROYAL VISITORS TO THE TOMB

Early Sunday morning I rode out to the scene of the official opening. There were only a few visitors as yet, but the stage was all set for the big event of the day.

To the left was the tomb of Rameses IX, in whose shady corridor the Sultana and the Egyptian officials would later await the coming of the Belgian Queen. Just beyond, a steep stairway led to the unimportant tomb to which the mummy of the heretic king Akhenaton, whom Manetho refused to mention, was brought from Tell-el-Amarna.

TOMB OF AKHENATON USED AS PHOTOGRAPHER'S DARK ROOM

If the spirit of this ruler who sought to release his people from the priestly forms and outworn conventions and to establish monotheism throughout his empire still hovered in the place, what feelings it must have had! For this tomb was being utilized as a dark room for the official photographer, and under his red light developed strange pictures of the treasures that were being found across the way—finds of such magnificence as Akhenaton never knew.

Overhanging the new entrance was the tomb of Rameses VI, one of those weak rulers of the XXth dynasty under whom the priests of Ammon seized an increasing amount of temporal power.

As the day grew hot, small companies of visitors arrived; but there had been no attempt to make this a popular holiday and the crowd could never have numbered more than 200.

About noon there arrived a squad of camels laden with food and drink for the distinguished guests. The last of them seemed to be sweating from the heat, an unusual phenomenon, made plain when one noticed that his load was ice in gunny sacks.

None of this feast was eaten by the guests, for the train which brought Her Majesty and Lord and Lady Allenby to Luxor was so late that lunching out there in the graveyard of royalty was not to be thought of. Those who had come early had already eaten their lunches in the tunnel leading to the tomb of Amenmesse, as one eats in a railway lunchroom, with one eye on the clock and the other on the door. The age-old walls of stone echoed to the rattle of the portable typewriter operated by a press association man.

THE QUEEN ENTERS THE TOMB

Then came Lord Allenby in his motorcar, to wait near the barrier to welcome the Queen.

A motor rolled up; a white-clad figure alighted; there were numerous introductions, especially to those Egyptian officials present, and the Queen, with Mr. Carter leading the way, with Lord Carnarvon on her left and with Lord Carnarvon's daughter just behind, went down the incline that leads to the tomb mouth. Within a moment Her Majesty had entered the shadowy portal behind which Tutankhamen, if indeed his mummy actually be under that huge gilt canopy, silently awaited her coming.

The next item of real interest was the dust on Lord Allenby's back when he came out, perhaps a half hour later. A man doesn't come out here in the desert with an unwilted carnation in his buttonhole and then get his back dusty by accident. The sarcophagus fills the inner chamber so tightly that the distinguished Englishman had to brush the wall to get by the corner.

A VIEW OF THE INNER TOMB

On Monday, the day after the official opening, I entered the tomb, together with the first small group of correspondents.

It was a stamp-collector in Beirut who made me understand the precautions taken by the excavators on the first day when the inner opening was revealed to the correspondents. I started to pick up one of his treasures in my bare hand and he almost cried with pain. He quickly passed me some delicate tweezers with which I could examine the stamp at leisure. He realized that I could not understand his care, but he forced me to be careful.

There were those among us who were able to understand much from what we observed; but my study of Egyptian treasures had been made hurriedly more than ten years before.

This is what I saw: Steep steps led down to an incline which ended at a new iron gate, beyond which there was a strong light. In these days the Valley of the Kings' Tombs could almost advertise, "All modern improvements," as several of the tombs have long been lighted for the convenience of visitors, and Mr. Burton had, for the benefit of his official photographic work, a high-power electric bulb which made the first chamber we entered as light as day.

Just behind the light, which was shielded by a rough board, there was one of the nearly life-size figures of the king, stricken stiff by the artist and standing helpless in its vain attempt to guard the royal tomb, a gilt mace in one hand, a long gilt staff in the other, with a palm-leaf guard below the hand. The portions of this statue which represented skin were the dark, almost black, color which distinguishes the male figure from the female in Egyptian art.

The official photographs of this statue and its twin on the other side of the doorway, at the right end of the transverse chamber, make description of these guardian figures futile. Their decorations are in gilt, if not in gold, and the feet—long, flat and shapeless—stand upon what may be gold sandals. In the face and one leg of the right-hand statue there are deep cracks, which do not lessen the uncanny effect of the sculpture.

Facing each other across the space to which they were supposed to form a barrier, these statues have a far-away look—gazing down from the fourteenth century before Christ. Their carefully creased kilts, which stand out in front of them like elevated snow-plows, are said to be unlike any others found, although similar ones are frequently represented in paintings and bas-reliefs.

WONDERFUL DECORATIONS ON THE SARCOPHAGUS

Between these two statues was the entrance to the inner chamber, blocked by new timbers, so that one could not pass into the chamber itself.

The distance between the huge sarcophagus and the rough walls is so small that one would have to pass with care. New boards separated from the sarcophagus by soft buffers protected this corner of the huge case in which it is hoped Tutankhamen reposes. It was evident that after Lord Allenby got his back dusty greater precautions had been taken to protect this matchless relic of the past.

Words cannot give any impression of the decorations of this great box, of which only a corner could be seen. The secret eyes looked out reproachfully at one from half-way down the right-hand edge and a serpent helplessly vibrated his coils at convenient folds up near the top.

The structure appears to be wood, covered with gold leaf or thicker gold, which is quite bright and has across it a fine frieze in lapis lazuli or faience enamel. It seemed to me to be about nine feet high, and by looking in to the left, in which direction the sarcophagus extends, it appeared to be about eighteen or twenty feet long. Its breadth could only be judged by the size of the chamber, but might be eleven feet.

If the view of the inner chamber, on whose right-hand wall there is a small but brightly colored mural decoration, was as disappointing in extent as it was satisfying in quality, the view of the chamber in which we stood was a source of equal disappointment.

The great mass of treasure which had packed this chamber had been removed, leaving it almost bare. At the right, the two guardian statues of the king, which could not protect his withered form; at the left, a few treasures, including two alabaster vases, which appeared to me more beautiful than the marvelous specimens which had been removed and which I knew through photographs. The pet goose of one of the superintendents was there, a small wooden figure, about which he was far more willing to joke than he was to describe the hidden wonders of the inner chamber.

Near the lower left corner of the back wall a small barrier of thin boards shut off all view of a chamber beyond, which rumor says is filled to the roof with funeral offerings.

REPARTEE IN THE TOMB

Further references to the "Christmas goose" did not help my understanding of Egyptology, and I reluctantly departed. But before I went away I overheard two remarks. A press association man was discussing the decorations on the sarcophagus with the superintendent:

"It's awfully nouvel art," said the news writer.

"Yes, quite Louis Quatorze," replied the superintendent.

"I suppose, if the mummy is in there, he will be wearing some fine jewelry," said a lady present.

"If he's intact, he'll be ragged out like a bloomin' Maharaja," was the reply. And as I went out into the blinding sunlight, some one said something about sharing the Christmas goose if the press photographer would furnish the lard.

A VISIT TO AMENOPHIS II'S RESTING PLACE

Later I visited the tomb of Amenophis II, who ruled only about 70 years before Tutankhamen's seven years of power but whose sad-faced mummy has been flooded by electric light for many years and whose faded garlands seem so pitiful, even out there amid the barren hills. In a side chamber are three mummies, hollow-bodied and gruesome, like propaganda pictures for famine relief. Perhaps that is what Tutankhamen has ahead of him. How many "It's awful interesting"s will be pronounced over his body!

I had luncheon in the Western Valley, where instead of one great amphitheater, backed by a natural pyramid of disintegrating rock, there are a score of little hollows surrounded by round columns of shale, which remind one of Crusader castles above steep slopes of masonry.

Carrying a candle which dripped hot wax upon my hands, I followed my guide into the dark depths of the tomb of Amenophis III. The floors are cluttered with sharp stones. Many of the mural decorations have been chipped away by vandals. The top of the violated sarcophagus lies broken in its sanctuary. The name of the excavator who opened this tomb is known by few.

As we passed through the last doorway, something brushed my face, and I turned to find my guide burning the delicate double ears of the shiny-eyed bats which clung there in a solid mass. Before I could knock the candle from his hand a squeak of pain had set the mass in motion, except for the mother bats, beneath whose outstretched wings squirmed their naked young. The mothers stayed to protect their little ones. While I remained, looking into their beady eyes, I fancied that I could see their hearts flutter inside their tiny forms.

We stepped aside into the empty chamber, with its broken floor and ruined walls, and I blew out my candle, so that I could stay for a moment in the dark, and feel, rather than see, what a tomb is like.

The bats had stopped their squeaking. There was not a sound in that formless chamber crowded with darkness. For a minute or two I stayed, telling myself that the cavern in which I was hiding was a tomb, that the whole great mass of limestone above my head was a vast burial place.

The fête of Sunday was past, the lunchers in the corridor of Amenmesse were forgotten. There was no rattle of typewriters, no mention of a "Christmas goose." My guide might as well have been a mile away. I seemed alone there in that massive mausoleum of the hills.

BACK IN LUXOR

Back I rode toward Luxor. The ghaffirs, who yesterday stood so straight when the Queen went by, now squatted in the dust. The camel corps, whose picturesque forms had so fittingly guarded that ribbon of road through this Khyber Pass of Egypt, were no longer to be seen. A train of sugar cane whistled its departure for Armant; and the very girl who two days ago offered to share her sugar cane with a wanderer on foot now came out to beg baksheesh of me, mounted on "Marconi," whose wave-length was short and irregular.

Up the Nile there swept an ugly hull with butterfly sails of purest white. The bougainvilleas across the water, a vivid mass of purple against the yellow walls of the big hotel, contrasted with the dusty colonnades of the Temple of Luxor across the river. As I came to the boat landing, I could smell the coffee which the donkey-drivers were making in their rude reed shelters.

We crossed the Nile in that slanting fashion which sets the distant hills in motion around each point upon its bank, and came in the glory of late afternoon to the gray bund of Luxor, alive with tourists from the big hotels and from three steamers which had just arrived.

I stepped into a shop to leave my films and realized that the sway of Tutankhamen still grips the world, for a woman in white was speaking:

"I do hope that we can get a pass, because I'm just crazy over mummies, and they say this one will be the best of all."

But the mummy of Tutankhamen, if it be waiting there, staring with sightless eyes at the lid which will soon be removed, has not yet been released from the bondage of the tomb to which he was carried by his friends for the preservation of his body and for protection from the world.