Nazis who fled to Egypt

Leading Nazis either died with Hitler in the bunker in Berlin as the Soviets closed in; got themselves executed by hanging after being tried by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg at the end of the Second World War; or simply disappeared off the face of the Earth (often to Latin America). Some Nazis though found a new home – in Egypt.

In a bizarre turn, many adopted new Arab names and even converted to Islam. Living in the Egyptian capital Cairo, they enjoyed the protection of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. These unrepentant Nazis played a massive role in poisoning the discourse between Arabs and Jews continuing the anti-Semitic propaganda they had refined and spread under Hitler’s Third Reich.

Nazis working in Egypt as propagandists against Zionism

President Nasser of Egypt was a charismatic figure on the 1950s world stage. An imposing and proud nationalist attempting to shake off the last vestiges of British Empire rule in Egypt but also embroiled in an increasingly hostile relationship with neighbouring Israel.

Without going too much into the dynamics and history of the Arab-Israeli conflict – which is well covered elsewhere – Nasser sanctioned the setting up of the Institute for the Study of Zionism in Cairo in 1955. This organisation staffed by Nazis who had worked for the Reich used conflict with Israel to stoke hatred of Jews. This was simply a continuation of the work of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry in a different context.

Two of the Institute’s leading lights were Nazis who had reported directly to the head of propaganda in the Third Reich – Joseph Goebbels. One was the Institute’s Director Alfred Zingler who converted to Islam and adopted the name Mahmoud Saleh.

Some people seem to have even believed he was Egyptian born and bred. He was nothing of the sort. Zingler was a German Nazi who fled his homeland as the war ended.

The other leading light was Johann Jakob von Leers who had also become a Muslim and taken the name Omar Amin. His route out of Germany to Egypt had been via Argentina. While working for Nasser, Von Leers kept up a correspondence with Otto Ernst Remer, the military officer who foiled the Valkyrie plot against Hitler’s life in 1944 leading to the execution of all the main conspirators. An event dramatised in the Hollywood movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.

Von Leers was no slouch when it came to attacking Jews under the Third Reich. An academic, he had produced papers likening Jews to a plague that needed to be eradicated. He and Zingler brought in other Nazi chums from their time working for Goebbels – who had committed suicide with his wife in the Berlin bunker at the end of the war. Goebbels’ wife Magda notoriously poisoned all six of her children as one last act of loyalty to the now crazed Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.

Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry might have been no more – but there was plenty of work for former employees in Cairo.

Dr Werner Witschale and Hans Appler were two former Goebbels operatives who now joined the Institute. Appler had taken the name Saleh Shafar. Louis Heiden had worked for the Reich’s news agency and in Egypt set about producing an Arabic translation of Hitler’s seminal work, Mein Kampf.

Predictably, the Institute also published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a book purporting to reveal a conspiracy by Jews to take over the world that was in fact, an early 20th century example of disinformation or fake news. Forged by the Tsarist secret police as part of the Russian state’s anti-Semitic policies. Yet, it has retained the veneer of authenticity in the Middle East to the present day. In no small part due to the activities of Nazis operating under the radar in 1950s Egypt.

Other Nazis who found a new life under Nasser in Egypt – and an opportunity to continue venting their hatred of Jewish people included ex-Gestapo officer Franz Bartel, SS espionage chief Walter Bollmann and SS officer Werner Birgel.

Doctor Death in Cairo

One of the most ghoulish Nazis to end up in Egypt was Aribert Heim – better known as the Butcher of Mauthausen. An SS doctor, Heim enthusiastically took up a medical position at the Mauthausen concentration camp as it exterminated enemies of the Reich using lethal injections, a gas chamber and a combination of starvation and backbreaking work.

Inmates referred to him as Doctor Death. Pseudo-scientific experiments were an exercise in brutal sadism. Heim kept the skull of an 18-year-old patient he murdered while under anaesthetic as a desk ornament. It’s alleged that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of non-terminals patients.

Incredibly, Heim was released from prison by the Allies after the war and worked as a gynecologist in Germany until 1962 when he fled the country as the West German police closed in on him. He ended up in Cairo where he followed the example of his Nazi comrades and converted to Islam adopting the name Tarek Hussein Farid. Local people came to know him as “Uncle Tarek”.

It was claimed that he died of cancer in Egypt in 1993 but this was disputed for a decade by the Simon Wiesenthal Center which has specialised in hunting down surviving Nazis since World War Two.

Nasser, Israel and the Nazis

It’s ironic that while Nasser protected former Nazis who were used to develop arguments against Zionism, he also characterised Israel as a Nazi state – something that you still hear today. Of course these Nazis – who had overseen the Holocaust of millions of Jews – were only too happy to do their bit to try and sink Israel. A country created largely as a result of what had the Third Reich had done to European Jewry.

There had been a significant Jewish population in Egypt for over two thousand years if not longer. And Nasser grew up very near a Jewish neighbourhood so it wasn’t like he’d never met a Jewish person. In fact, in his early years as a political figure in Egypt, Nasser wasn’t immediately hostile to Israel.

But as he positioned himself as the leader of a pan-Arab movement spanning the whole of the Middle East, the pressure built to adopt an anti-Israel position. Something that would play well on the street and with other Arab countries. He fell into line with the argument that Israel’s creation was a catastrophe for the Arab world that had split Arabs in North Africa from their brothers in the Middle East. Only its disappearance would resolve matters.

Today, the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbours is becoming more complex while the plight of the Palestinian people remains intractable. But whatever one thinks of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East today – the role of undercover Nazis in stoking hatred in the region after the Second World War is a story that needs to be told and remembered.

Francis Tumblety – Abraham Lincoln plotter and Jack the Ripper

Who knew there was a link between the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and a slew of brutal murders by the mysterious and still unidentified 19th century serial killer, Jack the Ripper. The link is a single man: Francis Tumblety. Arrested by American police in 1865 as a suspected plotter against the life of Lincoln. And then detained by British police 23 years later because it was believed he might be Jack the Ripper.

Neither charge stuck. But how incredible that in one lifetime, this very odd man and rampant self-publicist managed to be implicated in two of the worst crimes of that century.

FIND OUT MORE: What did Victorians think of Jack the Ripper?

The world of Jack the Ripper

This week, I’m being interviewed for a TV documentary on Jack the Ripper – the serial killer who terrorised Victorian London. His identity has never been revealed since his spate of vicious murders of women in 1888. Notoriously, the Ripper eviscerated these poor souls removing their organs and leaving their bodies in an almost unrecognisable state.

The gruesome story has gripped the public ever since. It happened at a time when the police were still a relatively new institution that hardly commanded widespread respect. Indeed the cops were mercilessly ridiculed for their handling of the case.

And it was also a period when our modern mass media was emerging. Sensationalist newspapers with pictures for a working-class readership that pushed aside stuffy, dense periodicals only browsed by the upper classes. This was the first stirrings of infotainment.

Into this new world – and largely created by it – came Jack the Ripper. The newspapers slavishly followed the police investigation and published all the salacious details of the most recent killing. The butchered women acquired a fame in death that they had never known in life. The police were only too happy to share new clues and show off their questionable detection skills.

Jack the Ripper suspect Francis Tumblety

Given the way in which the Ripper’s victims were seemingly dissected and emptied of their organs, some have wondered whether the killer was a surgeon. Or at least somebody with a little medical training.

Enter the story Irish American fraudster and exhibitionist Francis Tumblety. Already a figure known to American journalists as a charismatic charlatan and fraudster. Incredibly, implicated briefly in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, he was then cleared, until years later he was accused of being Jack the Ripper.

An astonishing thought that England’s most prolific serial killer could have been an American!

Who was Francis Tumblety?

When Tumblety was arrested in 1888 in London suspected of being the Ripper – he was no stranger to the American media. Indeed, American journalists and police may have tipped off their counterparts in London about him.

Tumblety was a ‘quack’ doctor who for decades in the United States and Canada had sold duff cures for pimples and conducted illegal abortions. Known as the ‘Indian Herb Doctor’, he would announce his arrival in a new city with much fanfare brandishing approving commendations from global heads of state and other famous people including the author Charles Dickens.

He seems to gone through periods of making a considerable amount of money selling quack cures. And even conning his way into an American military college to deliver a medical lecture to young recruits. On this occasion, he displayed his disturbing collection of uteruses in jars – which also featured in his shop. It was this rather bizarre assemblage of women’s body parts that would raise suspicions during the Ripper enquiry in London. But that was in the future.

From the 1850s to the 1880s, Tumblety practised his career as a wannabe doctor at a time when desperate people would pay for any kind of cure. Sometimes he would practice ‘medicine’ in Canada and then skip over the border to the United States when he had to move again after being found out.

A newspaper report in May 1865 claims he ‘cleared’ about twenty thousand dollars while presenting himself as a doctor in Toronto. That is an astonishing amount of money for the time and would have made him a wealthy man.

Tumblety moved from city to city in the United States and hopped back and forth across the Atlantic, staying for periods in England, for two reasons. One was that every so often his so-called cures were exposed as garbage and he fled his furious patients. Second was repeat arrests for ‘gross indecency’, which was basically the Victorian way of describing homosexual acts – same-sex encounters. To avoid prison or worse, he would make a quick getaway.

DISCOVER: Lewis Powell – handsome assassin of Abraham Lincoln

From Abraham Lincoln to Jack the Ripper

And so, Tumblety found himself in the working class East End of London in 1888 just as Jack the Ripper was doing his worst. The tall American in a ‘slouch hat’ seems to have attracted attention. But the evidence against him as a potential candidate for being Jack the Ripper was pretty slim. A letter discovered in 1993 and written by a retired police inspector in 1913 details the case against “Doctor T”.

By our standards, it’s incredibly homophobic and circumstantial. The argument – if it can be called that – runs along the lines that – oh well, Tumblety was a known homosexual. They can often be sadistic in their sexual practices – with an example given in the letter. Tumblety hates women. And he has a collection of uteruses. Ergo – he is Jack the Ripper.

This interest in female body parts and his alleged outspoken hatred of women was enough to convince the London police to arrest Tumblety. There was also a long string of convictions going back to his youth. He was, in the eyes of law enforcement, a serial criminal. So why not a serial killer?

From Lincoln’s killer to Jack the Ripper

During the course of their investigations, London police would have been made aware by American cops that Tumblety had been arrested back in 1865 in relation to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. This followed the testimony of a male teenager who had worked as an errand boy for Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

He alleged that Tumblety, known at this time as the “Indian Herb Doctor”, had a very intimate relationship with Booth. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink – everybody knew what that meant!

Yes…yes…even in 19th century America.

A newspaper report I include below from the time also implicated Tumblety in an “intimate” relationship with David Herold – also a Lincoln plot conspirator who, like Booth, would be executed by hanging.

The notorious Tumblety

What I find very noteworthy about the report is its description of Tumblety as a “notorious” figure already well known across the United States. He certainly wasn’t publicity shy. But this high profile would land him in very hot water twice in his life with the prospect of hanging from a noose as a plotter against Lincoln and the slayer of women in London.

The nature of his business meant that he was part doctor and part showman. Whenever Tumblety set up in a new city with his quack cures, he would ride down the street attired in a strange military uniform including a spiked helmet on a white steed with a hound running at his die. Sometimes with a boy dressed as a native American handing out leaflets. He must have been quite a sight!

But Tumblety aroused hostility and news of his sexuality can’t have helped. Even though he was cleared of any involvement in Lincoln’s assassination, it’s hard to ignore the smear that he and Booth were “intimate”. And the heavily hinted amorous link to one of the other conspirators.

Taking things an audacious step further forward – it has also made others ponder whether Lincoln himself was gay. This was first mooted a hundred years ago.

The fact Lincoln shared his bed as a young man with a friend called Joshua Speed divides opinion with some saying – yep, gay – and others retorting – no, that’s just what chaps did back then. In 2004, a new claim surfaced that Lincoln had a same sex relationship with his bodyguard David V. Derickson.

Back in the 1920s, an early biography of Lincoln by Carl Sandburg found “streaks of lavender” in the president’s life story. The thought that crossed my mind was whether Lincoln could conceivably have ever made contact with any of the plotters on the theatrical ‘scene’ prior to his assassination.

Tell me what you think!

Jack the Ripper AND Lincoln assassin?

It is incredible to consider that Tumblety could be arrested in his lifetime for two of the most notorious crimes in history: the assassination of President Lincoln and the killings of Jack the Ripper. But he was able to avoid prosecution on both occasions.

Was he a victim of prejudice or misunderstanding?

Well, yes in part. But Tumblety was also an inveterate conman. An utterly untrustworthy individual. He sold hokum to the gullible making considerable amounts of money according to contemporary reports. But always being rumbled at some point.

Tumblety had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Consorting with Booth as this man decided to kill Lincoln. And hanging out in Whitechapel as a murderer stalked its streets.

Coincidence? You decide.

medieval easter monks

Medieval monks clash over Easter

Easter should be a time for Christians when they celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. But in the Medieval period – it was just as likely a time for bitter quarrels about the timing of Easter. Calculating the right date depended on the movements of the moon and the sun. The faithful needed to know the right date for Easter in order to conduct the fast over Lent. But the monks often let them down.

In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, monks in Britain, Ireland and Europe were at total loggerheads over the timing of Easter. They attacked each other’s calculations as completely wrong. The bible wasn’t very helpful in resolving anything because it simply pointed out that the crucifixion happened during the Jewish passover. What would have helped more was an exact time and date.

The Jewish calendar was lunar whereas the Christian church calendar was solar. It’s no accident that key Christian events were timed to coincide with the solstices, which had previously been linked to pagan festivities. So, the winter solstice became Christmas and the summer solstice celebrated the birth of John the Baptist. But what to do about Easter?

Some early Christians just followed their Jewish neighbours and working on the assumption that the crucifixion happened at the Passover, celebrated Easter at the same time regardless of the day. Others aimed for the full moon in the first spring month. The church disliked this localised approach to choosing a date for Easter. It was time to impose one Easter Day on all Christians.

Monks, maths and Easter

At the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, it was decided that Easter would always fall on a Sunday and that day would be determined well in advance with a series of complex calculations expressed in a table. Prepare for lots of confusion and arguments! Because monks in different abbeys fell out with each other in some style over these calculations and the rows led to excommunications and the ostracising of rebellious monastic communities.

Easter it was decided should be on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Vernal equinox. But that full moon was not the actual astronomical phenomenon. No – it was a mathematically arrived at ecclesiastical full moon. So, medieval monks got out their quills and exercised both their mathematical and astronomical skills. Especially monks in Ireland and the north of England – who frequently clashed.

Celtic monks v Roman monks – battling over Easter

The Irish monks were particularly intransigent. Their tables for calculating Easter were based on an 84-year lunar cycle compared to the rest of Europe which worked out the date of Easter each year on a 19-year cycle. An exasperated Pope Honorius the First wrote to Irish monks in the year 629 AD telling them “not to think that their small number, at the furthest ends of the earth, were wiser than all the ancient and modern churches of Christ thoughout the world”.

In other words, stop thinking you’re smarter than everybody else and fall into line!

DISCOVER: The last hours of the life of Jesus Christ

Nobles followed either the monks loyal to the Pope or the rebel Celts. In the seventh century this led to a situation where the pro-Celtic King of Northumbria, Oswy, was celebrating Easter while his pro-Roman queen was still on Palm Sunday. This was so absurd that the Venerable Bede, a leading monastic chronicler of the time, spat blood at the Celtic monks accusing them of heresy against the church.

Well, it was all resolved after a fashion. Though the eastern Orthodox church still calculates Easter differently to the Roman Catholic church. Nevertheless, this weekend, we will all be celebrating Easter in our own way. A far cry from the medieval battles over dating Easter.

Was Jesus Christ a terrorist?

I’m launching a new YouTube series linked to this blog called History’s Terrorists. Over several episodes, I’ll look at groups and individuals we previously might have regarded as heroic or charismatic and ask – if we’d been there at the time, would we have sided with the authorities and branded them as terrorists? And my first question in episode one is whether Jesus and the zealot cult known as the Sicarii could be classified as terrorist or not?

The intention isn’t to cause offence but to re-appraise historical events. Think about it. You are a merchant in biblical Judaea in the first century AD. You attend the Temple every week, pay your taxes and keep out of trouble. The Romans maintain order though you may not like them particularly but Judaea has nearly always been under foreign control. The Temple priests are a well-heeled bunch who clearly do well out of their position but they are the leaders of your religion, which you adhere to out of deep faith.

Jesus the Terrorist from Galilee

Then along comes some loudmouthed peasant from Galilee and a rabble of disciples. They go into the Temple and overturn the tables of the money exchangers during the sacred festival of Passover. Their leader, in his rustic accent, loudly claims to be the son of God. That he will one day rule over Judaea with his father in heaven. You snort derisively and are shocked, maybe even angered by his blasphemy.

DISCOVER: Jesus Christ – man or myth?

Hopefully, the Roman procurator or the Temple priests will deal with these troublemakers. Well, sure enough – they do. And it’s not an end for Jesus that especially troubles you. Those guilty of treason and sedition are routinely crucified. It’s a deliberately demeaning form of death meant to discourage others. You don’t go along to watch. It’s all rather tawdry. Instead, you heave a sigh of relief and get on with your business.

Imagine if somebody like Jesus entered your town today. Would you hail him as the Messiah or just see another cult leader taking advantage of the gullible and vulnerable? It’s more than likely he’d be viewed by you and your neighbours as a madman or a terrorist. You’d expect the local police to act quickly and restore peace and order.

Well, in the episode of History’s Terrorists below – I argue that not only Jesus but a cult of dagger-wielding zealots that operated around the same time in Judaea called the Sicarii would all have been viewed as a dangerous terrorist phenomenon. Watch and tell me if you agree!

Alaska Russia Putin

What if Russia invaded Alaska?

On the wall of my study is an 1829 map that I bought in a book store in Boulder, Colorado a few years back showing north America. Mexico, newly independent from Spain, still ruled Texas and California. But what a modern viewer might find shocking is that Alaska is part of Russia. And not just the Alaska you know today. But a territory ruled by the Russian tsar that extended right down to Oregon.

You may be familiar with the Louisiana Purchase that saw the United States buy a huge chunk of territory from Montana to Louisiana from the French government in 1803 that doubled the size of the U.S. But less well known is the Alaska Purchase of 1867. That saw what we now call Alaska bought from the Russian Empire.

DISCOVER: The history of Russia and fake news goes back a long way!

In the previous decade, Russia had lost the Crimean War against France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire (ruled from what is now Istanbul). That had been a war provoked by Russian imperial aggression. But having been defeated, Tsar Alexander II decided he couldn’t commit resources to defending this far off province. At the same time, he didn’t want Britain to grab it – as they already ruled Canada. So – he sold Alaska to the United States. Hence that strange part of the U.S. detached from the rest of the nation.

The price was crazily cheap at way less than a dollar a mile. Thirty years later the Russians would kick themselves as the Klondike Gold Rush overwhelmed the state in the 1890s. Over a hundred thousand prospectors would descend to get rich quick. Russia had to watch helplessly wondering why it had let that mineral-rich land go at a rock bottom price.

They’re still sore today. And there have been concerns voiced in recent years about growing Russian encroachment. As the ice cap melts and new waterways are created, Arctic and Native American communities have noted an increasing Russian naval presence. If you spin the globe northwards and look down at the balance of power in the Arctic as a region, it is massively tilted towards Putin and Russia. That’s in terms of deep water ports, airfields and ice breakers.

Maybe Putin has the same 1829 map on his study wall and every so often glances at it with a malevolent leer. Worryingly, it doesn’t seem improbable!

The cheque that bought Alaska!

Fear of nuclear war in the 1980s

In February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated the possible use of nuclear weapons as he pushed ahead with the invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. This sent a shudder of familiarity down the spines of anybody aged 50 and over. Those of us who grew up in the last phases of the Cold War when fear of nuclear conflict reached a terrifying height in the early 1980s. For young people – this unfamiliar territory so let’s shine a light on the past.

Protect and Survive – advice on living through a nuclear war

It’s been a long time since nuclear war gave me butterflies in my stomach. But back in the early 1980s, many young people surveyed genuinely believed they would die in a nuclear conflict. From the mid-1970s, the United Kingdom government issued public information guidance on what to do in the event of a nuclear war. This culminated in 1980 with the issue of a notorious pamphlet: Protect and Survive.

This guidance was intended to be distributed to families once the nuclear threat was very real. Somehow, I got my hands on a copy back then and I share some images below. Very much in the DIY spirit of the time, people were instructed on how to radiation-proof their homes. This involved moving furniture in front of windows, blocking up fireplaces and creating a lean-to shelter by propping up doors against a wall.

A lot of this reflected Second World War approaches to surviving Nazi airborne bombing raids in major cities. You dug a shelter in the garden. Went underground. Avoided the blast as best you could. But given what we knew after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear explosions in Japan that ended World War Two in a blaze of catastrophic radiation – we were a bit sceptical about this pamphlet!

DISCOVER: Fear in history – what scared us in the past?

Protest and Survive – pamphlet reflecting widespread fear of nuclear war

In fact, Protect and Survive was ridiculed in an alternative pamphlet titled Protest and Survive. Authored by veteran Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, it included quotes from government documents that made sobering reading. For example, in 1976, the Home Office had issued guidance to the chief executives of local authorities on what to do after a nuclear attack:

“When radiological conditions permitted movement, district and borough London controllers should assume that one of the priority tasks for their staff, in areas where survivors where to continue residing, would be to collect and cremate or inter human remains in mass graves.”

And this from the Home Office advising healthcare managers:

“Trained health service staff would be vital to the future and should not be wasted by allowing them to enter areas of high contamination where casualties would, in any case, have small chance of long-term recovery.”

FIND OUT MORE: AIDS and Soviet disinformation in the 1980s

Fear about nuclear war returns as never before

The end of the 1970s saw a dramatic change in the global political dynamic. Ronald Reagan was elected president in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. The rhetoric towards the Soviet Union was dialled up and on both sides, new nuclear weapons were deployed. To be blunt – this freaked young people out. And suddenly, protest about nuclear weapons was back in vogue!

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) saw a huge surge in membership and monster demonstrations through the middle of London. About 300,000 marched in 1983. I attended the 1981 demos where an estimated quarter of a million marched.

This was a revival for CND from its previous heyday in the 1950s when earnest students and intellectuals in duffel coats had rallied in Westminster or marched on the atomic weapons research establishment at Aldermaston. But after the 1963 Test Ban Treaty and a calming in tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, fear of nuclear war and protest activity receded.

In fact, in the 1970s – a decade brimming with protest movements – anti-nuclear barely got a look in. Driving through Europe as a kid in the 70s with my parents, the most notable anti-nuclear presence were German hippies in VW camper vans covered in smiley anti-nuclear stickers saying: Atomkraft? Nein Danke.

Otherwise, we switched on our TVs to see the US President of the day (Richard Nixon then later Jimmy Carter) engaged in long and tedious negotiations with the Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev to limit their respective nuclear arsenals. Even as a politics-obsessed child, I struggled to be interested in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or SALT for short. Things on the nuclear front seemed to be broadly under control with the certainty of mutually assured destruction (appropriately MAD for short) ruling out the use of these bombs.

And then everything changed. Thatcher and Reagan were demonised as the architects of an upcoming Armageddon. Women protestors set up a Peace Camp outside the Greenham Common armed forces base over the proposed siting of cruise missiles there. Pop groups began singing about nuclear conflict – the list of songs on the topic is endless from this period. I try and avoid linking to Wikipedia but on this occasion – there is a comprehensive list of 80s nuclear pop hits HERE.

Fear of nuclear war recedes again

With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s, the fear moved to nuclear material finding its way into the wrong hands – especially terrorists. But the idea of nation states using nuclear weapons in a war that could wipe us all out faded away. Well, history is cruel. And here we are again. Let’s see if Vladimir Putin would really do what Leonid Brezhnev was not prepared to countenance.

Was Tutankhamun buried in the tomb of a queen?

One of the mysteries surrounding the tomb of Tutankhamun is the seemingly feminine appearance of the dead pharaoh. Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves believes there’s a simple explanation. The tomb was never meant for the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun but for a royal queen. It was built for the wife of the boy’s father – the pharaoh Akhenaten. That woman was none other than the iconic Egyptian queen: Nefertiti.

Reeves believes Tutankhamun’s death mask was originally for Nefertiti and then modified. The rich golden decorations in the tomb are representing Nefertiti and not Tutankhamun. The shape of the tomb is traditional for a queen and not a king. And the feminine representation of the boy – even with breasts on one statue – is because we’re looking at Nefertiti and not Tutankhamun.

There is a depiction of a living pharaoh opening the mouth of a recently deceased pharaoh to release their spirit and enable them to live eternally. The living ruler is thought to resemble the boy pharaoh whereas the dead ruler is more feminine than masculine. Is this Tutankhamun releasing the spirit of Nefertiti?

One problem with this. Nefertiti was never the pharaoh of Egypt. Well, that is a statement a growing number of commentators would challenge. They believe she ruled briefly between the death of Akhenaten and his son – who was her stepson.

Reeves even thinks her body could be somewhere in the tomb. But the Egyptian government is adamant that there are no hidden chambers to be found. Theories about what happened to Nefertiti after the death of her husband Akhenaten abound because of two apparent facts. Her body has not been found and she may have ruled after the death of her husband.

I say ‘apparent’ facts because there is a view that Nefertiti’s body was discovered and can be seen today in Cairo. And that in fact she did rule after the death of her husband Akhenaten. The tomb we attribute to Tutankhamun was actually built for her. That explains why when the boy pharaoh died suddenly, a richly decorated place of burial was ready for him. Because….it wasn’t originally for him at all!

DISCOVER: Was Moses the Pharaoh Akhenaten?

The mystery of pharaoh Smenkhkare

After the death of Akhenaten, somebody called Smenkhkare took over. Very little is known about this person, so all kinds of theories have filled the gaps. One is that Smenkhkare was a male gay lover of Akhenaten. The other is that this mystery pharaoh was Nefertiti ruling under another name.

Or then we have view that Smenkhkare was indeed a woman – but not Nefertiti. In fact, the real identity are the two older sisters of Tutankhamun. What happened was that after the death of Akhenaten, his youngest surviving daughter Neferneferuaten took over disguised as a man. Her sister Meritaten adopted the role of royal spouse.

After a year, Meritaten decided that just being spouse wasn’t quite good enough – and proclaimed herself pharaoh as well. The two sisters effectively ruled as co-regents for their brother Tutankhamun who was still only four or five years old. This idea of joint rulership may have been inherited from their late father who had his wife Nefertiti depicted on almost equal terms with him. Something that no doubt disgusted traditional opinion in Ancient Egypt.

Should point out that Neferneferuaten wasn’t that much older than Tutankhamun. In fact, she was seven when she became pharaoh! So, what on earth was going on? The explanation given by one historian is that repeated outbreaks of plague spooked Akhenaten. He wanted to sort out the succession after his death.

Therefore, he himself married his eldest daughter, Meritaten. The next oldest daughter – Ankhesenpaaten – was married to Tutankhamun. And the seven-year-old Neferneferuaten was designated as the next pharaoh. Nefertiti never ruled because she was not of the royal bloodline.

Reeves believes that many of Tutankhamun’s burial goods were made for Neferneferuaten including his gold mask.


Howard Carter – discoverer of Tutankhamun

Two men became global celebrities off the back of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Who were they and what motivated them? British archaeologist Howard Carter chanced upon the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. His financial backer was the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, a man whose personal history was stereotypically aristocratic.

Who was Lord Carnarvon?

Born in the posh district of Mayfair in London. Carnarvon’s father, the fourth Earl, was a Tory politician. The young Carnarvon went to Eton College and then to Trinity College Cambridge. He married a fabulously wealthy socialite who happened to be the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and he obligingly provided a massive dowry clearing his son-in-law’s gambling debts.

With no cash worries, Carnarvon was able to indulge his passion for horse racing and ancient Egypt. The concession for digging in the Valley of the Kings had become available. An American lawyer, Theodore Davis, had bought the concession back in 1902 and opened about thirty tombs. Davis was sure he’d “exhausted” all possibilities at this fascinating ancient necropolis. So, in 1914, Carnarvon stepped in.

Who was Howard Carter – the man who entered the tomb of Tutankhamun?

Carter was chosen to lead the new round of digging. Born in 1873, he had arrived in Egypt in 1890 aged 17 as a junior member of staff at the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF). The EEF had only recently been set up – in 1882 – to explore and excavate ancient sites.

An agreement was reached with the French-run Egyptian Antiquities Department that allowed the EEF to export many of their finds subject to official approval. This led to thousands of Ancient Egyptian treasures making their way to Britain – legally at the time. The ethics of this has been questioned in recent years.

But it should be said that individuals were normally not allowed to keep artefacts. The EEF was supported by museums, universities and libraries who expected to be the beneficiaries.

Carter worked with the legendary Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) who brought some discipline into the cataloguing of finds and preservation of artefacts. It may be controversial to say this but in the late 19th century, sites were being plundered and monuments damaged at an alarming rate. Sadly, items like papyri were discarded as valueless by robbers and dealers preferring those things that glittered.

This was a fantastic apprenticeship for Carter who by 1900 became Inspector of Antiquities in Upper Egypt. This was a man steeped in Ancient Egyptian archaeology, but his lack of a university degree and lower middle-class background meant he was the subject of constant sneering from academia and respectable opinion. It may explain why he never received any honours for his work.

FIND OUT MORE: One hundred years since Tutankhamun’s tomb discovered

Making the discovery of a lifetime

Carter’s detractors must have felt vindicated when Carnarvon took him on and for the first few years, nothing showed up in the Valley of the Kings. Theodore Davis, it seemed, had been right. Everything that could be found – had been found. A restless Carnarvon began to wonder whether he was chucking good money after bad. And indicated to Carter and his team that the money tree would soon stop delivering.

Then, like in a movie with the clock ticking, Carter made his momentous discovery. With Carnarvon’s dire warning still ringing in his ears, Carter could hardly believe his luck when one of the team – a local boy – stumbled across steps in the sand. This was a clear sign that a new burial site had been found.

He wired his benefactor and Carnarvon made his way to the Valley of the Kings. When they opened the tomb, it was rather like a moment in one of those Mummy movies when a dreadful curse is unleashed. In Carter’s own words:

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber caused 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.”

Behind him, Carnarvon asked Carter if he could see anything.

“Yes – wonderful things!”

Speaking of curses, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito while in Egypt and died of malaria shortly afterwards. Journalists piled in with talk of a “Mummy’s Curse”. And it was Carnarvon’s death that inspired a whole slew of trashy Hollywood movies on Ancient Egyptian mummies exacting a terrible revenge for being disturbed.

Entering the tomb had to be done in the presence of an official from the Department of Antiquities. But there’s every suggestion that Carnarvon, his wife, and Carter broke in, had a look around and then sealed it up again. Honestly – I find it hard to blame them!

Howard Carter and the find of a lifetime – the tomb of Tutankhamun

What was astonishing about the discovery of 5,000 items in the tomb including the intact and ornate sarcophagus of the pharaoh was that most royal burial sites were ransacked in ancient times. Often by the tomb builders themselves – who knew how to get in and out. Yet this one had been spared from the looters.

In a speech given the following year back in England, Carter showed kinematogrphic pictures of the dig to gasps from the audience. What intrigued them was the “domestic” nature of many of the artefacts. This led Carter to comment that:

“Tutankhamun’s tastes might have been those of an average young Egyptian nobleman rather than of a royal prince. Domestic affection was suggested, rather than religious austerity that characterised other tombs.”

When Carnarvon and the Antiquities director entered the tomb, Carter had a portable electric light with a cable trailing out behind him. The sight of the pharaoh’s mask was incredibly moving for all present. But what took them by surprise was another inner chamber containing some of the greatest and most exquisite treasures.


Centenary of the Tutankhamun discovery!

2022 will be a momentous year for all things Ancient Egypt related. It’s one hundred years since the discovery of the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun. And it’s 200 years since the Rosetta Stone was deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion. Both events have left a bitter-sweet legacy in today’s Egypt.

Because they are milestones in what was a period of European domination in Egypt. The Rosetta Stone was discovered during the French Emperor Napoleon’s military campaign in the country in July 1799 and then fell into British hands under the terms of France’s surrender to British and Ottoman forces at Alexandria in 1801. Champollion wasn’t part of Napoleon’s ill-fated expedition, but he deciphered the hieroglyphic script of the pharaohs in 1822 – revealing the meaning on the stone.

DISCOVER: Was Moses the Pharaoh Akhenaten?

British control of Egypt

Egypt came increasingly under British control. In 1882, British forces invaded and in 1899, the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement led to Egypt being jointly governed by local rulers and the United Kingdom. So, it’s unsurprising that the tomb of Tutankhamun was opened by a British-led archaeological team in 1922. Even if that was the year in which Egypt won a degree of independence from Britain when Sultan Fuad took the title, King of Egypt.

In the years before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the concession rights for digging in the Valley of the Kings had been held by an American lawyer, Theodore Davis. He had bought the concession from the Department of Antiquities in Egypt. From 1902 to 1915, he discovered about thirty tombs and then declared that the valley had been “exhausted” with nothing more to uncover. But he had missed the tomb of Tutankhamun – the greatest glory of Ancient Egypt.

FIND OUT MORE: Grave robbers through the centuries!

French control of digs in Egypt

The Department of Antiquities – which reported to the Egyptian government and from which Dyas bought his concession – was established and run by French archaeologists from 1858 to 1952. It was the forerunner of today’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. Despite Britain dominating Egypt militarily and politically, the French somehow managed to run the archaeology side of things to the profound irritation of British and German Egyptologists – who struggled to get a look in.

On the plus side, the Department managed to stop the wholesale looting of tombs and sites and recovered many royal mummies. There are claims that two local dealers who were brothers were tortured under the direction of the Department to reveal the whereabouts. Sadly, even though these mummies were recovered, many scarabs, statuettes and papyri had disappeared into the illegal antiquities markets.

EXCLUSIVE: Ancient Egyptian spoons!

Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun

From 1899, the future discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun – Howard Carter – was the Inspector of Monuments in Egypt having worked on several digs including the exploration of Amarna – former capital of the monotheistic pharaoh, Akhenaten. This strange and charismatic ruler introduced a one-God cult based at his new city of Amarna that offended traditional religious opinion and power in Ancient Egypt. He was eventually overthrown by conservative forces.

Akhenaten’s successor was his (likely) son Tutankhamun. It seems prescient that Carter would work on this project uncovering the secrets of the father of the pharaoh that would make him a global archaeological superstar.

In the next few blog posts celebrating the Tutankhamun tomb discovery centenary – we’re going to look at this story of Howard Carter, the greatest tomb in Ancient Egypt and the worldwide sensation its discovery caused.


Did the Founding Fathers oppose democracy?

In American political debate, the Founding Fathers are often evoked as the guardians of democracy and human rights. But is this completely wrong? Did these well-heeled gentlemen who framed the US Constitution really want a political system where ordinary people had a say?

The answer is an emphatic no.

A few years ago, I visited the stately home of Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville, Virginia – a beautiful estate called Monticello. I was attending a conference on democracy where Jefferson had been lauded repeatedly as a father of freedom and rights enshrined in a written constitution. So, you can imagine how faces dropped when our guide sheepishly informed us that Monticello was in fact a slave plantation – and Jefferson not only owned about 100 slaves at any one time but had a slave mistress.

It is true that in 1776, Jefferson denounced the “execrable commerce” in slaves and was instrumental in having the words “all men are created equal” inserted into the Constitution. Early on, some southern states amended that to all “freemen”. And Jefferson himself fell silent on the issue over time. Abolitionists became exasperated at the great man’s silence leading a 19th century Abolitionist, Moncure Conway, to sneer: “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do”.

But it wasn’t just slaves who would find no freedom in the new utopia of the United States. The poor and women could forget any prospect of the vote or having their opinions taken on board.

FIND OUT MORE: Roman slavery and American slavery – what was the difference?

Founding Fathers – no poor or women in our democracy

John Adams was appalled at the idea of those without property having the vote. “Few men, who have no property, have any judgement of their own,” he wrote. Instead, the propertyless will always be manipulated by those with property – so best they don’t get the vote!

As for women:

“…Why exclude women?  Because their delicacy renders them unfit for practice and experience, in the great business of life, and the hardy enterprises of war, as well as the arduous cares of state. Besides their attention is so much engaged with the necessary nurture of their children that nature has made them fittest for domestic cares.”

Not that his attitude towards women being involved in politics was much different to any other privileged male of the time. And in fairness, female suffrage was still in the far distance in Europe as well as the United States.

The very idea of a Republic was a rejection of rule by the mob. Foreign Policy magazine has just published an interesting opinion piece on this. James Madison, for example, despised the notion of a hereditary monarch and rule by an aristocratic dynasty. But he sure has hell didn’t want to see it replaced with rule by the masses. Individual liberty was as much to do with wealthy individuals being protected from the rabble as it was to do with freedom of expression.

Which is why many of those who think they are acting in the spirit of Founding Fathers are doing completely the opposite. The 2021 Capitol Hill rioters may have cited the Founding Fathers in defence of their action but what they did is everything the Founding Fathers feared. In fact, the US Constitution was framed exactly in anticipation of such direct intervention by the mob in political affairs.

Madison believed direct rule by the people – such as existed in ancient Greece – unleashed populism over rationalism. He wrote in The Federalist Papers:

“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason.”

He hoped that America’s sheer size, even in his day, would prevent the people from being able to organise effectively to put pressure or even threaten the government. Of course, there were media outlets back then – newspapers – but they were run by the same class of people as sat in the Senate. Little could Madison have anticipated the democratic and anarchic horror of social media – with its power to organise over vast areas.

DISCOVER: American conservatives and the Portuguese dictator Salazar

President-for-life – yes, this was actually proposed!

Alexander Hamilton was lionised in a recent musical production that mocked the supposed tyranny of King George III of England. But Hamilton rather undemocratically thought that both the President and the Senate should be elected for life. Once in power, they would never have to face the people again. He thought this would lead to a better quality of decision making.

George Washington recognised the need to give the people a voice in the system. He didn’t mind the House of Representatives letting off steam on behalf of the electorate because, as he put it, things would cool off in the “Senatorial saucer”.

The Senate would be key to stopping the people running things. It would be an august assembly of the finest citizens (for which read white slave owning men). And similar types of people would sit in the electoral college and choose the President after the masses had going through the charade of making a choice.

Before 1913 and the passing of the 17th amendment, the Senate strictly speaking wasn’t even directly elected. State legislatures chose their two senators and sent them to Washington DC. Two of the Founding Fathers, Roger Sherman and Elbridge Gerry, thought the House of Representatives shouldn’t be directly elected either.

People power and democracy as we understand it was about as far from the Founding Fathers’ vision as you could get. They viewed themselves as an educated and rationally minded elite making the best decisions for an unruly nation. What they would make of the United States today is anybody’s guess.