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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
TO BE CONTINUED