Was the Curse of Tutankhamen Real? - An Ancient Egyptian Masterclass with M.A. Bennett
Updated: Jun 20
The discovery of Tutankhamun's Tomb, buried in the Valley of the Kings, was one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century. Thousands of items of awesome Egyptian treasure were uncovered, as well as the perfectly preserved mummified remains of the boy-king himself.
But forget all that stuff!
The two things we really want to know about the discovery are, what was Tutankhamun's Curse? And was the Curse real?
We decided to ask the author M.A. Bennett, who'd definitely have answers!
After all, M.A. Bennett is the writer of the ace new Children's Book 'The Mummy's Curse', so who better to ask about the curse of a mummy?
Could you give our readers a brief overview of your fab new book, ‘The Mummy’s Curse’?
The Butterfly Club, a Victorian society which uses time travel to plunder the future for wonders, have their eyes on a shiny new prize. In Egypt a man named Howard Carter searches for a lost king – Tutankhamun's mummy, rumoured to be the greatest archaeological prize of all time. Together with her friends, Konstantin and Aidan, and a clockwork cuckoo, Luna Goodhart boards the Time Train.
The gang travel from Greenwich, London in 1894 to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 1922 in a race to uncover the mummy first. With the aid of famed author Arthur Conan Doyle the time-travelling thieves dodge tomb traps and solve temple puzzles to locate the long-dead pharaoh. But as it turns out it is not the time-thieves but Howard Carter’s waterboy, a twelve-year-old called Abdel, who stumbles on the top step of the long-buried tomb almost by accident.
But when Abdel disturbs Tutankhamun's 3000-year sleep, he wakes something else too – a deadly and ancient curse. And now all the time-thieves must face the terrifying consequences of their actions...
Where did the inspiration come from to set a fictional story around the tomb of Tutankhamun and Ancient Egyptian curses?
The real hook for me in the Tutankhamun story was the discovery that it was a twelve-year-old waterboy – Hussein Abdel Rassoul - who actually found Tutankhamun’s tomb first. Abdel’s mule stumbled on a long stone in the Valley of the Kings which turned out to be the top step of twelve, leading down into the most incredible treasure chamber ever found.
Howard Carter himself recognised Abdel’s contribution to the find, awarding him with a priceless pectoral pendant from the tomb, made of gold and decorated with lapis scarabs as big as your fist. I thought Abdel would be such a good conduit into the story for a Middle Grade reader, as a boy just their age made the greatest archaeological discovery of all time. And then of course you have the curse – there were so many stories swirling around about what the pharaoh would do to those who dared to disturb his 3000-year-long sleep, it certainly heightened the stakes!
Why do modern audiences find Ancient Egyptian Curses so fascinating?
It’s irresistible, isn’t it, the idea that Tutankhamun would curse those who disturbed him? There was a huge interest in Egyptology in Victorian times which you can see reflected in art and architecture, and even English tomb design. There were extraordinary public displays of ‘Unwrapping’ of real mummies, and even a type of paint called ‘Mummy Brown’ was popular with the Pre-Raphaelites, which was actually made of crushed-up mummies!
So, it's no wonder, when people took such liberties with what were essentially people’s corpses, that there were those who thought the manifold Egyptian gods would get angry… And of course, in our times those ideas still prevail with films like The Mummy and MCU shows like Moon Knight. It’s just something that seems to seize the imagination in any age.
You set yourself quite the challenge with this novel, setting the story in several different eras, how did you go about researching these periods to make the story feel believable?
I did quite a bit of research, which was easy because I find both Victorian times and the Egypt of the 1920s so interesting. I went to the British Museum a lot and watched tons of documentaries – Channel 5 seems to have something on about Tutankhamun every night! I also immersed myself in the literature of the age to get a sense of place and vocabulary – HG Wells, Joseph Conrad, and lots of Conan Doyle!
Could you tell us a little more about the ‘real’ curse of Tutankhamun?
The idea of a curse began to gather traction when the British newspapers began to connect tragic events to the opening of the tomb. As well as Tut’s biggest scalp, Lord Carnarvon, American railroad magnate Jay Gould died of pneumonia after visiting the tomb. French Egyptologist Georges Bénédite had a bad fall on the steps of the tomb and died. Arthur Mace, one of Carter’s own excavation team, had an entire physical breakdown which led to his death. Sir Archibald Reid, a radiologist who x-rayed some of Tut’s artifacts, also died. Richard Bethell, Lord Carnarvon’s secretary, committed suicide. His father, Lord Westbury, on hearing the news, cried; ‘it’s the curse of the Mummy!’ and threw himself out of a window. In 1924, British Army major Sir Lee Stack was murdered in Cairo. And an Egyptian prince called Ali Fahmy Bey was shot by his wife in the Savoy Hotel, also after visiting the tomb.
Whoa! Is there any evidence that there was an actual curse on the Tomb of Tutankhamun?
There are a number of theories that suggest there may be scientific reasons behind the deaths of those who visited the tomb. One suggests there may have been deadly spores in the chamber which were released when the tomb was opened. Another says there may have been bacteria – or even a virus – present which infected those who entered. But of course, the power of suggestion is strong, and fear is even stronger, so it’s also possible that the media were making connections that didn’t exist.
Do you believe there was a curse?
When you look at all the deaths together, they are very suggestive. But then you have to remember that this was the 1920s, medicine was not quite as advanced as it is now, and also some of these men might have sustained injuries in the Great War which plagued them years later. I believe that if there was a curse it had to do with respect and restitution. It’s morally questionable to raid tombs and disturb the dead, and it’s reasonable to suppose that Tut did not want to be moved from his grave and taken to the British Museum. So, it’s possible that, as I suggest in the book, he blighted those who attempted to take him away from his beloved country, but once he was left alone to lie at peace in his grave he calmed down.
Can you give us any clues about the Butterfly Club’s next adventure?
In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen right off the walls of the Louvre Museum in Paris. It was missing for three years, and then given back. I posit the idea that it was my time-thieves, Luna, Konstantin, and Aidan, who performed the heist, along with a certain Harry Houdini. Along the way they encounter the real historical thief, an Italian called Vincenzo Peruggia, and learn there is a very good reason why they should give the Mona Lisa to him…
One of the most fascinating things about the true story was the fact that when the Mona Lisa was stolen the painting was completely unknown. By the time it was returned it was the most famous painting in the world. While it was missing more people queued up to see the empty wall than ever came to see the painting itself. That made me think about who really took it, and why? You can find out in THE MONA LISA MYSTERY, out early next year!
A huge thank you to M.A. Bennett for so skilfully answering our questions!
Be sure to check out The Butterfly Club's time-traveling adventures by visiting M.A. Bennett's Amazon page here.