“Come closer. Come closer.” The docent was encouraging visitors to crowd into the first room of the King Tut Exhibit, where a video on the famous royal was about to begin. Seconds later, the lights went out, and on came the face – that famous mask of King Tutankhamun, which shows him covered in gold and jewels and other symbols of earthly power. Actor Omar Sharif narrated the brief video, infusing it with a drama and historicity that’s designed (along with the video’s otherworldly music and visuals) to leave visitors spellbound. It succeeded with younger attendees. After another striking image appeared, and Sharif’s voice bellowed, “Come face to face with the boy king!,” a boy of maybe 6 or 7 yelled out, “Whoah!”
This was the last day of the King Tut Exhibit in San Francisco – the last day for people here to see what the hoopla was about. Next month, the exhibition (officially titled “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs”) opens in New York. There’s a lot of updating to do. During the show’s San Francisco run, geneticists in Egypt announced a DNA breakthrough: King Tut likely died from the effects of malaria and bone disease. Ever since the boy king’s tomb was discovered in 1922, historians have debated how the ruler passed away. A once-prevailing theory: Murder did him in at age 19. “How he died is still a mystery,” Sharif announced in the video that I saw on Sunday.
In Egypt last month, geneticists also revealed that King Tut was the offspring of inbreeders. King Tut’s father, Akhenaten, was the brother of King Tut’s mother. Such a coupling may have contributed to King Tut’s propensity for illness. Tut, who ascended the throne at age 9, was plagued by foot problems and other health issues. Tut has been made timeless by the shiny artifacts he was found with – he’s now one of the world’s best-known icons – but like Elvis, Michael Jackson and other celebrities, his real life was a mess.
Presley still has Graceland. Tut has his home in Cairo and this touring exhibit, which mostly tries to put a happy face on his brief life. To the organizers’ credit, the exhibit does reveal pitfalls of King Tut’s time in Egypt. For example, the inbreeding that marked Pharaonic life is there in a bust of a princess, whose deformed, Star-Trek-like skull is captioned this way: “The unusual elongation of the skull . . . may have reflected religious ideology. Possibly a familial trait, this feature also occurs in the mummy of Tutankhamun, who may have been her half-brother.”
The visitors to King Tut don’t seem to focus on such things. It’s the pretty things they want to take away: The gold and turquoise jewelry; the crowns and staffs; the regal statues that signified power and prestige. At the King Tut-themed store that ended the exhibit, the cash registers were ringing every minute. A young teenager sported a King Tut headdress that cost $34.95. Mummy rubber ducks were on sale for $4.95, an Ankh mirror for $21.95, King Tut chocolate for $15.95, a King Tut-inspired bracelet for $1,350. The cheapest item: King Tut tattoo stickers, .25 each.
I went to the exhibit with my 8-year-old son, who came away with a realistic picture of the famous figure. My son said he was slightly grossed out. It wasn’t the excessive merchandise that did it. It was the captions that explained how the Boy King was dismembered upon death. I tried shielding my son from this information, particularly the wall-size explanation for Tut’s post-life embalming: “Embalmers dried out his body with salts, removed the internal organs and the hears, and embalmed them separately. They discarded the brain, after extracting it through the nostrils with a metal hook.”
Yikes. When I was about my son’s age, I thought it’d be great to be King Tut. I know better now. So does my son.