Monday, July 27, 2015

Tutankhamen by Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt
New York Graphic Society
Library of Congress number: 63-15145
Third Printing

                                           'As yet unborn the bird already chirps in the egg,
                                           For thou hast given it the breath of life
                                           And set the time for it to break its shell,
                                          When it shall come forth and loudly raise up its voice.'

      'Then Carter decided to dig in the delta, and attempted to make Sais, at Sakha, his new site. But water from the Nile soaked the region and made it impossible to begin work before April; the temperature rose sharply, and the diggers were literally chased from the site by an invasion of cobras.'

The late eminent Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt was the first woman to have led an expedition to Egypt in the 1930's. Her work at the Louvre along with her important role in the rescue of Nubia's monuments with the coming of the high dam marked her as one of the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries greatest Egyptologist.

I love the full page diagram of the temple of Karnak and the processional route Tutankhamen would have taken during his coronation ceremonies. Madame Desroches-Noblecourt opens this volume with the development of Howard Carter and his financier Lord Carnarvon leading up to their meeting and through the early explorations made by the two men on behalf of the Egyptian Antiquity Service.

The content of the book includes many colored and black and white pictures on the majority of pages. Among these images are photos of a beautiful statue of Amun protecting Tutankhamen in the collection of the Louvre. The author takes the reader to the west bank across from Luxor where the descendants of ancient grave robbers built a community atop the cemetery of the nobles of the New Kingdom at Qurna.

Finding of a royal tomb in approximately 1871 by members from this little village brought about perhaps ancient Egypt's most enigmatic discovery of a collection of royal mummies at Deir el-Bahri. In the area of Deir el-Medina Mdm. Desroches-Noblecourt introduces the reader to the artisan villagers who cut and decorated the royal burials in valleys beyond the view of the ancient population of Thebes.

The village of Deir el-Medina has left to us through its outstanding amount of surviving literary material found in the villagers homes, tombs and the great pit (used as a garbage disposal), the intimate lives lived here. In the years which led to the discovery of Tutankhamen, the Valley of Kings was being excavated on behalf of the Egyptian Antiquities Service by Theodore Davis who brought to light important discoveries till at last Mr. Davis relented that the valley held no more tombs.

In these years the team of Lord Carnarvon and excavator Howard Carter made minor discoveries with perhaps the most important being a schoolboys wooden pallet with an inscription copying a stelae of King Khamose. Many in-situ colored and black and white images fill half and full pages making the read easy and young person friendly. It also has to be remembered when reading a fifty-two-year-old book that there have been many discoveries in the intervening years including objects from Tutankhamen's tomb which have been restored since 1963.

The finding of the boy king's tomb in November of 1922 brought 4 rooms filled with treasures of solid gold and gold plate, provisions and a complete or nearly complete set of funerary equipment of a pharaoh of Egypt. The reader is taken through descriptions of the excavation and the various objects discovered within.

Tutankhamen's parentage is presented along with the rise of the Aten being embraced by his potential grandfather Amenhotep III. Here also dealt with is the question of a co-regency between Amenhotep III and his successor Amenhotep IV with a number of scenarios put forward by Mdm. Desroches-Noblecourt without prejudice. In the end, however, the author chooses her preferred contenders to be Tutankhaten's parents.

To clarify the period of the Aten is to view contradictory surviving information into the most plausible scenarios beginning with the city of Akhetaten and its abundantly wealthy nobility exemplified by their tombs. The art of the period bursts forth in the palaces naturalistic, relaxed beauty created by the finest artists in the new style. The records of kings and queens of the royal family constituting Amenophis III, Amenophis IV-Akhenaten, Smenkhkare and Tutankhamen instead of being individuals with clear reigns they become blended as to who starts where and who finishes where within the timeline of co-regencies.

It is funny on facing pages 166 and 167 appear large black and white photographs of Amarna period art of which I have written articles concerning both pieces as fakes. Mdm. Desroches-Noblecourt's knowledge of the monuments is exceptional as is the piecing together of Tutankhamen's life through tomb inscriptions of his officials and his usurped statues and stelae. These being added to by various reliefs left behind in the temples including the Luxor temple.

Upon Tutankhamen's death the burial rituals would have begun immediately as the king's body was taken to the house of embalming, its viscera removed and the corpse made ready to spend forty days drying out in natron. The reader is led through the various provisions needed for the burial including a suitable tomb complete with sarcophagus and shrines.

With the now prepared body, the author recounts the order of wrapping and placing of objects on the pharaohs withered remains. It is the "Divine Father" Ay that officiates at Tutankhamen's funeral as portrayed on the wall of the burial chamber. Articles of funerary equipment found on Tutankhamen's mummy and as part of his canopic ensemble have been retrieved or withheld from the burial of Smenkhkare, which may well have been obtained by Ay for the deceased Tutankhamen's eternal journey.

Mdm. Desroches-Noblecourt's analysis of the contents of the tomb is some of the books most intriguing and ethereal reading, as connections between objects with the places where they should be placed for the betterment of the powers each contain is put forth. As Tutankhamen is left at rest his Queen Ankhesunamen is mentioned only one more time, on a ring in partnership with Tutankhamen's successor Ay.

The author closes off her book with the reign of the Pharaoh Horemheb who was responsible for the defacing of the monuments of the Aten. These defacements include the removing of the temples to the Aten at Karnak and using the blocks as fill in his three pylons built on that site.

It is likely at this time the tomb of Ay in the Valley of Kings was also destroyed. The book ends and is followed by a useful list of the principle people involved in Tutankhamen's life. Lastly, we have notes of the beautiful colored pictures by Dr. Anwar Shoukry.

It would be hard to find another person so knowledgeable about Tutankhamen's life as Mdm. Desroches-Noblecourt, though it is unfortunate that the author's acceptance of familial characters has recently been proved wrong through DNA. In this must-read volume on Tutankhamen, the author has created a triumph by not putting the reader through yet another telling of the tombs discovery in November of 1922. Instead, it is a book about this minor kings life tangled in the sins of his father. Tutankhamen is not for the youngest readers but suitable for teenagers with more mature readers probably getting the most out of it.

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