Re-Discovering Egypt's Boy Pharoah: No Ifs, ands or Tuts

03/03/2016 03:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

There's the impatient saying, TUT TUT; the orchestral term TUTTI; the Olde English game TUT ball. And then of course there's our old pal King TUT.

Tired of red carpets, insulting debates, and droning political pundits? Check out the first replica exhibit of Tut-orama and the newest incarnation of the Egyptian boy wonder: The Discovery of King Tut at midtown Manhattan's Premier Exhibitions space (www.tutnyc.com).

Nope, don't know much about history ... and sure don't know much about Egyptology. But lately I've learned a thing or two about the famous boy pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, who ruled from 1332BC - 1323BC, roughly 30 centuries ago. Who can think back to yesterday, much less 3,000 years ago? All I remember from school field trips to the Museum of Natural History is a few facts:

Egypt was filled with pyramids and feisty pharaohs. Teen-age rulers were the thing. After all, Cleopatra was a mere adolescent when she took the throne. Her brother Ptolemy XIII was 11. England followed suit with Mary (Queen of Scots) Stuart, a sweet 16-year old. And poor Tutankhamun was only 19 when he reached his untimely death.

2016-02-18-1455776293-3067191-Photo.Tut.group.sandals.revIMG_9726.jpg
The Discovery of King Tut, Premier Exhibitions
Photo Credit: Mia Berman

On a timely note, those Egyptians sure might have taught our current politicians a thing or two about poise, patience, and penmanship. 2016-02-18-1455778323-5350085-Tut.Hieroglyphs.TombofRamses6ValleyofKings.icias.comcopy.jpgAfter all, the art of reading, writing, and hieroglyph-ing took tremendous talent...and time. They could have influenced today's teens to stop texting and use some face-to-face time. More dialogue-ing, less thumbing. They could have taught our presidential candidates to stop whining and start admiring. Less nonsense, more reverence.

Hieroglyphs. Tomb of Ramses 6 Valley of Kings
http://i-cias.com/e.o/hieroglyphs.htm

Okay, so maybe I do remember a few more details. Tutankhamun was an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, during the period of Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom. Colloquially he was called King Tut.

Tut. Sounds simple. One syllable. Tut-ally symmetrical. And uniquely descriptive. In the literary classic Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin clucked, "Tut tut it looks like rain." And our old friend Dr. Seuss uses it in Horton Hatches an Egg when Mayzie implores an elephant to sit on a nest to give her a break:

"Tut, tut," answered Mayzie. "I know you're not small
But I'm sure you can do it. No trouble at all.
Just sit on it softly. You're gentle and kind.
Come, be a good fellow. I know you won't mind."

Way before these literary references, Tut was simply known as an exotic teen King. Recently there's been a lot of hooplah over a possible discovery that might identify Queen Nefertiti in the tomb with the King. And yes, I've checked out Dr. Nicholas Reeves' hypotheses and Dr. Zahi Hawass' scientific mummy project, CT scans and all. But after wading through scads of statistics gleaned from historians, librarians, Egyptologists, archaeologists, philologists, gemologists, and meteorologists, I've plucked this profound statement from the piles:

What's definite is that nothing is definite.

- Dr. David Silverman, Head Curator, Egyptian Collection, Univ. of Pennsylvania

Look, I went to an Ivy League school, but even my over-curious brain can't fathom all the 411 about Tut 2016-02-18-1455778703-332406-Photo.Tut.falconrev.IMG_9735copycopy.jpgand the discovery of his sealed tomb. Who knew that it took 70 days to mummify? Check out the 1,000+ reproduced artifacts in the current Discovery of King Tut-o-sphere. In today's lingo, I'd say, it's huuuuge.

Yup. There's everything in this first Tut replica exhibit from golden fingertips to gilded cedar shrines, chariots to castanets, ebony thrones to leopard skinned stools, falcons to fetuses.

Artifact Replica Falcon Necklace
The Discovery of King Tut, Premier Exhibitions

It's all about rituals, from reincarnation to resurrection. The tomb (miraculously preserved for 3,000 years) contained shrines of solid gold, weighing over 200 pounds, decorated with divine cobras. And then of course, the Pièce de Resistance: the 24-pound gold and lapis lazuli mask protecting King Tut's head.

2016-02-21-1456085371-2263484-Tut.GoldenMask.copy
Replica of King Tut's Golden Mask, The Discovery of King Tut, Premier Exhibitions

Check out Tut's gilded coffins, housed snugly inside each other, nesting-doll style (think Russian porcelain dolls within dolls) 2016-02-18-1455783559-1973058-Tut.Russiannestingdolls.copy.jpg, then lowered into a heavy, rectangular sarcophagus of red granite and yellow quartzite. And let's not forget the corners, adorned with relief carvings of protective goddesses Isis, Nepthet, Selket, and Neit.

Dig It! Carter, the Cairo-practor
To sum up, here's what we've got: one young Tut kid king rivaling boy wonder Michael Jackson; one persistent archaeology buff named 2016-02-28-1456670754-6519117-TutCarterrevSMALLIMG_97391copy.JPGHoward Carter (sort of a 1920's starving artist), obsessed with the pursuit of King Tut's tomb until the ultimate discovery in November, 1922 in the Valley of Kings; one long hot trek from the excavation digging site to Cairo; one race car fanatic-turned-philanthropist -- George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who traveled to Egypt after a racing car accident, met Carter, became his sole benefactor (think Bill Gates), and financed the excavation in Thebes...until the funds ran out. Enter Harry Burton, one eager archivist/photographer, and presto: Team Tutankhamun!

Howard Carter, recovery of Tutankhamen treasures, Carter #254
Photo Credit: Harry Burton

2016-02-18-1455774767-6207245-Photo.Tut.Procession.IMG_9738copy.JPG
Crated artifacts en route to Cairo Museum, along the Nile River
Photo Credit: Harry Burton

2016-02-18-1455776334-9682057-Photo.Tut.Karnavanrev.IMG_9737.jpg
Lord Carnarvon (George Herbert)
Photo Credit: Harry Burton

The Drama of Tut-O-Rama
Yup. We've got ourselves one pop culture phenomenon of Egypt-o-mania, from the striped headdress to the gold leaf coated replica of Selket, the goddess who guarded the shrine containing the pharaoh's organs; one semi-cult of Tut-maniacs intrigued by the rituals and the razzma-TUT-tazz of it all.

I learned about major '70's Tut-mania in America, which peaked in 1978 at NYC's Metropolitan Museum, the last stop of the epic Treasures of Tutankhamun six-city tour. (That exhibit contained 55 real objects from Tut's tomb, straight from the Museum of Cairo). The line of "Tut-maniacs" extended from the museum's entrance on 5th Avenue from 82nd Street down to 59th street. Everyone who was anyone was there, including Liz Taylor, Robert Redford, Nancy Reagan, Andy Warhol, Patty Hearst (shortly before she was whisked off to jail) and Cher.

Wild & Crazy Tut
Remember comedian Steve Martin's memorable King Tut routine with his zany lyrics (How'd you get so funky)? Even hip-hop dance took up the cause with Tutting (a style of popping your hands and arms at right angles in sync to the beat) that imitated the choreography of funk band King Boogaloo Tut.

Musical Tut
Iconic 70's band Earth Wind & Fire had record album covers (I Am and All 'n All) inspired by Egyptian Tut-esque themes. 2016-02-28-1456620891-7940517-Photo.Tut.EWFAllnAllalbumcovercopy.jpeg
And in the realm of intrigue, Rapper NAS had a bizarre problem when a clay mold of Tut's golden mask was designed for his own album art. Some residue of clay got stuck in his nostril, blocking his breathing momentarily.

Earth Wind & Fire All 'N All album cover
Shsei Nagaoka, artist

Foreign Policy Tut
Tut may have changed the face of American history. On his last overseas trip to Egypt (1974), former President Richard Nixon 2016-02-18-1455782018-350883-Tut.NixonSadatrev1974ReneBurri.copy2.jpgbefriended Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The White House administration helped divert the focus off of Watergate with the signing of an agreement to allow the King Tut treasures to travel to America. Was this a case of Wa-Tut-ergate?

Richard Nixon and Anwar Sadat, 1974
Photo Credit: Rene Burri

Hollywood to Home Decor Tut
In the Golden 20's, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks attended an elaborate exhibit created for movie theater mogul Sidney Grauman's Egyptian Theater, a gaudy tribute to Egyptian art and architecture, with stones, scarabs, pillars, and sphinx heads. In the 1970's, Bloomingdale's touted a line of Tut-inspired linens and home design accessories, with I  ❤ New York spelled out in hieroglyphics. Margaux Hemingway wore a hieroglyph-imprinted dress to a celebrity wedding in Beverly Hills. And, most recently, Spike TV broadcast Tut, the mini-series, starring Ben Kingsley.

Pharaoh Photo Finish
Harry Burton, a photographer on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, brought Carter's discoveries to life, vividly documenting the excavation. He was there to capture Carter's first candlelit entry into the tomb: "everywhere, the glint of gold." Headlines started popping up: "TUT-ANKH-AMEN." Sounds like a rather exotic end of a prayer, don't you think?

Back on the Track with Museum Hack
Bopping along the Discovery trail, I found the mesmerizing Tut exhibit -- skillfully designed by Rainer Verbizh -- filled with eye-popping life-size tombs and masterfully reproduced memorabilia, down to the precious detail of Tut's grandma's lock of hair. I listened to a most informative and synchronistic audio tape, presented at the start of the two-floor loop. Kudos to Verbizh and Mark Lach, Creative Director, Premier Exhibitions (which includes the quirky Saturday Night Live exhibit), for an artful blend of the space's whimsy and wonder.

Alas, even the most passionate and eager sphinx wanna-bees amongst us get a tad weary. Just when you thought it impossible to drag through one more dark corridor of tombs and chambers, Surprise! It's none other than Museum Hack, created to assist the cranky. I joined an otherwise bleary-eyed tour group, and yes, I was stunned. All of the kids were wide-eyed. Museum Hack (www.museumhack.com) is a genius concept to make museums fun. Philosophy? "People are people," regardless of what century. Their special formula to fight museum fatigue is "subversive and non-traditional." They've conquered the unconquerable -- what no other parent, teacher or guide has managed to do. Museum Hack puts an end to boring tours, endless exhibition dioramas, plaques and verbiage. Museum Hack performs "MUMMY RAP" lyrics about Tut and his tomb, bringing dust and death back to life. They make ancient history scintillating, describing identifiable stuff, from make-up to mistakes.

Museum Hack is reverently irreverent. Team members toss out fun facts, much easier to absorb than abstract theories. I for one learned that coal and malachite, used for make-up, were alkaloids, which prevented infections from Nile river floods. Museum Hack translated the archeological string-of-bad-luck curse into "bad things happen to dig people." Bex, Harry and Evan used that famous children's origami paper fortuneteller game to link each tour group member to a King Tut character.

2016-02-22-1456184359-1846026-Tut.origamifortuneteller.KimberlyMathison.400x400jpg.jpg
Credit: Kimberly Mathison

They also gave us the dirt on the famous King Tut mask. Apparently workers handling the delicate artifact accidentally knocked off the long braided beard, then glued it back on rather sloppily. Just can't get quality labor these days. How'd we ever get those pyramids built?!

2016-02-18-1455778213-1772548-PHoto.TutMiaRev1.IMG_9745copy.jpg
King Tut kitsch with Mia Berman at Premier Exhibitions store

BFF's Kim, Chloe & Cleopatra
There were no Kardashians back then, but cheek and lip color were a must for the Egyptians, just like today's teens and millennials. The colorful green eye paint and black kohl appeal to all ages. Museum Hack passes around the malachite, so we can touch and feel the sparkly green stone used for cosmetics. Their m.o.? Bring the obscure back to reality with tidbits about family, friends and eyeliner.

O.C.D. - Obstinate Compelled & Determined aka Obsessive Collector & Discoverer
Indeed, Howard Carter was obsessive about his search (He started at 17; King Tut died at 19). Perhaps Carter identified with his intriguing subject's age. After rising to Chief Inspector of Antiquities for Upper Egypt, his career was cut to the quick. Against all odds (lack of funds, intensive heat), and a slew of bizarre mishaps (a cobra killed his canary, for one), he pressed on.

Mortality, Spirituality & Eternity
These young Egyptian royals didn't seem to be endlessly searching for the meaning of life. They weren't desperate to find a guru, a yoga group or a Zen monastery. They already had their spiritual mentors like Aten, the sun God, and Ka, the spirit force of the deceased. The funerary culture was essential to sustain KT, the eternal spirit. Amongst the burial rituals, the Egyptians used red jasper amulets and falcon plumage to guarantee smooth sailing into the afterlife, cosmically protected by Isis, mother-goddess of magic, wisdom, and life.

A Gory Story of Glory
Let's face it. 2016-02-21-1456085288-7187727-Photo.Tut.skeletonrev.IMG_9731copy.jpg Morbid makes an impact. The Discovery of King Tut teaches us that poor boy Tut might have met an untimely, rather unpleasant, violent end. I first learned about splinters found in Tut's skull, which might indicate a treacherous attack, along with a knee injury and possible malaria infection. I never really understood routine mummification, which included the use of resin, removal of Tut's entrails--cut from the navel to the left thigh--and an empty skull. Some of Tut's vital organs are contained in "coffinettes" in the tomb, which makes The Addams Family look like The Sound of Music.

King Tut's Skeleton, The Discovery of King Tut, Premier Exhibitions

Far, Phar-aoh Ahead of Their Time
3,000 years ago the Egyptians seemed more advanced than today's scientific experts. They could have been professors, nutritionists, pharmacologists or micro-biologists. Just ask Dr. David P. Silverman, curator of the original Treasures of Tutankhamun and University of Pennsylvania Curator-in-Charge of the Egyptian Collection. According to Dr. (and Professor) Silverman, the medical texts describe some pretty sophisticated stuff. They indicate knowledge of holistic as well as scientific methods of treating symptoms. No prescription pads, I imagine. But "they used honey -- a good source of keeping away infections...they ate days' old bread, which we associate with mold...(it's) practically penicillin...and they knew about contraceptives."

As for career options? They could have chosen cosmetology or dermatology. There was no SPF # in Egyptian suntan lotion, as far as I know. But the soot in kohl helped prevent damaging effects of sun glare on their eyes. Way ahead of Revlon or L'Oreal, the Egyptians were savvy in skincare, creating a remedy for burns by mixing mixed cheek and lip stain; and improving skin with red natron, northern salt and honey. No wonder the medical world took the name Mt. Sinai -- the sacred Egyptian site -- as one of the most prominent hospitals in New York City.

Riddle of the Sphinx - What's Certain is Uncertain
Egyptians, as Dr. Silverman explains, considered the healing effects of foods, minerals and cosmetics as much magical as medical. So, who said science was exact?

Ok, dare I say it? Professor Silverman, in his massive wisdom of the World of Tut, seems a reincarnation of the sphinx itself. Like the fluidity of the Nile, he states that "everything in Egyptology changes." Theories rise and set like the sun. Even after the 2010 DNA analysis of the two mummified stillborn children, it's definite that there are no definites. They may, or may not, be his daughters. One of two older female mummies may, or may not, be Queen Nefertiti. And, to make things more complex, Nefertiti may have become King for a short time under another name. She was discovered to have worn men's clothing (trans-gender roles were common), way ahead of George Sand, Gertrude Stein and Diane (Annie Hall) Keaton. Once again, way ahead of their Tut-ankhamen time.

Sarcophagi & Stylists - Fashion Week at the Nile
Tom Ford? Valentino? Chanel? Hotsox? 2016-02-28-1456667289-8382511-Tut.HotSoxRevSmall.IMG_97802copy.jpgThese Egyptians could have been Fashion Week consultants, considering their intricate designs, patterns, stripes, and use of color...and of course, their sophistication with cosmetics. Beauty was a sign of holiness. They used the Henna plant for hair dye and nail polish, and red ochre from clay for face, cheek and lip makeup.

Manolo Blahnik, 2016-02-19-1455903185-6010193-Photo.KingTut.Sandals.IMG_99532.jpg eat your heart out. The golden sandals that adorned the royalty's feet were elegant but flat...I don't really think Queen Nefertiti or King Tut had much need for 6" heels.

King Tut's sandals reproduction, The Discovery of King Tut
Photo Credit: Mia Berman