Egyptomania: Enough with the West's mummy obsession
A new orientalist show that we didn’t ask for is coming to North America. Make way for Beyond King Tut: the Immersive Experience, a fancy production scheduled to premiere at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, in June.
Using ridiculously inflated 21st-century marketing codes, the show’s website is a single landing page that prompts interested viewers to sign up and join a waitlist. Not much is revealed about the show itself which remains suggestively mysterious matching an over-exploited, exoticised mystique of ancient Egypt. A loud, sensational slogan in capital letters, unimaginatively describes the production as “a ground-breaking immersive exhibition. The 100 year anniversary of the discovery. A story 3,300 years in the making.”
The anniversary the show’s announcement refers to the so-called discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter. After years of excavations in the Valley of Kings, Carter and his team found the tomb and broke its sacred seal in the early afternoon of 17 February 1923. There, the British tomb raider recorded over 5,000 artefacts, many of which have continuously toured the world since 1960s, drawing the curiosity of millions of visitors.
''This sadly points out to a deeper problem, which is that the West commonly prefers our past to our present and conveniently adores our dead more than our living bodies – especially if they commit the crime of leaving hardship in their homelands for a better life. We’re more endearing as bizarre creatures than relatable humans.''
This craze has taken its toll on the site itself, since it had to be closed for a decade recently, due to tourism deteriorating the tomb’s fragile conditions.
“One of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time,” the National Geographic Society writes, is also seeped in the legacies of imperial-era looting and a media-created cult. Summarising it so simplistically evades questions of critical historiography and glamorises questionable ethics.
A virtual reality experience additionally offers contemporary viewers the opportunity to re-enact the desecration of the tomb, as part of Beyond King Tut. Adding to this unsettling scenography, English actor Hugh Bonneville will voice part of this “content” because one obviously needs the voice of a white British man to grant entertainment a more serious BBC-like informational feel.
King Tut stands for the diminutive form of the Egyptian pharaoh’s name –Tutankhaten during his lifetime, then changed to Tutankhamun after his passing. By calling him King Tut, organisers impose on us a layer of unwelcomed familiarity, and in doing so trivialise a divine head of state to the realm of fabricated stardom and football games on a Sunday. Would they name a show about the Queen Beyond Liz?
Tutankhamun, son of religious revolutionary pharaoh Akhenaten, ruled for nine short years and likely died at the age of 18 or 19. In this time, Tutankhamun restored the old gods and traditions, and moved the capital city of his empire back to Waset (today’s Luxor), from Akhetaten during his father’s reign. In modern parlance, Tutankhamun’s early political decisions were reactionary. He mended diplomatic ties and his early death marked the end of the royal line of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt.
For the public, Tutankhamun’s story is that of a boy turned ruler.
Immersive art shows are trendy and consolidate financially-lucrative dominant narratives. Thanks to previous world tours and the fictitious curse of the pharaoh, Tutankhamun is a rare household name. Beyond King Tut largely echoes this, in being a Western show for and by people in the West who have an intimate understanding of what this audience is likely to appreciate, and therefore buy into.
But the trend isn’t new. Since Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-99), the West continuously keeps modern Egyptomania popular, replicating through culture a certain exotic image of the land and its history that mainly gravitates on the weird, fabulous and distinctively foreign.
Tutankhamun’s golden funerary mask, which is the visual centre-piece of the Beyond King Tut show, is not the same inanimate object as a painting like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Nights. It’s an artefact that belongs to sacred funerary practices which have been violated. And, given the Western macabre records in exhibiting stolen artefacts in museums, human remains, cosplaying imperial looters on social media and morbidly engaging in dubious facial reconstructions of mummies in a phrenology-inspired obsession, this alone is deeply disturbing in 2022.
This sadly points out to a deeper problem, which is that the West commonly prefers our past to our present and conveniently adores our dead more than our living bodies – especially if they commit the crime of leaving hardship in their homelands for a better life.
We’re more endearing as bizarre creatures than relatable humans.
Shows such as Beyond Monet and Beyond Van Gogh have sold over three million tickets worldwide. Before Covid-19, the MENA was the only region of the world with rising poverty levels, according to the World Bank. Imagine how much Beyond King Tut, given its size, visibility, and expected commercial success could contribute to the livelihoods of local guides, artisans and people who rely on tourism and real-life visitors?
“The discovery of the intact tomb of King Tut captured the imagination of the world, and the mysteries surrounding the tomb still resonate today,” the National Geographic Society writes. Which world exactly?
Expensive attempts at recreating Pharaonic grandeur, such as the farcical Pharaohs’ Golden Parade in 2021 or the partnership between the National Geographic Society and the American Research Center in Egypt are not relevant, let alone important concerns for Egyptians. Addressing the possible fall out of the war in Ukraine on bread prices and unrealised promises from the Arab Spring, are far more pressing issues. This is especially that case given that 50% of Egypt’s state and private sector wheat imports come from Russia, and 30% from Ukraine. An immersive reality indeed.
Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia.
Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.