To the Ancient Egyptians, death was the most sublime of states. The sacred journey of a soul into the afterlife was one that need not be perturbed, ever. And it was up to the priests to enshrine the tombs in which kings and queens were buried from any outside disturbance, for all eternity. A person who willingly disrupted the pharaohs’ slumber would have certain calamity befall him or her – be it sudden death or the onset of an inexplicable disease, the end for those who disturb ancient tombs is far from pretty.
The curse of the pharaoh as a concept arguably entered popular consciousness in the 20th Century, particularly with Howard Carter’s landmark discovery of King Tut’s tomb. While his astonishing work in the field of Egyptology earned him worldwide renown, his findings heralded the beginning of the end for him and his colleagues, all of whom died under mysteriously tragic circumstances.
Since then, numerous stories have circulated in pop culture regarding the curse of the pharaohs. And the misfortune befalling those who dared to disturb an ancient Egyptian crypt remain a haunting warning for future intruders. The following are some of the best known curses to emerge from beyond the grave.
Howard Carter – Where It All Began
Popular belief in a pharaoh’s curse began in earnest when the public became aware of the mysterious deaths of members in Egyptologist Howard Carter’s team, soon after opening the tomb of King Tut in 1922 – one of the century’s most renowned archaeological discoveries.
When the erstwhile boy king’s tomb was found, journalists reported that the following inscription was on the door: “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King.”
The first deathly occurrence to beset members of Carter’s team was that of his beloved canary. Carter had sent a messenger to run an errand for his home, and upon entering the abode, the boy said he heard a small, human-like cry. He looked, and found that the birdcage once housing the canary now occupied a frightening cobra – which, incidentally, symbolizes the Egyptian monarchy. The cobra swallowing the hapless bird whole fueled locals’ rumors of a curse, one that was beginning to run a thread of evil throughout Carter’s immediate circle.
But perhaps the first truly mysterious death was that of Carter’s benefactor and companion on the excavation, Lord Carnarvon. The English nobleman had been bitten by a mosquito, and later accidentally slashed the bite while shaving. The cut quickly became infected, resulting in blood poisoning, killing Carnarvon. In an eerie twist, an autopsy performed on King Tut’s mummy found a similar lesion on his cheek. To make things even more frightening, the lights in Carnarvon’s home suddenly went out when he died, with virtually no explanation.
Others who had accompanied Carter on his dig – George Jay Gould, Audrey Herbert, Hugh Evelyn-White, Aaron Ember, and Archibald Douglas Reed – are all said to have died soon after coming into close contact with King Tut. The media frenzy in the 1920s focused on these mysterious deaths, leading to further paranoia. So much so that Italian leader Benito Mussolini, who at one point had accepted an Egyptian mummy as a gift, ordered its immediate removal from his palace, as he feared he would be its next victim.
Walter Bryan Emery and Osiris
British Egyptologist Walter Bryan Emery was at the top of his game in March 1971, which found him in the middle of an excavation at Sakkara. In his late 60s, the former marine-engineer turned archaeologist made enormous headway in the study of Nubia, Luxor, and Thebes.
During the dig at Sakkara, he came across a small statue of the Egyptian god of death, Osiris. At the end of the long, arduous day, he returned to his office accompanied by his assistant, taking the statue with him.
What happened next is terrifying in its unfathomable nature: upon entering the office, Emery disappeared into the restroom. Shortly thereafter, his assistant began to hear his superior wailing from within, in a pained howl unlike anything he had ever heard. He ran to the bathroom and found Emery clutching the sink, sweaty and trembling. Even upon several entreaties to explain what was the matter, Emery stood silently, a breathless shell of his former self.
His assistant ran and asked for help, but it was to no avail. Emery was diagnosed with paralysis on the right side of his body, rendering him unable to speak. He collapsed into death the following day.
The Titanic and the Wrathful Mummy
While the Titanic disaster is often attributed to an iceberg and a general lack of experience on the crew’s part, there is another story lurking just underneath the common narrative.
One night early on during the Titanic’s journey, English journalist and Spiritualist William T. Stead held court amongst a small group of friends, discussing the meaning of life and death; an existential conversation meant to while away the time.
William then proceeded to share with his friends the ghostly curse of a mistreated mummy by the name of Princess Amen-Ra – whom he assured his fellow passengers was sharing their quarters on the very same ship.
Apparently, a rich English nobleman on holiday in Egypt bought the elegantly carved case bearing the Princess’ mummy, and planned to take it back home with him on the Titanic. William whispered to his incredulous friends that the mummy’s case bore a murderous inscription wishing violent death upon all those who dared to disturb the mummy’s slumber. So far, the mummy claimed three lives of those who helped drag it away from its tomb, each dying under mysterious circumstances. And its wrathful spirit was lying still within the Titanic as they spoke, waiting to claim its next victim.
William’s friends stared at him: could there be such a thing? Was the curse of the pharaohs real? And how could their acquaintance so easily believe in such nonsense?
Sadly, the group did not get a chance to wonder much longer. Seven out of the eight chatting on that fateful night died shortly thereafter when the Titanic sunk, along with William himself.
Film Set Shenanigans
1963 saw the production of one of Egyptian cinema’s most beloved romantic comedies, Bride of the Nile. Starring the leading actress of her time, Lobna Abdel Aziz, the film told the story of an archaeologist working in an area of upper Egypt known to be the site of many hauntings by ancient “Nile Brides;” beautiful creatures who roam the verdant river, dreaming of an eternity of love. The archaeologist – Roshdy Abaza – is hounded by the spirit of a bride – Lobna – who chases him all over the country, but he ends up falling in love with her despite himself.
The film’s slight plot and general sense of giddy silliness masks the turmoil of what took place onset, as what was meant to be a quick 3 month shoot turned into a 6 month production from hell.
While much of the film was shot in studios in the center of Cairo, there were a number of sequences that made tremendous use of the country’s rich Egyptian heritage, filmed alongside tombs and ancient temples.
According to popular conjecture, this led the film’s production to be beset by a number of unfortunate accidents. First off, the movie’s titular bride, Lobna, fell ill with pneumonia, forcing her to be hospitalized several times during the production. This even led to the hiring of a special on-call doctor onset, and the building of a fully equipped “emergency room” inside the studio.
The streak of bad luck continued as huge photography cranes crashed suddenly into the ground, the camera shattered into thousands of pieces – almost as though spontaneously combusting – and one of the main sets collapsed on some of the actors during a scene.
The star of the film has gone on record stating that she never indulged in superstitions regarding the curse of the pharaohs till production of Bride of the Nile commenced, and the series of paranormal incidents it incurred. The film’s crew often jokingly blamed her for the disastrous events, since the movie was Lobna’s idea, and the director was her husband at the time.
Curse of the Undead
While modern science has perhaps validated the notion of a pharaoh’s curse, by explicating the very real ways in which people have died by entering a tomb – malignant forms of bacteria breeding on its walls led to everything from damaged eyesight to complete paralysis – there remains a spectacularly spooky sense of the mysterious and unknown.
Perhaps this is due in part to the idea of trespassing the sacred realm of the dead. Ancient Egyptian tombs were resplendent with gold and every form of finery, intended to make the fearful journey into the afterlife comfortable and less traumatic. It is no wonder then, that those who have carelessly chosen to disturb this process – be they thieves or archaeologists – are punished so severely for rupturing the peaceful silence.