John Sturgis

The truth about the curse of the pharaohs

100 years after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, why does the myth refuse to die?

  • From Spectator Life
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George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito some time in early March 1923. The bite became infected. By April he was running a high fever, had pneumonia in both lungs and his heart and respiratory systems were failing. He died in a Cairo hospital on 5 April.

His death came less than six months after Howard Carter, the Egyptologist whose excavations Carnarvon was funding, first discovered evidence that there was an undisturbed tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes. That was on 4 November 1922 – 100 years ago this month. A few days later, Carter, Carnarvon and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, had squeezed through a roughly-hewn hole in the wall of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, uncovering its glittering treasures.

And now, just as his triumph was being celebrated globally, Carnarvon was dead, aged only 56. The curse of the pharaohs had struck again. 

I say ‘again’ because despite this being the moment it achieved international notoriety, the notion of a curse by the ancient Egyptians predated Carnarvon by some decades, becoming a staple of 19th century supernatural fiction. His death was simply its apogee. 

Louisa May Alcott, for instance, had written Lost in a Pyramid, or the Mummy’s Curse in 1868 while also working on the rather more enduring Little Women. It features adventurers who disturb the tomb of a long-dead sorceress outside Cairo – and things go rapidly downhill for them from there.   

I first became aware of the curse as a child reading Tintin. There was a lot of Tutankhamun around in the 1970s, but the output of Blue Peter and the like, which were my primary sources, concentrated on the discovery rather than any murderous magic that might have been attached. The Seven Crystal Balls, however, opens with our hero on a train reading a newspaper report about the discovery of pre-Conquistador Inca tombs in Peru.

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