RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
"Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" opens today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibition contains a wealth of precious finds from the tombs of King Tut and other royals, treasures dating back 3,300 to 3,500 years. King Tut's tomb was discovered in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter under the patronage of the wealthy British Lord Carnarvon. The opening of that tomb set off a wave of Egyptomania in America: scarab earrings, cobra bracelets, King Tut tombs and mummy movies. It also released the curse of Tut. Anyone who disturbed him in death would die or at least have some very bad luck. The Tut mystique, combined with yards and yards of gold, help make the original Tutankhamun show back in 1979 the first blockbuster art exhibition.
(Soundbite of people at the exhibition)
MONTAGNE: The impresario of this art event is Zahi Hawass, whose impressive title is Egypt's secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. He gave us a tour, beginning at a painted wooden mannequin.
Dr. ZAHI HAWASS (Secretary General, Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities): I think if you talk about my favorite pieces in this exhibit, this is one of them, the mannequin. It's really a masterpiece, very dramatic. It shows King Tut with his beautiful face protected by the cobra. And that's used, you know, for King Tut to put his clothes, his jewelry. It's like a hanging statue for his uniform and jackets. The cobra is in the forehead. It's always habit for kings and it can protect the deceased in the afterlife. Anything dangerous, the cobra will hit him. Then the king can safely travel and live forever.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's proceed.
Dr. HAWASS: After 26 years, King Tut is back, and this time he's back with his family. He's not alone. I think there is three people here that I would like you to meet.
MONTAGNE: Zahi Hawass stops at a display of three exquisitely sculpted figures, all relatives of Tut: the legendary beauty Nefertiti, the pharaoh Amenhotep III and his queen, Tiye.
Dr. HAWASS: Queen Tiye became the most powerful lady on Earth. She was not the ruler, but she was so strong. She made her husband, Amenhotep III, to make her statues equally to him. Always they show the ancient Egyptian ladies in a small size beside the statue, but for this lady she was strong and she was standing or sitting beside the king, equally to the king.
MONTAGNE: Always the same height.
Dr. HAWASS: The same height because she was so powerful and she was so important. The other important thing that I want to really show to you, these two beautiful statues that people will see, Tutankhamun. There, it's made of gold, and this is--he's wearing the crown of Lower Egypt. He's holding a staff in his left hand. He's wearing the sandals. The skirt; it's beautifully decorated. And the other statue is the same with the crown of Upper Egypt.
MONTAGNE: Howard Carter, possibly his most famous comment was--were these words that we're looking at on the wall, `Everywhere the glint of gold.'
Dr. HAWASS: Wonderful things. You know, when Lord Carnarvon asked him--when he looked from a hole inside--and he was looking inside the tomb. And Lord Carnarvon asked him, `What do you see?' He said, `Wonderful things. The glint of gold.' The gold was shining in the tomb.
MONTAGNE: Gold, in fact, helped make the first Tut exhibition such a sensation. The star of that show was an elaborate heavy gold mask that had for a millennia covered the face of the young king's mummy. The gold mask didn't make the trip this time around. The flesh and blood Tut is depicted with large brown eyes, full lips, a receding chin and an elongated head, not as golden as his mask, but touchingly real.
You really do speak of these mummies as if they were people.
Dr. HAWASS: Yes. I believe that mummies can be alive if you understand them. I, myself--for 24 hours, I live with these people because, you know, I excavate, I discover them and I write about them. I always tell people that when I discover something intact and I try--before I open it and I look at it, I cannot explain the passion inside me before I open a coffin or before I enter a sealed tomb.
MONTAGNE: Archaeologist Zahi Hawass.