The Curse of the Victorians in Egypt: Tourists on the Nile
Rebecca Bruce | Nottingham Trent University
Egypt, land of the pharaohs, ancient gods, and the immortal dead. A place where science, magic, and mummification were studied and practised so that spirits entered the Afterlife. However, what happened when the dead were disturbed, and how did they get their revenge on those who awakened them? The 'Curse of Tutankhamun' hit the headlines in 1922 when Howard Carter and his financial backer, Lord Carnarvon, discovered his tomb and mummy in the Valley of the Kings. Carnarvon would die in mysterious circumstances before laying eyes on the young pharaoh’s mummy, stirring superstition of an ancient curse resurrected. Could this curse be revenge for how the Victorians treated the ancient dead?
Our obsession with ancient Egypt has been commonly known as ‘Egyptomania’, a ‘craze’ in Victorian society which peaked at various waves of popularity throughout the 1800s. Explorers, such as Giovanni Battista Belzoni, documented and published their adventures and discoveries in Egypt, which contributed significantly to Egyptomania. (1) Belzoni was an Italian circus-strong man turned proto-Egyptologist and explorer employed by the British Consul in Egypt; his adventurous tales of a land home to temples, treasures, and mummies captured the Victorian imagination, creating an audacious and exciting view of Egypt waiting to be explored. In addition to his adventures, Belzoni also exhibited a replica of Seti I’s tomb in 1821 in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, a successful public event that intrigued Victorian society further with the lure of the Nile. In 1822, a French linguist named Jean-François Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone, and with it, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. This furthered Egyptology as not only a discipline but also the wave of Egyptomania that had seized the British public since Belzoni’s exhibition. Travellers, archaeologists, and Egyptologists continued to explore Egypt bringing extensive collections of ancient Egyptian antiquities to the British Museum. The public were in constant awe of the magnitude of ancient Egypt, so it was only a matter of time before they wanted to explore Egypt themselves.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the popular travel company, Thomas Cook and Son, transformed Egypt into the ‘ultimate’ tourist destination. This meant that tourists could travel to and experience Egypt, an exciting and unique prospect that led to unruly consequences. Cook's paddle steamers were incredibly popular with Victorian tourists; they could travel on the Nile and see a number of historic sites, including ancient temples and ruins, within a limited amount of time. They were also known to partake in more unusual trips; not all mummies were buried in tombs; some were buried in pits of various sizes in the ground named ‘mummy pits’ where tourists could visit and ‘discover’ a mummy of their own.
Although this may appear as a morbid excursion by today’s standards, tourists were taken by ‘mummymania’. It is well known that the ancient Egyptians practised mummification, the process of posthumously preserving a body using various preservatives and techniques to create an ‘idealised image’ of the deceased so they could travel to the afterlife and live on after death. It was common for tourists to go into the tombs and pits, but it was also known for them to even picnic in and around the tombs and pits as if disturbing the dead was no more than their lunch-time entertainment.
The mummy became the fascination of tourists and, unfortunately, the ultimate souvenir from their time in Egypt. Although illegal and unethical, the mummy trade in Egypt was lucrative, promoted by tourists who wanted to take a mummy (or a piece of one) home with them. Both travellers and tourists were known to smuggle mummies and mummy parts back to Europe. Apparently, even Napoleon Bonaparte took a mummified head back home as a present for his wife. It was also common for mummies to contain amulets, jewels, scarabs, and other funerary artifacts used for protection, safety, and other powers to aid the deceased’s safe travel to the afterlife. These artefacts were also highly sought-after ‘souvenirs’ for tourists to take home with them. Egyptologist and traveller Amelia Edwards famously declared in her book, A Thousand Miles Up The Nile (1877), her disgust at the scenes of tourists taking part in this unethical practice:
acquiring, however, a taste for scarabs and funerary statuettes, they soon begin to buy with eagerness the spoils of the dead; finally, they forget all their former scruples and ask no better fortune than to discover and confiscate a tomb for themselves.
-Amelia Edwards, A Thousand Miles Up The Nile)
However, Edwards also ‘acquired’ mummies, famously having two mummified heads, which she told people she kept in her wardrobe.
In addition to excursions to mummy pits where they could take a literal piece of ancient Egypt home with them, tourists could also leave a part of them behind. One popular excursion for tourists was to climb the pyramids, now an illegal activity. Even Thomas Cook’s tours, some of which only lasted six days, made sure to include a visit to the pyramids. Some tourists, however, took this one step further and carved their names or initials into the ancient stone, sometimes even destroying hieroglyphics.
However, they were not the only ones to do this; years prior, Belzoni carved his name into various archaeological sites and antiquities, including the pyramid at Kephren, the Ramesseum temple, and the colossus bust of Ramesses II, also known as the ‘Younger Memnon,’ which still resides in the British Museum to this day. In addition to Belzoni, many travellers and explorers also carved their names in ancient sites and artefacts to claim ‘ownership’. Tourists, however, were marking a historical monument as a way of preserving their own time in Egypt, so much so that today their graffiti has become a part of history itself.
Tourists and travellers arguably cursed Egypt with unethical and immoral behaviour. Their attitudes towards an ancient civilisation and its dead were less than dignified. The curses of Egyptomania and mummymania were at the front of the Victorian imagination, leading to a lucrative mummy trade, and unethical antiquities market, the destruction of ancient monuments, and the mummified dead themselves.
It is, therefore, not surprising that rumours of a curse began to spread within Victorian society. Before the curse of Tutankhamun, other stories of curses became prominent. In the British Museum, there is a mummy board, easily missed and not as grand or intriguing as some of the other Egyptian artefacts in their collection. Although the mummy is absent, the board nicknamed the 'Unlucky Mummy' holds a supposed dark past. Some believe it caused the deaths of a handful of men, was responsible for the sinking of the Titanic and is rumoured to have started a world war with its presence. Wallis Budge, an Egyptologist, philologist, and Orientalist who worked for the British Museum, published a disclaimer stating that the curse was untrue. However, the story of the curse was covered in 1909 in Pearson’s Magazine, furthering the public’s intrigue and adding to the Egyptomania craze.
Another rumour of a curse came in the form of a mummified hand. According to legend, in 1925, a story arose of a Sir Bruce Ingram acquiring a mummified hand (some reports even say from Howard Carter himself) with a bracelet attached to its wrist. Ingram apparently used the hand as a paperweight, but the bracelet came with a warning: “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence.” Allegedly, Ingram's house burned down in a fire, so he rebuilt it, only for it to be destroyed by flood. Ingram evidently got rid of the hand before the pestilence could come for him. This story has little evidence to support these claims, but stories were still whispered.
The most infamous curse of Egypt, however, is that of Tutankhamun. After opening the tomb, Lord Carnarvon became ill and died with no apparent explanation. His dog, Susie, back home in Britain, howled at the exact second when Carnarvon died and then dropped dead herself. Carter’s own canary is said to have been eaten by a cobra at the opening of the tomb, and an unexplained power outage in Cairo also took place. A further eight people connected to the tomb would die within twelve years of its discovery. However, in addition to the little evidence to support the claims listed above, it has also been suggested that Carnarvon actually died from an infected mosquito bite, and other explanations for the subsequent deaths have been theorised to include natural causes, harmful mould spores, or underlying health conditions. It cannot be proved for sure the cause of Carnarvon's death, but under the circumstances, his death fuelled rumours of ancient curses, which then further contributed to Egyptomania.
But what of the tourists? Tourists had a detrimental effect on Egypt in the nineteenth-century. Amelia Edwards was concerned with the amount of damage done to ancient ruins and so decided to found The Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) in 1882 with Reginald Stuart Poole. Although Edwards herself was problematic in areas, she wanted to create the EEF to ensure the preservation of ancient Egyptian monuments. Furthermore, the EEF also funded excavations to explore ancient Egypt and contribute towards defining Egyptology as a scholarly discipline. However, by the time the EEF was founded by Edwards, years of destruction had also occurred by European travellers and tourists. Although the EEF contributed to a more ethical investigation of ancient Egypt, it still retained some outdated attitudes, including colonialist and imperialistic values. The presence of tourists in Egypt changed its landscape and caused irreparable damage to the mummified dead and desecrated an ancient culture. The Fund is still active today, now named The Egyptian Exploration Society, which aims to conserve ancient sites, funds research and excavations, educates others about Egypt and the Middle East, and corrects outdated attitudes. Additional projects, organisations, and museums continue to work to correct the wrongs of Victorian tourists and pave the way for a moral study of Egypt, and for a more ethical modern Egyptomania.
(1) Giovanni Battista Belzoni, Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia: And of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice; and Another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon, (London: J. Murray, 1820)
Roger Luckhurst, The Mummy’s Curse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)
Andrew Humphreys, On The Nile: The Golden Age of Travel (Cairo: American University Press, 2015)
Amelia Edwards, A Thousand Miles Up The Nile (1887)
Nicky Nielsen, Egyptomaniacs: How We Became Obsessed with Ancient Egypt (Pen & Sword Books, 2020)
Anthony Sattin, Lifting the Veil: Two Centuries of Travellers, Traders and Tourists in Egypt (London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2011)
Rebecca Bruce is a PhD student who focuses on nineteenth-century travel narratives, the Victorian perception of ancient Egyptian mummies, and the consequences of Egyptomania in Victorian Britain. She is particularly interested in the concept of ‘travel and the body,’ the ethics of displaying mummies in museums, and mummy Gothic fiction. She is also the co-founder and co-chair of ISSE, the International Society for the Study of Egyptomania (est. 2021). Twitter: @gothicbookworm