The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor in November 1922 made headlines worldwide. It attracted many people to travel to Egypt to catch a glimpse of this spectacular discovery, and the treasured collection of the golden boy king soon gripped the world.
Tutmania spread in popular culture across the globe, influencing art, fashion, film, music, architecture, advertising, and much more.
Egypt became a tourist destination for many as a result, among them the then Belgian queen Elisabeth who travelled first by train to Italy and then boarded a passenger steamship in Genoa. After a stopover in Naples, she arrived in Alexandria four days later.
Tutankhamun and his tomb filed the newspapers worldwide, and Tutmania is often remembered today. According to an article on the website of the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph called “Tutmania: Why the world went wild for King Tutankhamun”, Lord Carnarvon, the sponsor of the excavations carried out by the tomb’s discoverer Howard Carter, made a deal with the London Times to cover the discovery.
Carnarvon sold the exclusive rights to the newspaper for £5,000, a large amount at the time, to access the tomb and to supply the world’s press with news and photographs of it and its unique collection. “Taking advantage of innovative technology such as the telegraph and moving film, reporters vied to scoop one another as Tutankhamun’s tomb discoverer Howard Carter began the painstaking process of cataloguing Tutankhamun’s possessions,” the article says.
Tutankhamun’s funerary collection also inspired actors, writers, artists, filmmakers and fashion designers. During the 1920s, US magician Charles Joseph Carter named himself and his stage act “Carter the Great”, UK author Richard Goyne made Tutankhamun the main character in a book entitled The Kiss of Pharaoh: The Love Story of Tut-Ankh-Amen, and a song named “Old King Tut” by US songwriters Harry von Tilzer and William Jerome hit the airwaves, along with another called “Old King Tut was a Wise Old Nut.”
In 1932, a horror film entitled The Mummy based on the myth surrounding the death of Carnarvon and the rumour of the mummy’s curse was produced and shown in cinemas worldwide. In 1978, US comedian Steve Martin during his famous “Saturday Night Live” television show performed a song about Tutankhamun that went on to become a top 20 hit.
Tutmania invaded the fashion scene, inspiring fabrics for dresses and coats, leather for handbags, umbrellas, wristbands for gloves and cigarette cases, all displaying ancient Egyptian motifs such as palm trees, lotus blossoms, sphinxes, and hieroglyphic symbols. The women “flappers” of the 1920s in the US invented headbands featuring cobras, kohl eyeliner, and snake bracelets.
Hats and beaded evening dresses embedded with decorative motives depicting objects from the Tutankhamun collection were also made along with walking canes surmounted with the head of an ibis. The US cosmetics manufacturer Helena Rubinstein produced the Valaze Egyptian Face Mask, and the bob haircut was heavily influenced by ancient Egyptian styles. Princess Marie José of Belgium was photographed dressed in lavish style for a Tutankhamun ball in Brussels in 1926.
High-end jewellers fashioned ancient Egyptian-themed adornments, often using motifs from Tutankhamun’s own attire. The French fashion house Cartier designed a dazzling winged scarab pin with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and onyx set in gold, and a clock shaped like the gateway of an ancient Egyptian temple.
Advertising also picked up on Tutmania. Newspaper ads for a typewriter displayed the machine beside a pyramid. Cards depicting the boy king came in cigarette boxes. Lemons were marketed under the “King Tutankhamun brand”. A 1924 French advertising poster for cigarettes was the work of Spanish artist Gaspar Camps, who was greatly influenced by Czech painter Alphonse Mucha, both drawing on ancient Egyptian motifs.
Tutankhamun fever did not fade away even after the initial excitement of the tomb’s discovery faded. In 1972, he and his treasures travelled to London and then around the world for a record-breaking exhibition entitled “Treasures of Tutankhamun”. The exhibition toured six countries over nine years, breaking museum attendance records with people waiting hours to get in.
The same thing happened in 2019, when Tutmania once again took the British capital by storm, as the treasures of the golden boy king Tutankhamun opened at London’s Saatchi Gallery under the title “Tutankhamun, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh”. Streets, shops, buses and metro stations and the façades of buildings, hotels and restaurants across London were plastered with posters of the golden coffin of the boy king, one of the pieces in the exhibition, or of a gilded wooden statuette depicting him riding a black leopard.
Other posters showed the Ka, a wooden guardian statue wearing a gilded headdress and skirt and gold jewellery studded with precious stones.
The golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun and the face of the boy king were on the front pages of many British newspapers and magazines, some of which devoted supplements to the treasures and the discovery of the tomb. Queues of visitors stretched out of the Saatchi Gallery’s doors, waiting for their chance to explore the golden boy king exhibition featuring 150 pieces, 60 of which had never left Egypt before.
The exhibition was the last time Tutankhamun’s treasures were on display in Britain or elsewhere. They returned to Egypt after the completion of the exhibition’s world tour to be put on display at the Grand Egyptian Museum along with the rest of the boy king’s collection where they will soon be magnets for new generations of visitors.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.