DENVER - In the United States, King Tut is the most famous of all the Egyptian pharaohs. In Egypt, it's a different story.

"We don't pay that much attention to him," said Amira el Nakeeb, travel writer for Cairo's Al-Ahram Weekly Newspaper. "He's not that important."

Historically speaking, el Nakeeb is spot on.The boy pharaoh ruled for just a decade and died as the result of some kind of accident at about age 19.

For political/cultural reasons rooted in the ancient Egyptian religion, his successors did their best to purge him from history, going as far as to put their names on some of the statues that were made to commemorate Tutankhamun, who was born about 1343 B.C. and was pharaoh from about 1333 B.C. to his death in about 1324 B.C.

But Tut's historical obscurity is very likely one of the main reasons he is the best known of the pharaohs in the West. His deeply hidden tomb was never plundered by raiders who stole and sold the treasures within the other burial spaces in the Valley of Kings.

That left Tut's intact tomb to be unearthed by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, a discovery that drew international attention, starting the fascination with all things Tut.

Fast-forward to 1975, when Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas Hoving persuaded the Egyptian government to lend artifacts from Tut's tomb for a national tour of U.S. museums.

The first "blockbuster" traveling show, the King Tut exhibition visited seven American cities from 1977 to 1979 and was seen by more than 8 million people, still the record for any single exhibition museum show.

King Tut's on the road again, this time with two shows. One is in New York City. The second, titled "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," is at the Denver Art Museum through Jan. 9.

Organized by the National Geographic Society, the exhibition comprises more than 100 objects, including more than 50 from King Tut's tomb. Approximately 30 of the objects are gold, including some sandals for King Tut to wear in his future incarnation as a god.

"Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs" is smartly installed on two floors of the museum's strikingly angular Hamilton Building designed by architect Daniel Libeskind and opened four years ago.

The exhibition begins on the second floor with a short video narrated by Harrison Ford, then the doors swing open and visitors enter spaces introducing ancient Egypt, covering the pharaohs, their families, household life, gods and gold.

With images, such as the depiction in calcite of Khafre, the builder of the Great Sphinx, and that of Ramses II, the pharaoh of the Old Testament Hebrews, the exhibition connects with the better known elements of ancient Egyptian history.

But it also links directly into the tale of Tutankhamun, starting with a colossal bust of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), King Tut's probable father. He abolished the traditional multi-god system used in Egyptian religion, becoming, to at least some experts, the world's first monotheist by establishing the sun god as Egypt's only deity.

The ramifications of that decision, which not surprisingly infuriated priests and other royals, played a part in why Tutankhamun, who started reversing his father's decision, was pushed out of history.

Filling out the view of ancient Egyptian society are images of various gods and goddesses, including an impressive depiction of Osiris and a recently unearthed statuette of Kai and his children.

After a visit to a reproduction of archaeologist Carter's tent and accompanying video that concludes with: "Now, enter the tomb of Tutankhamun," visitors go down the stairs to the first floor, descending, as it were, into Tut's tomb.

There the rooms are arranged to reflect the four chambers discovered in the burial space: the antechamber, annex, burial chamber and treasury.

Among the most striking items found in the tomb is a slightly curved wooden bed that Tut most likely used in life. At one end of the bed is what appears to us to be a headboard. But Tut, who was about 5-foot-6, would have put his feet in that direction.

The most fascinating objects are, not surprisingly, found in the burial room, highlighted by a intricate canopic coffinette that held Tut's mummified stomach. This miniature coffin, about a foot high, depicts the pharaoh in gold and blue, bringing the modern viewer inches away from the ancient boy king.

The exhibition ends with the largest image of King Tut ever unearthed - a 10-foot-tall statue found at the remains of the funerary temple of two of his high officials and partially covered by some of its original paint.

Tutankhamun's spectacular golden death mask, the highlight of the 1970s blockbuster that I saw at the National Gallery of Art in early 1977, isn't part of the exhibition. It is considered too fragile to travel and now is housed permanently in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to ensure its preservation.

But the death mask of Psusennes I is in the show. About 19 inches high by 15 inches wide, the mask is a magnificent example of the high level of craftsmanship in the 21st Dynasty, a highly detailed rendering of the pharaoh's face in gold inlaid with lapis lazuli and black and white eyes. Unlike Tut's mask, it does not contain any inscribed texts.

There are no mummies in the exhibition. But there are two coffins, or sarcophagi, the Inner Anthropoid Coffin of Queen Meritamun and a small ornately carved stone box that held the remains of Prince Thutmose's cat, a sign of both the lavishness of the royal life and the esteem in which felines were held in ancient Egypt.

The cat coffin is across the way from a none-too-comfortable-looking stone toilet seat, the inclusion of which puts a little everyday grounding to the oft esoteric, romantic collection of objects and images.

I'm generally not a big fan of exhibition audio tours that most often tend to jam crowds around a few objects and often don't provide much valuable information. But I'd highly recommend spending the $5 for the Tut show. The exhibition labels are detailed and extensive for every object; however, the audio tour provides context and more in-depth information, adding to the richness and enjoyment of the exhibition.

With the listening and some extended viewing of some of the objects (I spent about 10 minutes studying the Psusennes I death mask and was fascinated with the burial chamber objects, particularly the coffinette), it took just over two hours to go through the exhibition.

As is the case with nearly every museum blockbuster show, all roads lead to the gift shop, and there's an extensive offering of Tut/Egypt-related stuff right out the exhibition's final door.

But don't stop there and leave. In a nearby space is a video that shows the 3-D CT scans of Tutankhamun's remains, vividly showing the breaks in his skull that once led to speculation that he had been murdered. The National Geographic video, however, suggests he more likely died from injuries suffered in an accident or battle. A DNA study earlier this year indicated that King Tut was frail and suffered from malaria and bone disease, which could have been the cause of his death.

There has been some critical disappointment with "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," which I can't understand other than the fact that it doesn't have the death mask and isn't the first time most of the objects have been seen here.

Others have suggested that "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs" could be among the last blockbuster exhibitions, which are fading away because of high insurance costs, reluctance to loan valuable and popular objects and tight museum budgets.

If that is the case, it's all the more reason to get a look at the objects from King Tut's tomb before they go back to Egypt for good.

Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 402-473-7244 or at kwolgamott@journalstar.com or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KentWolgamott.


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