Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: April 2023

An Exhibition, a Curse, Two Graves, and a New Museum

In  the early Spring of 1972, I queued for five chilly hours to see the Treasures of Tutankhamun at the British Museum. Over nine months 1.6 million people  visited the exhibition, and it remains the most popular in the history of the museum. It was magical. The now famous words of Howard Carter when he first peered into the tomb welcomed us:

…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Wonderful things indeed: a gold figure of Tutankhamun, the golden shrine, scarab necklaces and bracelets, alabaster vessels and caskets, and the mask of solid gold, beaten and burnished, which had covered the head and shoulders of the Pharoah. I had stepped out of the grey London streets and into  all the colour and spectacle of Ancient Egypt.

The catalogue, Treasures of Tutankhamun, 1972

Yet whilst I was entranced by these riches I could not shake off the uneasy knowledge that Howard Carter and his financial backer, Lord Carnarvon, were essentially grave robbing, albeit with official sanction. No surprise then that when Carnarvon died in April 1923, only months after the discovery of the tomb, speculation began about “the curse of Tutankhamun.” The apocryphal story of the warning  found on the wall of the burial chamber,  “Death will come swiftly to those who disturb the tomb of the King,” passed into popular culture.

Carnarvon, of course,  died not from a curse but from an infected mosquito bite. Nonetheless his death and that of others with even the most tenuous connections to the excavation were claimed as evidence of the malediction. The list included: George Jay Gould who had visited the tomb and died of pneumonia  a few months later;  Carnarvon’s  brother, Aubrey Herbert, who, five months after Carnarvon’s own death, died from sepsis following dental surgery; Aaron Ember, Egyptologist, and friend of Carnarvon who died when his house burnt down;  and Archibald Reid who died soon after  x-raying the contents of the tomb.

But Howard Carter himself, openly sceptical of the curse, lived on until 1932 when he died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Despite the drama and glamour of his discovery his fame had dissipated  and only nine people attended his funeral. Since that exhibition back in 1972 however his star has risen again and today his own grave in Putney Vale Cemetery in London is carefully tended. The stone bears an inscription  taken from the alabaster lotus chalice found in Tutankhamun’s tomb:

May your spirit live, may you spend

millions of years, you who love Thebes,

sitting with your face to the north wind,

your eyes beholding happiness.

Grave of Howard Carter, Putney Vale Cemetery, London
The alabaster lotus chalice from which the inscription on Carter’s grave is taken

And at the foot of the grave an extract from the prayer of the goddess Nut :

O night spread thy wings over me

as the imperishable stars.

Grave of Howard Carter, Putney Vale Cemetery, London

Carnarvon’s grave lies within the fortifications of Beacon Hill Camp overlooking his family seat at Highclere in Hampshire. It is surrounded by an ugly iron fence with a padlocked gate.His epitaph






is less than modest given his lack of enthusiasm for the dig, which he had only agreed to finance for one more season in response to an impassioned plea from Carter, and that he only arrived from England after Carter had discovered the entrance to the tomb.

Grave of Lord Carnarvon, Beacon Hill Camp, Hampshire

More than twenty years after I saw the exhibition in the British Museum, I viewed those treasures again, this time in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. There were no queues, only fragile vitrines came between me and the precious objects, and for most of the time I had the rooms to myself with just an occasional group passing swiftly through like a murmuration of starlings. But while the artefacts were as wondrous as ever, and the opportunity to view them almost in solitude an unexpected privilege, the old museum, built in Tahrir Square in 1901, was looking  dusty and tired, unworthy of the glorious heritage which it sheltered.

Then in 2003, following an international architectural competition, the Irish practice Heneghan Peng won the contract to design a new museum to be built on the Giza Plateau next to the pyramids. Work on the site halted during the conflict which followed the Arab Spring of 2011 and during this time rioters broke into the old museum, the destruction and damage including two statues of Tutankhamun. And in events far worse than any imagined curse the museum was reportedly used as a torture site.

But work resumed on the new Grand Egyptian Museum in 2014, and it is due to open later this year. For the first time Tutankhamun’s entire treasure collection will be on display – and in the exact order in which Howard Carter found the objects in the tomb. More than five million people are expected to visit  every year, and for all my reservations about grave robbing I will be among them.

The Anchoress, The Privateer, The Dissident and The Broadcaster

Whitchurch Canonicorum lies only a few miles from Charmouth and Lyme Regis, but while  holiday crowds hug the Dorset coast the tiny inland village remains undisturbed.

It was not always so, for the church of St. Candida and the Holy Cross was once a busy and prosperous centre of pilgrimage. Today it  houses the only British shrine with relics, apart from that of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, to have survived the Reformation. The simplicity of the tomb concealed its true purpose and, mistaken for an ordinary grave, it escaped destruction.

St. Candida, or Saint Wite,  was a Saxon holy woman, an anchoress purportedly martyred  in  831 when  15,000 Danes landed at Charmouth and engaged in widespread slaughter.  In the church a thirteenth century marble tomb chest contains her relics. When the chest cracked open in 1899-1900, a lead reliquary  was found inside. It contained the bones of a forty-year-old woman  and bore the inscription “HIC REQUECT RLIQE SCE-WITE” (Here rest the remains of Saint Wite) on the lid. The stone beneath the tomb contains  three vesica-shaped openings where pilgrims left offerings of coins, candles, cakes, and cheeses. More dramatically they inserted diseased limbs or, with a little struggle, their whole bodies, into the vesica to ensure the closest possible contact with the relics. When the cure was successful they made candles, the length and breadth of the previously afflicted part, which burned around the shrine. Suspended above it hung their discarded crutches and sticks.

The visible repair on the left side of the tomb shows where it cracked in 1899-1900 enabling inspection of the reliquary found within. Also visible are prayer cards still left in the vesica by twenty-first century visitors.

A mile to the south of the church lay St. Wite’s well where the saint lived and prayed and maintained fires as beacons for sailors. The pure waters of the well were reputed to heal eye diseases.  The wild periwinkles which bloom in the area at this time of year are still known as “St. Candida’s Eyes.”  

St. Candida’s Eye; wild periwinkles bloom in profusion in the area in early spring

Also in the church, buried beneath the floor of the now vestry, are the remains of John Somers. Following a shipwreck, this privateer started a colony and became governor of The Somers Isles, later Bermuda. His life as a castaway allegedly provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. When he died,  of “a surfeit in eating of a pig,” his heart was buried in The Somers Isles, but his body, pickled in a barrel, was landed at the Cobb in Lyme Regis, and returned thence to Whitchurch Canonicorum .

Memorial to George Somers, shipmate of Walter Raleigh and coloniser of the Bermudas

But I had not come in search of either of these luminaries. I was on the trail of a Bulgarian dissident killed by the Bulgarian secret service in cooperation with the KGB in 1978. Georgi Markov had been a successful writer in Bulgaria, winning literary prizes, part of the official intelligentsia, associating with high-ranking politicians, and enjoying an affluent lifestyle, including driving a silver BMW. Indeed, Zhivkov, the Party leader, had tried to lure him, with offers of more privileges and positions, into serving the authorities through his writing. But instead, his work had become more critical and satirical in relation to the regime. He came under increased scrutiny and some of his works were banned. In 1969 he defected to Italy and in 1970 moved to England, where from 1975-1978 he was employed by the BBC World Service and by Radio Free Europe. Increasingly he used these organs, especially his broadcast In Absentia for RFE, to criticise the Communist government in Bulgaria, and to accuse Zhivkov of fraud, nepotism, incompetence, mediocrity.

Then, in September 1978 came a drama which we would previously have associated only with the novels of Le Carré and the dark, mysterious streets of those Eastern European cities which lay beyond The Iron Curtain. Markov had left work at  Bush House and was waiting  at a bus stop in The Strand near Waterloo Bridge for the bus home to south London. In this most mundane of circumstances  and humdrum of environments a man bumped into him and with the tip of his umbrella pushed a sugar-coated ricin pellet into his leg. As the sugar dissolved  the poison was released into his bloodstream. The man disappeared in a taxi and that evening Markov was admitted to hospital with a fever and died there four days later. Medical staff had been sceptical of his claims that he had been poisoned but Scotland Yard, aware that there had been two previous attempts on Markov’s life, ordered an autopsy and the remains of the poisoned pellet were discovered. To test the theory, they injected a pig with the toxin. After suffering identical symptoms to Markov, the pig died two days later.

Markov’s stone in the churchyard at Whitchurch Canonicorum records his death “in the cause of freedom” in English on one side and Cyrillic on the other.

Markov’s grave in the churchyard at Whitchurch Canonicorum

No one was ever arrested for the killing but suspicion fell on the Italian born Bulgarian agent Francesco Gullino. The latter had been arrested for smuggling in Bulgaria in 1970 and  offered a choice between prison and espionage work. His file in the Bulgarian archives records his training and missions but pages relating to the time of Markov’s killing are missing, however one of his fake passports shows that he was in London at the time of the murder. In 1993  British  authorities interviewed him based on information from Bulgaria but no arrest was made. He remained free until his death in 2021 leaving the suspicion that he may have given evidence on other cases in return for his freedom.

About to leave  the churchyard I spotted another small, flat stone dating from 2000 and bearing the legend “The Grand Inquisitor.” Here were the ashes of Robin Day, the television journalist credited with inventing the political interview on television. I remember him as a  staid, conservative figure, uncritical of government and traditional institutions like monarchy and the legal profession, one who accepted a knighthood,  and was chummy rather than subversive in his interviews with politicians. In the 1950s however Day had been the first to break with the habitual deference which journalists had previously shown when interviewing members of the establishment. At the beginning of his career, he was criticised for being disrespectful and  pugnacious towards his subjects. His incisive, abrasive style was turned first against Kenneth Clarke then chairman of Independent Television and thus his employer. Later he interviewed President Nasser  after the 1956 Suez crisis, and ex-president Truman: “Mr. President do you regret having authorised the dropping of the atomic bomb?” he asked. His  less than respectful 1958 interview with then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was described by the Daily Express as “the most vigorous cross examination a prime minister has been subjected to in public”. Hence he became known in British broadcasting as “The Grand Inquisitor.”

The ashes of Robin Day, The Grand Inquisitor, gradually disappearing beneath the march of wild celandines

I wonder how they rub along: the anchoress, the privateer, the dissident writer, and the journalist. They surely have a wealth of stories to share as they lie together now in the quiet of Whitchurch Canonicorum.

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