Raphael

After delaying its opening due to Covid-19, the National Gallery in London finally opened its doors to The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael on 9th April 2022. Originally intended to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in 2020, the exhibition is the first outside of Italy to encompass the entire length of Raphael’s artistic career. Whilst Raphael’s life was short, he was a prolific painter, producing as much work as other painters who lived twice as long. Working across a wide range of media, Raphael produced oil and fresco paintings and designed prints, tapestries, mosaics and sculptures. The extensive exhibition, with loans from the Louvre, Uffizi and Vatican, proves that whilst Raphael passed away at the age of 37, his legacy is immortal.

Although known mononymously as Raphael, the artist’s birth name was Raffaello Santi or Sanzio. He was born in 1483 to Giovanni Santi (1440-94), the court painter of the Duke of Urbino, and Màgia di Battista Ciarla. Unfortunately, Raphael’s mother died when he was only eight years old, and his father followed three years later. For the remainder of Raphael’s childhood, his paternal uncle, a priest called Bartolomeo, served as his formal guardian.

Raphael showed a talent for drawing at a young age and continued his father’s workshop following his death in 1494. Some sources claim Raphael received training from Pietro Perugino (1446-1523), but others maintain Raphael only worked as Perugino’s assistant, from whom he picked up similar artistic traits.

Raphael had a talent for seamlessly combining observation and imagination, which attracted several religious establishments in the Umbrian cities of Città di Castello and Perugia. His first documented commission was for the church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in 1500, after which Raphael worked in numerous churches. In 1503, he painted the Mond Crucifixion, an altarpiece for the church of San Domenico. The main panel depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus against a luminous Umbrian sky. Two angels hover in the sky, collecting Christ’s blood in chalices, while on the ground kneel Mary Magdalene and Saint Jerome. The church had a chapel dedicated to the saint, which is likely why he was included in this composition. Also depicted in the painting are John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who stand slightly behind the kneelers.

From 1504 to 1508, Raphael spent a lot of time in Florence. A letter from the mother of the Duke of Urbino, for whom Raphael’s father once worked, suggests he travelled to the city in search of patrons and customers. The letter reads, “The bearer of this will be found to be Raphael, painter of Urbino, who, being greatly gifted in his profession has determined to spend some time in Florence to study. And because his father was most worthy and I was very attached to him, and the son is a sensible and well-mannered young man, on both accounts, I bear him great love…”

On arrival in Florence, Raphael’s style of art was very much like Perugino’s, but he soon started adopting the manners of other artists, including Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Donatello (1386-1466). (Incidentally, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello are the names of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) One of Raphael’s drawings, potentially a study for a painting that is either lost or never produced, looks remarkably similar to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Raphael’s painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria also bears similarities to Da Vinci’s work.

With her arm resting on the wheel upon which she was tortured, Saint Catherine’s slightly corkscrewed body is an echo of Da Vinci’s lost painting Leda and the Swan. Unlike Leda, Catherine is fully clothed and looks up to the sky in ecstasy. The religious nature of the scene is still reminiscent of Perugino’s work, but the inclusion of other influences shows Raphael was experimenting and developing as an artist.

Raphael’s painting of The Madonna of the Pinks also pays homage to Da Vinci. With similarities to the Benois Madonna, a youthful Virgin Mary sits playing with the Christ child, handing him carnations (pinks). Carnations belong to the dianthus genus, Greek for “flower of God”. In art, these flowers are symbolic of Christ’s Passion, from His entry into Jerusalem to His death and resurrection. Due to the similarities with other artists, scholars only officially identified The Madonna of the Pinks as a genuine Raphael in 1991.

During his years in Florence until his first year in Rome in 1508, Raphael painted many Madonnas (depictions of the Virgin and Child). Several were commissioned as large-scale altarpieces for churches, although some were designed for private prayer and devotion. As well as showing great attention to detail, Raphael filled his religious paintings with symbolism and dynamism, which emphasised the importance of the characters.

The Tempi Madonna, so named because Raphael painted it for the Tempi family, depicts Mary’s maternal love for her child. Unlike other Madonnas, which usually hint at Christ’s future through his dramatic poses and behaviour, this painting is more natural. Raphael reveals the emotion, tenderness and absorption of a mother, who holds her son close with her cheek pressed against his. Yet, the baby, Christ, stares into the distance as though contemplating his destiny. Raphael may have taken inspiration for the emotionally charged scene from sculptural reliefs made by Donatello.

A more typical pose of the Christ child is the scene in Raphael’s Alba Madonna, which belonged to the Dukes of Alba in Spain until 1836. As well as Jesus and Mary, the infant John the Baptist joins the scene, holding purple anemones, symbolising Christ’s fate. Other flowers in the painting hold significant meaning, including cyclamen for love and sorrow, and violets for humility. Some scholars surmise the tondo-style artwork was inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

In 1508, Raphael moved to Rome, where he immediately gained two new patrons, Pope Julius II (1443-1513) and the Pope’s principal financial backer, Agostino Chigi (1466-1520). The Sienese banker was allegedly the richest man in Italy and required Raphael to produce frescoes for his villa in the Via della Lungara, now a museum called Villa Farnesina. Chigi also commissioned Raphael to design chapels in two churches, Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo.

While working for Chigi, Raphael also completed many works for Julius II, starting with a fresco in the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace. The Stanza della segnatura (Room of the Signatura), or Stanze for short, and other rooms in the palace are frequently referred to as the “Raphael Rooms” because of the numerous paintings that adorn the walls and ceilings. The majority of the paintings depict religious scenes, such as Cardinal and Theological Virtues, Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Deliverance of Saint Peter and The Vision of the Cross. Other scenes captured legendary events, including The Coronation of Charlemagne and The Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

One of the most famous of Raphael’s paintings for the Stanze is The School of Athens, painted between 1509 and 1511. The masterpiece reflects the growing interest in Ancient Greek Philosophy in Rome at the time. Several of the figures in the scene have been identified by art historians, including a self-portrait of Raphael posing as Apelles of Kos, a 4th century BC painter.

In the centre of The School of Athens, the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato are seen in conversation. Plato points his hand towards the sky, signalling his idealism and abstract thinking, while Aristotle gestures at the ground, referencing his study of the natural world and human behaviour. In his other hand, Plato holds a copy of Timaeus, a dialogue that responds to the opinions of other scholars. Similarly, Aristotle holds a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics, which had a profound influence on Europeans during the Middle Ages. Around Plato and Aristotle, other philosophers are engaged in debates about their ideas and theories.

In the centre foreground of The School of Athens sits a man resting his head upon his hand while writing on a sheet of paper. This is possibly a representation of the philosopher Heraclitus, who lived around 500 BC. Some believe Raphael modelled the figure on Michaelangelo, who was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the time. Similarly, Plato may be modelled on Da Vinci. Heraclitus, nicknamed “the weeping philosopher”, was prone to depression, which explains his physical demeanour and isolation from the other figures in the painting. Heraclitus believed the world was made of fire and stressed the importance of the unity of opposites and harmony.

Other philosophers Raphael included in his painting are Pythagoras and his pupil Anaximander sitting with Archimedes, who holds a diagram of his method for determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape. Averroes, an Islamic scholar, peers over Pythagoras’ shoulder while Socrates is seen conversing with the Attic orator Aeschines. Names suggested for some of the remaining philosophers include Diogenes, Zeno of Citium, Parmenides, Carneades, Epicurus, Xenophon, and Alexander the Great.

Although much of Raphael’s time was spent working on the frescos in the Vatican Palace, he still found time to complete other paintings, such as a portrait of the elderly Julius II. Seated in a chair rather than on a papal throne, the Pope looks frail and humble; a stark contrast to his powerful and influential position. Julius was responsible for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica and the establishment of the Swiss Guards. When Julius died in 1513, less than two years after the completion of the portrait, he was replaced by Leon X (1475-1521), who continued to oversee Raphael’s progress in the Stanze and Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.

As Raphael grew in popularity, he started training other artists and employed them as assistants in his workshop. One of his assistants was Giulio Romano (1492-1546), a young artist from Rome who helped Raphael complete the paintings in the Stanze. By teaching his students to replicate his style, Raphael doled out sections of artworks to his assistants to complete, thus saving time and energy.

In some cases, Raphael only provided the drawing, for which his students provided the paint. One example is The Vision of Ezekiel (1516-17), which while designed by Raphael, was executed by Romano. The painting depicts a scene in the Old Testament involving the prophet Ezekiel, who rarely appeared in Italian Renaissance art. In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet described an encounter with God and four living creatures. According to the Christian priest Jerome (347–420), the creatures symbolised the authors of the New Testament gospels. Matthew is the man or angel because his book begins with the genealogy of Jesus, whilst Luke is the Ox because his book starts with temple sacrifice. Mark is represented by the lion, “roaring in the desert with prophetic power”, and John is the eagle, “flying heavenwards like the divine Word”. Alternative interpretations of this tetramorph (a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements) include Babylonian symbols of the zodiac: Taurus (ox), Leo (lion), Scorpio (eagle), and Aquarius (man); and the four elements of Western astrology: Earth, Fire, Water and Air.

With his assistants working on paintings, Raphael was able to prove his versatility with other mediums. Inspired by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Raphael designed prints, which were subsequently engraved by the printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi (c.1480-c.1534). An example of Raphael’s print compositions is The Massacre of the Innocents (c.1510), which not only shows Raphael’s mastery of the classical male nude but also reveals his talent for depicting movement and violent action. The scene comes from the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18), in which King Herod learns of Jesus’ birth and orders the execution of all children under the age of two. Etching allows the artist to include expressive lines and shading, which often gets lost in coloured paintings. Every detail of the violent soldiers’ actions is carefully recorded, as is the despair and horror on the faces of the mothers.

Alongside prints, Raphael designed mosaics, sculptures, metalwork and decorative art, such as vases. Several drawings and plans for these objects still exist, as do many letters and notes proving that Raphael also had an interest in archaeology. Raphael wrote to Pope Leo X, begging him to prevent the destruction of archaeological interests, such as Roman ruins. He provided the Pope with a survey of all the buildings in Rome that he believed should be preserved for the future, along with detailed drawings. Plans to tear down ancient structures, presumably to build new houses, horrified Raphael and many of his contemporaries. It is thanks to them the world is still in possession of many historically important places.

Some historical buildings appear in Raphael’s work, as do reimagined structures from Classical Greece, such as in the tapestry Saint Paul Preaching at Athens. Between 1514 and 1515, Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a series of tapestries to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Each design depicted a scene from the Acts of the Apostles, which included the life of the first pope, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul. Saint Paul Preaching at Athens reimagines the biblical city and the Areopagus, upon which Paul preached to the judicial council of Athens about God and Jesus. Standing behind Paul in a red cap is a depiction of Leo X.

With so many commissions, Raphael rarely had time to produce portraits, which may be why he included his patrons and himself in some of his large scenes. Towards the end of his short career, while his assistants completed other work, Raphael found a moment to paint a handful of portraits, including a self-portrait with Giulio Romano. Sometimes known as Self-Portrait with a Friend or Raphael and His Fencing Master due to the presence of a sword hilt, the identity of the younger man remained unknown for many years. Today, most art historians agree that it is probably Romano. The hierarchical design of the double portrait, in which Raphael stands behind Romano with his hand on his shoulder, suggests Raphael is the teacher, whilst Romano, who looks over his shoulder for reassurance, is the student. The way Raphael painted the clothing of both himself and Romano makes it look as though the right arm belongs to both of them, hinting that as the master, Raphael aids or manipulates his student.

On promotional material for the Raphael exhibition, the National Gallery used Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti (1491-1557), a banker and friend of Raphael. The painting echoes Leonardo da Vinci’s Venetian style of posing the sitter as if interrupted by the viewer, at whom he turns to gaze. Altoviti’s father was the papal Master of the Mint, and his mother was the niece of Pope Innocent VIII (1432-92), which made Altoviti a man of wealth and influence. He was also known for his good looks. Altoviti was in charge of collecting taxes to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. He also liaised with the likes of Emperor Charles V (1500-58) and the Medici family.

The final painting in the exhibition was a portrait of a woman known as La fornarina or The Baker’s Daughter. The suggestive semi-nude portrait has led many to believe she was Raphael’s lover. Traditionally, the sitter is identified as Margherita Luti, who refused to marry Raphael despite his obvious devotion. Art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) claimed Luti was Raphael’s muse and model. He also wrote that Raphael was a “very amorous man and affectionate towards the ladies”.

There are numerous interpretations of La fornarina, with some claiming she represents idealistic beauty and others claiming she was a malevolent goddess. On the one hand, many believe Luti was Raphael’s lover, but another theory is she was a sex worker. An in-depth analysis of the portrait has led some art historians to diagnose Luti with breast cancer. The right breast appears fully formed and proportional, but the left upon which her hand rests is large and deformed. Her left arm also seems swollen, suggesting an enlarged lymph node in her armpit. Since Margarita Luti’s dates of birth and death are unknown, it is impossible to tell whether she died from breast cancer.

On Good Friday, 6th April 1520, Raphael passed away after developing a sudden fever. Vasari poetically recorded that his death was the result of an overindulgence in “amorous pleasures” with Luti, but other sources claim Raphael was engaged to Maria, the daughter of his patron Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi (1470-1520). Raphael’s illness lasted approximately 15 days, during which time he realised he would die and received last rites, confessed his sins and put his affairs in order. As per his request, Raphael was buried in the Pantheon in Rome, where his fiancée was also buried some years later.

Due to his fame and importance in the art world, Raphael received a grand funeral, attended by large crowds. Four cardinals carried Raphael’s body, and the pope kissed his hand before they lowered him into a marble sarcophagus inscribed with a quote from the poet Pietro Bembo (1470-1547): “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

Following his death, Raphael became the prototype for high art across Europe. Due to his versatility, Raphael influenced many areas of art and remains one of the greatest artists to have ever lived. Raphael produced as much work in his 37 years of life as those who lived twice his age. He was a prodigy of the likes that has not been seen since. Today, artists have barely established themselves by the age of 37, let alone produced even half the number of paintings. The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael demonstrates Raphael’s importance in the art world and proves that his work will last for time immemorial.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael is open until 31st July 2022. Tickets cost between £24 and £26 and must be purchased in advance. Concessions are available.


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Britain’s Queen of the Desert

When thinking about the Middle East, the first British name to come to mind is often Lawrence of Arabia (T. E. Lawrence), who was involved with the Arab Revolt (1916–1918) and the Sinai and Palestine Campaign (1915–1918). Yet, Lawrence was not the only British person to support the Middle East. Gertrude Bell, an author and archaeologist, became highly influential to British officials and helped establish modern states, such as Iraq. Trusted by both the British and the Arabs, Bell is often described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on 14th July 1868 in an English town called Washington in County Durham. Her father, Sir Thomas Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet of Rounton Range and Washington Hall (1844-1931), was a wealthy landowner, and her grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, 1st Baronet (1816-1904), was an ironmonger “as famous in his day as Isambard Kingdom Brunel“. Gertrude’s mother, Mary, passed away when she was only three years old after giving birth to her younger brother, Maurice (1871-1944).

Without a mother, Bell grew close to her father, who inspired her thirst for adventure. Her father also taught her about British policy-making and capitalism. He always made sure his workers were well paid and cared for, an attitude which he passed down to his daughter.

When Bell was seven, her father married the playwright Florence Olliffe (1851-1930). As well as providing the family with three more children, Hugh (1878-1926), Florence (1880-1971) and Mary (1882-1966), Florence taught Bell about duty and decorum but also encouraged her growing intellect. Florence regularly assisted the wives of local ironworkers, helping them become self-sufficient and access education.

At 11, Bell started attending Queen’s College in London before moving to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, at 17. At the time, degree topics were limited for women, with history being one of the few they could study. Bell specialised in modern history and became the first woman to graduate in the subject at Oxford with a first-class honours degree. Unfortunately, her success was not classed as an academic degree because she was a woman.

After graduating from university, Bell travelled to Persia in 1892 to visit her step-uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles (1841-1920), who served as the British minister in Tehran. Bell described her journey in a book, Persian Pictures, which she published in 1894. The adventure inspired her to continue travelling, and she developed a passion for archaeology and languages. During her travels, Bell learned to speak Arabic, Persian, French, German and Italian.

In 1899, Bell explored Palestine and Syria, then travelled from Jerusalem to Damascus the following year. In 1903, Bell visited Singapore with her brother, where she befriended British colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham (1850-1946). Bell and Swettenham kept up a correspondence for several years, and they may have had a brief affair in 1904.

Between 1899 and 1904, Bell enjoyed mountaineering. While hiking in the Bernese Alps in western Switzerland, she recorded ten new pathways and reached one of the highest peaks in 1901. Since named after her, Gertrudspitze rises 2,632 m (8,635 ft) above sea level and remains a popular destination for experienced climbers.

In 1907, Bell published another book, Syria: The Desert and the Sown, which described her voyage to Syria. At the time, Syria belonged to the Ottoman Empire and encompassed the cities of Damascus, Jerusalem (now Israel/Palestine), Beirut (Lebanon), the ruins of Antioch (Turkey), and Alexandretta (Turkey). Her descriptions of the country and cities gave readers in the Western World their first glimpse of the Arabian Desert.

In March 1907, Bell returned to the Ottoman Empire, where she joined the archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851-1939) on an excavation of Binbirkilise. Meaning “One Thousand and One Churches”, Binbirkilise is a ruined city once inhabited by Byzantine Christians between the 3rd and 8th century AD. Bell published her initial findings in the Revue Archéologique and helped Ramsay write the book, The Thousand and One Churches. Together, they started excavating several buildings, but when Bell returned two years later, stone robbers had demolished their findings.

Bell returned to England in 1908, where she became a founder member of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. Despite her misgivings about women’s inequality at university, Bell opposed women being granted the vote in parliamentary elections. Bell’s opinions stemmed from her social and political background, where the men were in charge but allowed her to participate in intellectual discussions. Today, it may seem strange that Bell, one of the most educated women of her time, opposed the suffrage campaign, but her main argument was that the uneducated should not be involved in politics, regardless of their sex. If women did not have the right to equal education with men, Bell questioned how they would cope with parliamentary matters.

Bell did not remain in England for long before travelling to Mesopotamia in January 1909. Today, the majority of historical Mesopotamia is located in Iraq. While there, she visited the ancient city of Carchemish, where she met T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), who was working for Reginald Campbell Thompson (1876-1914), the man responsible for the excavation of the city.

While in Mesopotamia, Bell also photographed the Assyrian relief carvings in the Halamata Cave near the city of Duhok (Iraq). Bell was the first person to document a procession of nine carved figures that date back to approximately 704-681 BC on camera. Further study of the carvings has led archaeologists to believe the figures represent ” the Assyrian king worshipping the main divinities in the Mesopotamian pantheon.”

In the same year, Bell helped excavate the Al-Ukhaidir Fortress and wrote the first report on the remains. Whilst the building was large, Bell noted the living quarters were cramped. The fortress was on several important trade routes, so the size was likely to demonstrate the “despotic and the pleasure-loving character of the dynasty” rather than provide comfort for its inhabitants.

In 1913, Bell made another trip to Mesopotamia, where she became the second foreign woman to visit Haʼil, a city now in Saudi Arabia. Haʼil is the homeland of the Rashid royal family, who are historical rivals to the Saudi royal family. When Bell arrived, the city was in political turmoil. She was held in the city for eleven days before being able to continue her journey across the Arabian peninsula to Baghdad and back to Damascus. The only woman to visit Haʼil before Bell was Anne Blunt, 15th Baroness Wentworth (1837-1917), the daughter of the famous mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52).

At the outbreak of the First World War, Bell requested to be posted to the Middle East. Initially, her request was declined, so she spent a year in France working for the Red Cross. In November 1915, British Intelligence changed its mind and sent Bell to General Gilbert Clayton (1875-1929) at the Arab Bureau in Cairo, Egypt. Both Bell and T. E. Lawrence, who had also been sent to Cairo, were recommended by Commander David Hogarth (1862-1927), an archaeologist who became the acting director of the Arab Bureau the following year.

Using her knowledge of the Arabic language, Bell’s first task was to interpret data about Arab tribes collected by Captain William Shakespear (1878-1915), who had been shot and killed at the Battle of Jarrab. With Bell as the translator, Lawrence and other British Intelligence agents aimed to encourage the Arabs to form an alliance with Britain and stand against the Ottoman Empire.

In March 1916, Captain Clayton sent Bell to Basra, a former city belonging to the Ottoman Empire (now Iraq) that British forces had captured. Bell visited the city during her earlier travels and knew the area better than any Brit. Dividing her time between the Military GHQ Basra and the office of Chief Political Officer Percy Cox (1864-1937), Bell devised maps to help British troops travel safely from Basra to Baghdad.

Bell was given the title “Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo” and assigned to Colonial Office intelligence officer Harry St John Philby (1885-1960), an Arabist born to British parents in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). As his field controller, Bell taught him about political manoeuvering and espionage. Bell remained in Basra until British troops successfully took Baghdad in March 1917.

When it was safe, Percy Cox summoned Bell to Baghdad and gave her the title “Oriental Secretary”. She remained in the city until the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in January 1919, after which Cox sent her to analyse the situation in Mesopotamia. With her knowledge of Arab tribes, Bell wrote a report called Self Determination in Mesopotamia, in which she listed the tribes she thought best suited to take on the leadership of a newly formed country. Unfortunately, the British Commissioner in Mesopotamia, Arnold Wilson (1884-1940), insisted the Mesopotamian population was not ready to rule alone, so proposed an Arab government under the influence of British officials.

Throughout 1920, Bell acted as a mediator between the Arab government and British officials. Not only did she have to convey messages between the two nations, but she also needed to mediate between the various Mesopotamian tribes. The Shias in the south, the Kurds in the north and the Sunnis in the centre all wanted to self-govern their land, but for the country to function, Bell needed to persuade them to unite. British Officials were also mindful of tribal feuds that could be costly and make the country vulnerable to other nations, such as Turkey, Persia and Syria, who had their eye on Mesopotamia’s oil resources.

Uniting the tribes was easier in theory than in practice. The Kurds not only inhabited parts of Mesopotamia but also Syria and Turkey. Whilst the Shias and Sunnis could merge their lands, only a portion of the Kurds lived in the new country, Iraq. Whilst Bell endorsed the division of the northern tribe, the Kurds were not happy about being denied a homeland, which led to uprisings in Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

Bell expressed the difficulties British officials faced in a letter to her father, saying, “Mesopotamia is not a civilised state.” By the end of 1920, the British had prevented the Kurdish revolt from escalating. Bell was invited to attend a series of meetings between 12th and 30th March to discuss the geographic and political future of the country. Officially known as the Middle East Conference held in Cairo and Jerusalem, the meetings were attended by many British officials, including the newly appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and T. E. Lawrence, the Special Advisor to Colonial Office. The minutes of the meetings record Bell as the Oriental Secretary for High Commissioner of Iraq, with Sir Percy Cox as High Commissioner of Iraq.

During the Cairo Conference, Bell provided significant input in the discussions about Iraq’s creation and recommended Faisal bin Hussein (1885-1933), a former commander of the Arab forces, as the first King of Iraq. Lawrence backed up the suggestion, and Faisal officially became King on 23rd August 1921. Due to his Hashemite lineage, the country was initially called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

Not everyone welcomed Faisal as the king because they did not want to be governed by someone from a different tribe. Bell tried to ease Faisal into the role, teaching him about tribal geography and local business and supervising the election of government officials. The Arabs called Bell “al-Khatun”, which means a Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State, and she served as Faisal’s confidante.

Supervising Faisal was not always an easy task, especially when he attempted to rid himself of the control of the British advisors. Writing about the ordeal, Bell confessed, “You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain.” Eventually, Faisal settled into the role and assisted Bell to establish the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, later renamed the Iraqi Museum. Bell donated many of her archaeological finds to the museum, believing the relics of Mesopotamian civilization ought to remain in their country of origin. Bell also founded the British School of Archaeology in Iraq to encourage the Arab population to develop an interest in their history and help preserve ancient artefacts.

Before the creation of Iraq, each Arab tribe had a flag or badge. To prevent riots and protests, the British proposed a new flag for Iraq, which incorporated aspects of each tribe. The design featured a black stripe to represent the Abbasid caliphate, a white stripe for the Umayyad caliphate, and a green stripe for Fatimid Dynasty. Joining the three lines together, a red triangle represented the country’s main religion, Islam. Bell also suggested adding a star to the flag to make it stand out from similar flags of other Middle Eastern countries.

The flag of Iraq has changed many times since its creation. Today’s flag looks remarkably different from the version Bell worked on in 1921. In 1959, a revolution led by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914-1963) abolished the Hashemite monarchy. For a brief time, the new republic adopted a black, white and green vertical tricolour, with a red eight-pointed star in the centre. When Qasim was overthrown in 1963, the country adopted the same colours and style as Egypt and Syria’s flags, a horizontal tricolour of red, white, and black bands. Initially, three green stars sat in the centre to symbolise Iraq’s aspiration to unite with Egypt and Syria. The union never happened, and the central symbol changed several times until 2008 when the Council of Representatives of Iraq settled on the phrase Allāhu ʾakbar in Kufic script, which means “Allah is the greatest”.

Bell’s lengthy stay in the Middle East began to take a toll on her health during the 1920s. Her work, which included writing correspondence and intelligence reports, was stressful, not helped by her repeated bronchitis attacks due to the smoke-filled offices she shared with her heavy smoking colleagues. She also suffered bouts of malaria and struggled to cope with the heat in the summer. By the time Bell returned to England for a brief visit in 1925, she was frail and emaciated.

After a short stay with her family, Bell returned to Baghdad, where she developed pleurisy, leaving her unable to work for several weeks. When she recovered, she received the sad news that her brother Hugh had succumbed to typhoid. On 11th July 1926, Bell instructed her maid to wake her up in the morning and went off to bed. That night, Bell died from a supposed overdose of sleeping pills. Whilst some assumed Bell committed suicide, others believe her death was an accident since she had asked her maid to wake her.

Bell’s funeral took place on 12th July 1926, merely hours after her death. The funeral was a major event attended by British officials and Arabs living in the area. King Faisal watched the procession from his balcony as Bell’s coffin was carried to the British cemetery in Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharji district.

Commander David Hogarth wrote Bell’s obituary, emphasising the respect British officials had for her. “No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”

Bell’s stepmother also honoured her by publishing two volumes of letters Bell sent to her and the family about her adventures in the Middle East before the outbreak of World War One. Some of these letters formed part of the documentary Letters from Baghdad, featuring Tilda Swinton (b. 1960) as the voice of Bell. Gertrude Bell’s life was also the basis of the 2015 film Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman (b. 1967).

For her work, Bell was posthumously made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and honoured with a stained glass window at St Lawrence’s Church, East Rounton, North Yorkshire. The window, designed by Douglas Strachan (1875-1950), features Magdalen College, Oxford, where Bell attended university, and Khadimain, Baghdad, where she spent the last year of her life.

As one of the few British people remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection, Bell remained a respected name in Iraq for some time. Unfortunately, as time went on, she disappeared from general public knowledge, with T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) taking precedence. With the help of recent films, Gertrude Bell is gradually getting the respect she deserves. Whilst the situation in Iraq and its neighbouring countries still face political struggles and tribal feuds, Bell simultaneously helped the country reform after the fall of the Ottoman Empire whilst preserving the remains of the ancient land. Not only are these enormous feats, but Bell’s achievements also occurred at a time when women were excluded from political work. Despite her views on women’s suffrage, Bell paved the way for women to aspire to careers in archaeology, and for that reason, she deserves the epithet “Queen of the Desert”.


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Troy: Myth and Reality

Until 8th March, the British Museum is celebrating the legend of Troy, which has endured for over 3000 years. With ancient artefacts and more recent artworks, the museum tells the story of the Trojan War from its beginning to its end, followed by the fateful journey home of one of the Greek heroes. Whilst this story may be purely mythical, the British Museum also explores the true existence of Troy, which was discovered during the 19th century.

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Bust of Homer

Many people know some of the stories surrounding the Trojan War, which have been told for over 3000 years. Initially spread by word of mouth, it is generally believed the story was put together by the Greek poet Homer as early as the 8th century BC. There are some arguments that Homer never existed and the stories were compiled by several authors, however, the final result had been published under Homer’s name in two volumes, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Written in a dactylic hexameter – a form of poetry – the Iliad spans approximately fifty-one days of the ten-year Trojan War on the coast of Anatolia, now known as northwestern Turkey. The city of Troy was under siege by a coalition of Greek states as revenge for the abduction of Helen of Sparta.

The war began shortly after the wedding of the sea-goddess Thetis and Peleus, the king of Thessaly. All the Greek gods and goddesses were invited to the ceremony except for Eris, the goddess of discord. Angry at being left out, Eris turned up unannounced and threw a golden apple into the crowd of party-goers. The apple bore the inscription “to the most beautiful” and three goddesses: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera, believed it was intended for them.

The goddesses appealed to Zeus, the king of the gods, to decide who was the most beautiful. Reluctant to get involved, Zeus instructed Paris, the visiting Trojan prince, to make the decision. Paris’ judgement was by no means fair because, before he could make a decision, Aphrodite the goddess of love, promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman on earth if he chose her as the winner of the competition. Naturally, Paris chose Aphrodite.

After the wedding, Paris visited the Greek state of Sparta where he met Helen, the woman Aphrodite promised him. Unfortunately, Helen was already married to King Menelaus, so when Paris returned to Troy with Helen, Menelaus was determined to get his wife back. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae called together a huge fleet of Greek heroes to sail across the Aegean Sea in support of his brother Menelaus. Thus, the Trojan War began.

The Iliad begins in the middle of the plot after the Greeks have been attempting to breach the strong walls of the city of Troy for nine years. Although they had not managed to enter the main city, the Greeks had raided surrounding towns belonging to Troy and taken many inhabitants as prisoners. Amongst these prisoners was a young woman named Briseis who was given as a prize of honour to the Greek Hero Achilles, son of Thetis.

King Agamemnon’s prisoner was Chryseis, the daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo. The Trojan’s offered money in return for the girl, however, Agamemnon refused. So, the priest prayed to Apollo who sent a plague over the Greek army until they returned Chryseis to her father. In retaliation, Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilles, causing the Greek hero to, quite simply, have a huge sulk.

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The Death of Patroclus

Furious with Agamemnon, Achilles refused to fight in the war and asked his mother, Thetis, to make the Greeks realise how much they needed Achilles on their side. In the fighting that followed, the Trojans began to get the upper hand. In desperation, Achilles’ friend and potential lover Patroclus entered the battle disguised as Achilles in an attempt to raise the morale of the Greek soldiers. It worked; both the Greeks and the Trojans believed Patroclus was Achilles, however, this put him in mortal danger when he was targetted by the Trojan prince Hector.

When Achilles heard that Hector had killed Patroclus, he fell into a state of grief-stricken rage. Despite knowing the prophecy that stated if Hector died, Achilles would soon follow, the Greek hero returned to the battle site clad in new armour forged by the god Hephaestus. In a blind rage, Achilles killed Hector, tied the corpse to the back of a chariot, and proceeded to desecrate the body by dragging it around the battlefield for several days. Taking pity on Hector’s family, the gods protected Hector’s body from damage until Achilles could be persuaded to hand the corpse over to King Priam for a traditional Trojan funeral.

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Achilles killing the Amazons

This is where the Iliad finished, however, the war was by no means over. Troy called upon its allies for support, but the Amazons and Ethiopians were no match for Achilles’ strength. Whilst Achilles continued to fight, he knew as a result of Hector’s death, he was destined to die soon.

When Achilles was a baby, his mother dipped him into the waters of the River Styx to make him invulnerable to injury. Unfortunately, the ankle from which she dangled him did not enter the water, therefore, Achilles was vulnerable in this area. It was in this precise spot that an arrow shot by Paris hit Achilles, fatally wounding the Greek Hero. Despite their best warrior dead, the Greeks continued to fight.

The Greeks won the war thanks to an ingenious invention by Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. He encouraged the Greek army to build an enormous wooden horse, which they placed outside the walls of Troy as a decoy peace offering. Believing the Greeks had given up the fight, the Trojan’s accepted the gift and brought it into the city, unaware that it housed some of the best Greek fighters. Once through the walls, the Greeks crept out of the horse and attacked the city from within, eventually destroying Troy and killing King Priam and Hector’s son, Astyanax. Only one member of the royal family survived, Aeneas, the son of King Priam’s cousin, whose survival story is told in the Aeneid by Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil).

Troy fell, the war ended and Helen was reunited with her husband, however, this was not the end of the story for the Greeks. The gods were angry at the sacrilegious atrocities committed by the Greeks during the war and decided to teach them a lesson by making their journey home rather difficult. No one’s journey was as bad as Odysseus whose ten-year attempt to return home is recorded in Homer’s Odyssey.

“Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me about how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy …”
Odyssey, Homer, 700 AD

Initially, twelve ships, including one belonging to Odysseus, were driven off course by the storms caused by the angry gods. As a result, Odysseus and his men sheltered in the land of the Lotus-Eaters. These were a race of people whose primary food source was the lotus fruits, which had a narcotic effect on foreigners. Naturally, Odysseus’ men accepted food and hospitality from the peaceful natives and forgot that they were on their way home from Troy. It was only through physical force that Odysseus managed to get his men back onto the ships.

Since it was impossible to bring an endless supply of food on a ship, Odysseus soon had to make another stop. On an uninhabited island – or so they thought, Odysseus and his men discovered a cave full of meat and cheese. Before they could return to the ship, the cave’s owner, a cyclops named Polyphemus, arrived and sealed the entrance to the cave. Trapped inside, Odysseus had to think quickly and introduced himself to the cyclops as Nobody. Odysseus persuaded Polyphemus to drink excessive amounts of wine until the cyclops fell asleep. Taking the opportunity, Odysseus used a wooden stake to blind the one-eyed creature, who woke up with a shout. Other cyclopes arrived on the scene to find out what the fuss was about but soon went away when Polyphemus told them “Nobody attacked me.”

Hiding under the underbellies of Polyphemus’ sheep, Odysseus and his men escaped the cave when the cyclops unsealed the entrance in the morning. They could easily have sailed away and gone straight home, however, Odysseus foolishly boasted about defeating the cyclops, revealing his name in the process. Polyphemus prayed to his father, Poseidon the god of the sea, to curse Odysseus to wander the seas for ten years, losing all his men in the process.

Odysseus’ next stop was the island of Aeolia where Aeolus, the keeper of the winds resided. He gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds except for the one that would blow their boat home. With instructions not to open the bag, Odysseus and his men set off towards Ithaca, however, whilst Odysseus was asleep, his men fell to temptation and opened the bag, releasing all the winds. As a result, the boat was blown off course, taking them even further away from home.

Following this, Odysseus and his men met with several disasters. The first occurred on the Laestrygonians’ Island where cannibalistic giants feasted on the majority of the men. The survivors sailed on to the island of Aeaea, where a witch-goddess Circe, daughter of the sun-god Helios turned all but Odysseus into pigs. Although Odysseus forced Circe to return his men to human form, her charm caused him to remain on the island for an entire year.

Odysseus managed to avoid disaster as they passed the land of the Sirens. The Sirens were dangerous creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with their beautiful songs. Odysseus instructed his men to plug their ears, however, he wished to hear the music. Odysseus tied himself to a post so that he could not be tempted to follow the sounds of the Sirens’ voices. Whilst no incident occurred with the Sirens, there was danger just around the corner. The ship had to pass between two creatures: Scylla, a six-headed monster, and Charybdis, a whirlpool. Although they successfully avoided Charybdis, Scylla managed to snatch up six men.

The next island Odysseus and his remaining men visited was Thrinacia. Due to a storm, they were unable to leave the island for several days, causing them to use up all their provisions. Hungry, Odysseus prayed to the gods, however, his desperate starving men hunted down some cattle to feast upon. These cattle, however, turned out to be the sacred cattle of Helios, the god of the sun. As a punishment, the next time Odysseus and his men took to the sea, the gods caused a shipwreck, which only Odysseus survived.

With no means of getting home, Odysseus found himself washed up on the island of Ogygia, where he was kept captive by the nymph Calypso. After seven years of homesickness, Zeus compelled Calypso to release Odysseus so he could eventually return home.

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Penelope mournfully waiting for her long-absent husband

For ten years, Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited patiently for her husband’s return. Believing him to be dead, many suitors tried to worm their way into the household. Penelope fended them off by saying she would only marry one of them after she had finished her weaving. Each day, she sat weaving and every night she undid the progress she had made, thus the work would never be finished.

On returning home, Odysseus found his home had been taken over by 108 young men. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus killed the leader of the suitors and revealed himself to his wife. Finally, the Trojan War got its happy ending.

It is not certain whether there ever was a Trojan War and Odysseus’ journey home seems even less probable. For hundreds of years, people assumed it was a myth, a story for entertainment purposes. Nonetheless, this did not stop people from trying to locate the city of Troy. Believed to be situated in Anatolia – northwest modern-day Turkey – pilgrims visited the area, believing they were travelling the paths of their ancient heroes.

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Heinrich Schliemann by Sidney Hodges

An English expatriate, Frank Calvert (1828-1908) believed he had located the site of Troy on a mound at Hisarlik, the remains of an ancient city near Çanakkale in Turkey. Seven years later, when Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), a German pioneer of archaeology, arrived, Calvert quickly persuaded him to investigate the area. What they discovered was the remains of the mythical city of Troy. Although Calvert helped with the excavation, it was Schliemann who took the accolades.

Between 1870 and 1890, Schliemann’s excavations revealed more and more about the real city of Troy. It is estimated people first settled in the area around 3000 BC during the Early Bronze Age. For around four thousand years, people lived in Troy until it was abandoned in 600 AD. Schliemann’s findings and those of archaeology teams that followed him record how people lived during this lengthy period.

Life in Troy has been categorised into nine phases with Troy I being the earliest and Troy IX the last. Troy I was only a small village but by the time Troy II was established between 2500 and 2300 BC, the city had strong walls encircling a citadel, although still rather small. Being on the Dardanelles strait, Troy would have been in prime position for trading, which may explain its gradually increasing size.

By the Late Bronze Age (1750–1180 BC) Troy had a larger citadel with stronger, sloping walls, some of which can still be seen today. As well as access to the trade route, surrounding Troy was agricultural land, which was used to keep animals, particularly sheep and grow crops. Evidence of horses in the area have also been unearthed, which links to the Trojan prince Hector in the Iliad, who was described as a horse-tamer.

Troy was destroyed at the end of the Bronze Age (1180 BC), which some have attributed to the Trojan War. Other cities in the Mediterranean, however, were also destroyed for reasons unknown, which puts the specific Trojan War into question. Homer did not live, if he ever existed, until the 8th or 7th century BC, by which time Troy had been rebuilt and renamed Ilion, which is the name Homer uses in the Iliad.

Troy, or Ilion, flourished once more. Although it was not as important as other cities in the ancient world, it was a populous city for hundreds of years. It seems strange that a large city could ever be “lost”, however, by the 6th century AD, the population had dwindled and unused buildings crumbled away. Any evidence of Troy’s existence was eventually covered by debris until all that remained was the hill-shaped mound now known as Hisarlik.

Schliemann was convinced Troy II was the ancient Troy or Ilion mentioned by Homer and, therefore, the site of the Trojan War. Archaeologists today, who are still excavating the area, date Troy II to the Early Bronze Age, which is too early for the war, nor does it contain any physical evidence of combat.

Although the mythical Troy has yet to be proven or disproven, life in the city has been discovered and documented, beginning with the 100 or so items Schliemann brought to England for an exhibition at London’s South Kensington Museum (V&A) in 1877. Amongst the items were “face pots” that appeared to have eyes and may have, as Schliemann believed, been idols of the goddess Athena. Many other pots were also in the collection, some with three “legs” and one big enough to store enough grain to feed a small family for a year.

Rather than ending the exhibition here with the half-successful search for the site of the Trojan War, the British Museum returned to the myths with a selection of artworks that explore how artists have interpreted the stories over the past millennium. Authors have also used the Trojan myths as the basis of their stories, for instance, William Shakespeare‘s Troilus and Cressida and Edward Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590): “For noble Britons sprang/from Trojans bold,/And Troynovant was built/of old Troy’s ashes cold.”

Even though artists have chosen to depict the same scenes, for instance, the sirens, their outcomes are very different. Take, for example, African-American artist Romare Bearden’s (1911-88) The Siren’s Song, which shows Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship in the background. In the foreground, the sirens are dancing in human form, attempting to lure Odysseus to his death. In Greek mythology, sirens were represented as part human and part bird, however, Bearden portrayed them as fully human.

Herbert Draper (1863-1920) is another artist who altered the appearance of the sirens. In Ulysses and the Sirens – Ulysses being the Roman name for Odysseus – Odysseus is once again tied to the mast, however, sirens in the form of mermaids are attempting to climb onto the ship. Mermaids are half-human, half-fish and may have been inspired by the Greek sirens. In folklore, mermaids also lure sailors to their deaths.

Whilst heroes tend to be portrayed during their prime, a few artworks at the British Museum reveal the vulnerable side of the great men. Hector was one of Troy’s best fighters and it was a great loss when he was killed in battle by Achilles. British artist of Huguenot descent Briton Rivière (1840-1920) painted Hector lying dead, face-down in the sand. As the Iliad tells us, Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the battlefield for several days, however, the gods protected the corpse from damage. In Rivière’s painting, Hector’s muscular body looks as pure as it would had he been alive.

Achilles heel is usually regarded as his only vulnerability, however, his emotions also get the better of him. Firstly, his anger causes him to stubbornly refuse to fight but when Patroclus is killed, his anger turns to grief followed by rage, which causes him to join the battle and go after Hector. The Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) produced a quick sketch of Achilles lamenting the death of his best friend. Achilles collapses over the body of Patroclus, which is an action that many would deem unmanly. Fuseli, on the other hand, admired Achilles and the other Greek heroes for their authentic emotions.

Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, was a popular topic for artists. Since no one knows what Helen looked like, artists have portrayed their own perceptions of beauty. William Morris (1834-96) drew Helen as the Flamma Troiae (Flame of Troy) with long, flowing blonde hair. Although she supposedly ignites passion in men, she demurely looks down as though innocent of the effects of her beauty.

Evelyn De Morgan’s (1855-1919) version of Helen, however, is much more enticing. Aware of her beauty, golden-haired Helen looks into a hand mirror, absorbed with her own appearance. The contours of her dress reveal her slender legs and her bare arms are something women of the past would not have dreamed of showing in public.

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Helen’s Tears – Edward Burne-Jones

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), on the other hand, took a different approach to Helen. Rather than focus on her beauty, Burne-Jones thought about how the war would have affected her. In his tiny watercolour, Burne-Jones shows Helen consumed by guilt about the destruction of Troy. Wearing dark clothing, she holds her hands to her face whilst Troy burns around her. Although the war was not her fault, she is taking the blame for the outcome, for it is for her that the Greeks came to destroy the city. The crown atop her head indicates Helen’s importance in the story. She is not just a beautiful woman, she is a queen. Paris may have taken Helen because she was the most beautiful woman in the world but the Greeks want her back because she belongs to them as the wife of Menelaus.

Contemporary artist Eleanor Antin (b.1935) recreated the Judgement of Paris in a humorous, modern, photographic manner. The male models represent Zeus and Paris who are looking at the three goddesses whilst trying to decide which of them is the most beautiful. Athena, the goddess of warfare amongst other things, holds her rifle aloft, whilst Aphrodite in magenta and purple strikes a tempting pose. Presumably, the winged child hugging Aphrodite is Eros, known as Cupid in Roman mythology. The most humorous depiction of a goddess is Hera, goddess of the home, who dressed as a 1950s housewife, holds a vacuum cleaner in one hand. Helen, who is dark-haired in this version, sits to the side, thoroughly annoyed that she is being treated as a possession rather than a human being.

William Blake’s (1757-1827) The Judgement of Paris is more in keeping with other artists’ version of the scene. The three goddesses, all of them naked, stand in front of Paris as he hands the apple to Aphrodite. In the sky above, a demonic figure, possibly Eris the goddess of discord, indicates the destruction that is yet to come.

The exhibition ends with two shields. Since Roman times, people have attempted to recreate Achilles’ shield, which as no one knows what it looked like, has been a virtually impossible task. According to Homer, the shield was forged by the god Hephaestus and, therefore, was better than any man-made shield. In 1822, John Flaxman (1755-1826) designed a shield that took inspiration from ancient works of art. Using clay to make a model, Flaxman included scenes from the Trojan War on the shield, which was eventually gilded in silver.

The other shield is a contemporary installation by Spencer Finch (b.1962). Made from fluorescent lamps positioned in a radiating circle, Finch created this shield after visiting Troy and feeling moved by the mythical stories. Whilst this particular shield would be useless in battle, it shows the story of the Trojan War is still fresh and popular in the 21st century. Whether myth or reality, the story continues to live on.

Troy: Myth and Reality is on display at the British Museum until 8th March 2020. Tickets are £20, however, under 16s can attend for free when accompanied by a paying adult.


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Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

Until 3rd May 2020, the people of Britain have a final chance to see the glittering world heritage artefacts that were discovered in a tomb belonging to King Tutankhamun before they return to Egypt forever. With a new museum being built specifically for the treasures in Egypt, 150 of the total 5366 objects are gradually making their way around the world on their final tour. Following successes in Los Angeles and Paris, it is London’s turn to hold the once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the wonder and mystery of the boy king.

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Tutankhamun was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who ruled at the end of the 18th dynasty (c. 1334 – 1325 BC). He took the throne at the tender age of nine after his father, Akhenaten (originally named Amenhotep IV) passed away. During Akhenaten’s reign, he had established an Aten cult, an ancient religion that deified the sun, dismissing other Egyptian gods. For this reason, the pharaoh renamed himself Akhenaten, meaning “effective for Aten.” He and his wife, known as “The Younger Lady”, named their son Tutankhaten, meaning “living image of Aten”. After Akhenaten’s death, the “boy king” dissolved the Aten cult and reinstated the cult of Amun, changing his name to Tutankhamun – “living image of Amun”. Amun is a major ancient Egyptian deity who may also be the equivalent of the Greek god Zeus.

When Tutankhamun became king, he married his half-sister Ankhesenpaaten, who subsequently changed her name to Ankhesenamun. Two mummified foetuses found in the same tomb as Tutankhamun suggests they had a couple of daughters, neither of whom survived. Data collected from the bodies reveals one was born prematurely at around 6 months of pregnancy, and the other was full term, however, suffered from Spina Bifidia, scoliosis and Sprengel’s deformity. Therefore, Tutankhamun, who died after a short reign of ten years, had no living heir.

Tutankhamun’s cause of death remains a mystery to this very day. His skeleton reveals he was physically disabled with a deformity in his left foot, which, judging by the number of walking sticks in the tomb, meant he needed assistance walking. He had other health issues including a cleft palate, scoliosis and several strains of malaria, however, it is not thought that any of these problems killed him. Xrays revealed Tutankhamun had a compound left leg fracture, which given the lack of modern medicine and technology, could have left Tutankhamun dead within a week. How the Pharoah received this wound can only be speculated.

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As items in the tomb reveal, Tutankhamun was also known by his throne name Nebkheperure. During his reign, he commissioned new statues of deities that had been destroyed whilst his father was on the throne and began to restore the old Egyptian order. This involved renouncing the god Aten, changing his and his wife’s name and reinstating Egypt’s polytheistic religion.

Given his age, Tutankhamun presumably did not rule alone and would have had advisers, such as Ay (a possible great uncle), who became Pharaoh after the boy king’s death. Nonetheless, Tutankhamun was praised for his successes, as evidenced by the gifts from other countries found in his tomb.

Tutankhamun’s history may be brief and open to speculation, however, none of this would have been known at all if his tomb had not been discovered almost 100 years ago. Ay died after a short reign of four years and was replaced by Horemheb, who had been promised the throne if Tutankhamun had no children. For reasons unbeknownst, Horemheb ordered Tutankhamun’s name be hacked out of all monuments, often replacing it with his name. Tutankhamun was literally written out of history and his name forgotten. It is thanks to an Englishman by the name of Howard Carter that Tutankhamun is the most famous of all Egypt’s pharaohs.

Howard Carter was a British archaeologist and Egyptologist who rose to worldwide fame after discovering the intact tomb of Tutankhamun. Carter was born in Kensington, London on 9th May 1874 and received artistic training from his father Samuel John Carter (1835–92). Howard was the youngest of eleven children and spent much of his childhood with his relatives in Norfolk. Whilst there, Howard frequently visited Didlington Hall, which contained a large collection of Egyptian antiques. Seeing that he had a keen interest in the subject, one of the hall’s owners sent 17-year-old Carter to Beni Hasan in Egypt with the Egypt Exploration Fund to help excavate the tombs in the area.

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Lord Carnarvon

During the 1890s, Carter helped to record the wall reliefs in the temple of Hatshepsut, the second historically-confirmed female ruler (1479-58 BC). At the end of the decade, he was appointed Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service and supervised several excavations at the ancient city of Thebes. He resigned from his position in 1905 due to arguments between Egyptian guards and French tourists. Fortunately, three years later, Carter met George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866 – 1923) who employed him to supervise the excavation of tombs opposite the city of Thebes.

In 1914, Lord Carnarvon got permission to dig in the Valley of Kings, where Egyptian pharaohs were buried between the 16th and 11th centuries BC. By then, knowledge of Tutankhamun’s existence had been unearthed in tombs of those who had died before him, i.e. in places Horemheb could not access to remove his name. Although World War One hindered the excavation work, Carter returned to the site in 1917, however, by 1922, Lord Carnarvon was dissatisfied with the lack of results.

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Hussein Abdel-Rassoul

Carter convinced Lord Carnarvon to let him carry on working in the Valley of Kings for one more year. He instructed his workers to clear some ancient huts and the surrounding rock debris, however, when he arrived on the site on 4th November 1922, no one was working. Earlier that day, the team’s water boy Hussein Abdel-Rassoul had discovered a stone that turned out to be the first step of a flight of stairs. Having waited for Carter’s arrival, they assisted him to dig out the rest of the steps until reaching a mud-plastered doorway stamped with hieroglyphics. Wanting his employer to be there when the tomb was opened, Carter refilled the earth they had dug and sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon who eventually arrived on 23rd November.

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”
– Howard Carter

Using a chisel he had been given by his grandmother when he was 17, with Lord Carnarvon and his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert (1901-80) in tow, Carter made a small hole in the top left-hand corner of the doorway through which he could peer with the aid of a candle. “Can you see anything?” Lord Carnarvon asked. To which Carter responded with the famous words, “Yes, wonderful things!” Carter had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, later designated with the serial number KV62 (King’s Valley 62).

For the next few months, Carter painstakingly catalogued the items in the antechamber of the tomb, eventually making his way through another door that led to the burial chamber. In there, he unearthed the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun and, therefore, the remains of the pharaoh’s body. Work was suspended for a month in 1923 due to arguments about who owned the discovered items: Carnarvon, who paid for the expedition, or the Egyptian authorities. After a month, Carter resumed work but Lord Carnarvon soon became fatally ill.

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Lord Carnarvon contracted blood poisoning from an infected insect bite on his cheek. As a result, he passed away in Cairo on 5th April 1923. Newspapers throughout the world were quick to pick up on the fact that Carnarvon’s facial infection resembled a wound on the cheek of Tutankhamun’s body – later confirmed to be caused by the excavation – and rumours of a curse surrounding the pharaoh’s cave spread like wildfire. Later deaths and mishaps involving some of the people who worked on the excavation were also linked to this fictitious curse. Even today, some Egyptologists feel the effects of the “curse” despite logic debunking the rumour.

Howard Carter, on the other hand, appeared immune to the supposed curse and continued to excavate and catalogue the items in the tomb. As well as the objects discovered in the passageway, there were four chambers full of “wonderful things”: the Antechamber, Burial Chamber, Treasury and Annex. Amongst the 5336 objects were items made from gold, silver, semiprecious stones, wood, ivory, linen and leather.

Despite being world-famous, Carter did not receive much recognition in his own country, however, in 1926 he received the Order of the Nile from King Fuad I of Egypt (1868-1936). Later, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Science by Yale University and honorary membership in the Real Academia de la Historia of Madrid.

Carter retired from archaeology after finishing with the tomb and began working as an agent for collectors and museums. He also published several books on Egyptology and delivered a series of lectures in Europe and America. Unfortunately, Carter developed Hodgkin’s Disease and passed away on 2nd March 1939 at the age of 64. Despite being world-famous for his discovery, very few people attended his funeral.

The majority of Carter’s finds are still in Egypt, however, the 150 items – at least 60 of which had never left Egypt before – currently in the Saatchi Gallery give a flavour of the type of objects found in the tomb. As can be expected, many of the items depict the boy king, celebrating his reign, such as a gilded wooden figure of Tutankhamun throwing a harpoon. Standing upon a papyrus raft, the pharoah appears ready to throw the weapon, presumably at a hippopotamus, which were widely hunted at the time. Hippos were a danger to human life and destroyed agricultural fields by flattening them with their heavy bodies. In Egyptian mythology, Seth, the god of chaos, often took the form of a hippo in the hopes of killing his brother Horus, however, he never succeeded.

A wooden statuette of Tutankhamun riding a leopard was placed in the tomb to aid him in the afterlife as he travelled to the next world. The netherworld was believed to be a dangerous place and the black leopard, associated with rebirth, was to guide and guard Tutankhamun on his journey. The statuette wears a tall white crown and holds a long staff, which symbolises authority, however, some people do not think the figure was originally intended to represent Tutankhamun. The statuette contains a few feminine qualities, including breasts, which suggests it was intended for a female king, for instance, Nefertiti. Dying so young, there had not been many preparations for Tutankhamun’s tomb, which may explain the appropriation of this object.

Other statues of the pharaoh depict him with a walking stick, alluding to his deformed foot. The number of walking sticks found in the tomb suggests Tutankhamun was reliant upon them to move around. Despite this disability, Tutankhamun was always depicted as an important, respect-worthy king. Even the damaged colossal quartzite statue that closes the exhibition demonstrates his importance. This dramatic statue was not found inside the tomb but may have once stood at Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple. This is one of the objects destroyed by Horemheb, who carved his name across the belt where Tutankhamun’s name would once have been.

Hidden amongst the treasures were objects that Tutankhamun may have used in his lifetime, as well as the walking sticks. Over seventy bows and four hundred arrows were buried with the king, some of which had been used and others that were just for show. The bow was a key weapon in Egyptian times and there were always expert archers in their armed forces. The varying sizes of the bows suggest Tutankhamun was taught to shoot from a very young age. There were also early forms of the boomerang, which were thrown at birds to knock them out of the sky.

The more elaborate bows were made from gilded wood and inlaid with coloured glass and calcite. Gold wire and sheet gold also ornamented the weapons and Tutankhamun’s throne name, Nebkheperure was inscribed in a band of gold on a few of the bows.

Some objects, such as a gilded wooden fan, contained carved images depicting Tutankhamun’s great achievements, albeit fictional ones. Being as disabled as his skeleton suggests, it is unlikely Tutankhamun shot arrows at ostriches from his fast-moving carriage. This scene is shown on one side of the fan, which was once fitted with the ostrich feathers from the animal the king had killed. On the other side, the image shows the king returning with the dead ostriches. It may be true that he shot them himself, but whether the event was as energetic as the artist suggests is uncertain.

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A ceremonial shield was discovered in the Annex of the tomb, which portrayed Tutankhamun as a sphinx: a human-headed lion. Due to the elaborate design, this shield would not have been suitable in battle but would have been present at ceremonial or ritual occasions. The Egyptian sphinx was a benevolent being with ferocious strength, which is how Egypt wished to view its kings. On the shield, the sphinx/Tutankhamun tramples on a couple of Nubians, an ethnolinguistic group of Africans, as an expression of the Egyptian view that the world belonged to the pharaoh.

Other elements on the shield include a fan, similar to the ostrich fan, which emphasises Tutankhamun’s royal title; a winged sun disk that protectively stretches over the king; and a falcon, representing Montu, the god of war.

The Egyptian gods were an important aspect of both life and death, therefore, it was unsurprising that Carter found many references to them in Tutankhamun’s tomb. There were over 2000 deities in the Egyptian pantheon, some whose names are still recognised today: Isis, Osiris, Horus, Ra, Hathor, Thoth and so on. Some gods were only worshipped in particular areas, however, others were worshipped throughout Egypt. Horus was one of these and appeared in Tutankhamun’s tomb in several different forms.

In one figure, Horus was depicted as a hawk with a sun disc on its head. In another, he was the half-bird half-human Herwer (Horus the Elder). Horus was a powerful sun god, sometimes referred to as Horakhty (Horus of the Two Horizons) and Horemakhet (Horus in the Horizon). He was the son of Isis and Osiris, therefore also called Harsiesis (Horus, Son of Isis) and Harpocrates (Horus the Child). Egyptian mythology states Osiris, the heir to the throne, was murdered by his brother Seth but was briefly resurrected by Isis during which time they conceived a son. Osiris eventually travelled to the netherworld to reign as king of the dead, whilst Isis endeavoured to keep their son Horus out of his uncle’s clutches. When Horus grew up, he battled against Seth and emerged victorious, taking his rightful place on the throne. Due to this story, Horus was sometimes used as a symbol of the king, which explains why he was prominent in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

In total, the tomb contained hundreds of figurines, many of them intended to help Tutankhamun in the afterlife. The netherworld resembled the living world, including fields, farms and towns, therefore, the dead were buried with shabtis (servant figures) that would activate in the afterlife and accomplish any unpleasant task the deceased faced. Buried with Tutankhamun was an enormous workforce that provided a servant for every day of the year as well as an overseer for every ten workers and a supervisor for every three overseers.

Each shabti was unique, for example, one was painted to resemble the king, whereas another looked more like the Nubian mercenaries that served in the Egyptian army. The costumes were rather elaborate for servants but it identified them as belonging to Tutankhamun. Some of the wooden figures wore painted gold clothing, complete with royal symbols and hieroglyphs.

Many of the items left in the tomb were to assist Tutankhamun in the afterlife. Boxes full of food, including meat and fruit were left with the body so that the dead would not starve on their journey. Some of the comestibles, such as herbs and seeds, may have been some form of medication, insinuating Tutankhamun had been a rather sickly person. It appears not even death would cure the king of his ailments.

The foodstuffs were preserved in nondescript boxes, however, Carter also discovered many decorated ones. On the floor of the Treasury was a wooden cartouche box decorated with ivory and ebony symbols. Rather than writing Tutankhamun’s birth name, the craftsman has used symbols to represent the Pharoah. For example, two loaves of bread and a quail chick spell out Tut, and a reed leaf, a game board and a water sign represent Amun, the god who Tutankhamun revered.

Not all the boxes were specifically made to place in a tomb, for example, the semi-circular box found in the Antechamber. Wear and tear suggest the box may have been used during Tutankhamun’s lifetime, for example, to transport written papyrus documents from place to place. Not only was it not intended for the tomb, but it also was not made for Tutankhamun either. Although Tutankhamun’s name has been added to the box, the original inscription gave the names of his predecessor Ankhkheperure and his half-sister Meritaten.

Tutankhamun’s wealth and status were clear from the amount of gold, silver and jewels discovered in his tomb. Hundreds of jewellery items were found in boxes in the Treasury, many which may have been gifted, worn by the pharaoh, or left in the tomb for protection in the afterlife. Every piece of jewellery was symbolic in some way, for instance, a lapis lazuli beetle, which represented the sun god.

A vulture represented the deity Nekhbet, the patron goddess of Upper Egypt where Tutankhamun reigned. The pendant is ornately decorated with gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise and coloured glass befitting of a king. In each of the bird’s claws is a tiny necklace containing the king’s throne name, proving it was made specifically for Tutankhamun.

Another bird used in jewellery was a falcon with upswept wings. Typically, bird pendants have their heads turned to one side, but in one version the bird faces forward as though looking at the viewer. A carnelian round sun upon the falcon’s head suggests it is representative of Horus and the bird also carried two pendants in its talons, also indicative of the sun.

“A man dies twice — once when the last breath leaves his body, and again when his name is spoken for the last time.” (Paraphrased)

When Horemheb became pharaoh and tried to write Tutankhamun out of history, he was also trying to cause Tutankhamun’s second death. The ancient Egyptian’s believed a man died when his soul left his body but was still considered alive as long as his name was spoken. Due to Howard Carter’s discovery of the missing tomb, Horemheb’s plan was thwarted. Tutankhamun is now the most famous of all the pharaohs and, if the size of the crowds queueing to see the exhibition is anything to go by, his name will never be forgotten. Thanks to Carter and the world’s continued interest, Tutankhamun has been made immortal.

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh attracted over 1.4 million visitors when it was displayed in France. The London exhibition is expected to reach similar records, which is no surprise considering Tutankhamun’s fame and the fact that this is the final opportunity to see the artefacts outside of Egypt. As well as seeing 150 objects, visitors can opt to take part in a Virtual Reality experience in which they dive into a computer-generated version of Tutankhamun’s tomb and have a look around.

Adult tickets are priced between £24.50 and £28.50 and are selling fast, so do not delay booking your timed entry. Due to popularity, the gallery is operating on a timed entry system and it may take up to thirty minutes to get through security. The average length of stay is 90 minutes.


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