In 1922, the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in Egypt by an expedition led by the archaeologist Howard Carter. The discoveries made in uncovering the largely untouched tomb provided a wealth of knowledge about ancient Egypt, its burial practices, and its customs. Among the amazing items recovered was a set of wooden, silver, and bronze trumpets.
The sound of one of the trumpets was recorded in 1939 by BBC Radio so that people from all over the world heard the sound of this extraordinary and ancient instrument. A few months after the trumpet was played, World War II broke out, eventually leading to a legend that the trumpets had the magical power to summon war. In addition to being an example of some of the oldest trumpets in the world, the trumpets of Tutankhamun have also gained a mystique because of the legend.
The oldest trumpets were made of hollowed out animal horns, branches, and shells such as conch shells. They were probably originally little more than primitive megaphones and the sounds they made were harsh and may have been intended to frighten evil spirits. This may be one of the reasons that trumpets have always had magical connotations and have often been used in ritual contexts. The trumpets of Tutankhamen are made of wood and bronze. They are about 58 cm (22.83 inches) in length and 4 cm (1.57 inches) wide with a hole for the mouth on one side and a widened end on the other side to amplify the sound and make it into that of a trumpet.
The earliest trumpets in Egypt appear to have been used for military purposes, to alert and possibly direct soldiers on the battlefield. In light of this, it makes sense that a pharaoh would have been buried with trumpets, since he would probably have used them at some point to communicate with his armies. Because of the military use of trumpets in Egyptian history, trumpets in ancient Egyptian culture were probably associated with war – which is interesting considering the claim by Egyptian archaeologists, such as Zahi Hawass, that the trumpets have magical powers related to war.
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The Modern Association of Tutankhamun’s Trumpets with War
In 1939, the Egyptian Antiquities Service convinced BBC Radio to broadcast the sound of one of the ancient trumpets so that everyone listening to the radio could experience part of the world of ancient Egypt. The person to play the trumpet was Rex Keating, a prominent figure in radio at the time. Before playing it, Rex consulted Alfred Lucas, a man who had been involved with Howard Carter’s team to recover the artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb back in 1922, seventeen years earlier.
On the night that he was to play the trumpet on the radio, the electricity went out in Cairo five minutes before he was supposed to begin and Rex had to read his script by candle light when it was broadcast to London. Five months after this spectacle, Britain entered the war against Germany
According to some accounts, one of the trumpets was also played just before the Six Day War in 1967 and right before the beginning of the Gulf War in 1990. One of the trumpets was also apparently played right before the Egyptian uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011. During the looting, the trumpets were stolen. Later, they were mysteriously returned.
These are very interesting coincidences if they are true. The problem is that they are for the most part unverifiable. According to the Egyptologist Hala Hassan, a supporter of the idea that the trumpets are cursed, one of the trumpets was played in 1967 and again in 1990 by anonymous students who were conducting a study on the Tutankhamun artifacts. Furthermore, Hassan said that in 2011, a week before the revolution broke out, a staff member, again anonymous, at the museum had been photographing and documenting the artifact and he apparently played it. So far, these stories are anecdotal and do not provide conclusive evidence for the reality of the curse.
Tutankhamun’s Need to Trumpet a Call to War
Another way to confirm the curse might be to look at instances of war in Tutankhamun’s reign as pharaoh. Tutankhamun became pharaoh around the age of eight in about 1337 BC. During his short reign, he made many significant reforms that restored order to Egypt at the time. His predecessor, Akhenaten, had made several religious reforms. He replaced Amun, the chief god of ancient Egypt at the time, with another god, Aten, of whom Akhenaten claimed to be the incarnation. Claiming to be the incarnation of a deity was not a particularly extravagant claim for a pharaoh, since the Egyptian pharaohs were already believed to be successive incarnations of the sun god. All Akhenaten was saying by making such a claim was that the chief god of Egypt was no longer Amun but Aten.
These reforms destabilized Egypt and upset the priests of Amun, who held considerable power and influence because of their status as priests of the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon. Akhenaten threatened the position of the priests of Amun by dethroning Amun as the supreme god and replacing him with Aten.
He also neglected Egypt’s military as he focused much of his efforts as pharaoh on establishing this new religion to the neglect of his other duties as ruler of Egypt. As a result, Egypt declined militarily and territorially during the reign of Akhenaten.
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During his short reign, Tutankhamun reversed most of this, restoring Egypt’s military as well as its position as a regional power and restoring the old religion. One of the first things he did as pharaoh was to change his name from Tutankhaten, which he had been named as a child during the reign of Akhenaten, to Tutankhamun to herald the return of the old religion centered on the god Amun. What else he may have done as pharaoh will never be known because he died, possibly of a tragic accident, when he was only eighteen or nineteen years old. His reign was short but impactful.
Tutankhamun lived during an uncertain time in the history of the ancient Near East. It is likely that he did have to fight or at least command some wars against Egypt’s enemies such as the Hittites, the Semites dwelling in the Sinai Peninsula, and other rivals. If he led battles, trumpets would have been used. Whether one of these trumpets was a magical trumpet used to start wars with his enemies is, of course, unknowable, but it is an intriguing legend.
The broadcasting of the trumpet in 1939 on BBC Radio will probably not be repeated, since most archaeologists consider the trumpets to be simply too fragile for another performance. Fortunately, one of the trumpets was at least played once, so now we have a hint of the voice of ancient Egypt. On the bright side of no more performances, Tutankhamun’s trumpets won’t be starting any more wars.
Top Image: Tutankhamun’s silver trumpet with wooden insert. ( Meridianos) Tutankhamun’s War Chest by Asaf Braverman ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
By Caleb Strom