An excerpt from

The Irish Pasha

Louise Foxcroft

In 1923, when Pum was forty-two, he experienced ‘cosmic truth [and] annihilation of time’ in the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amen, newly opened by Howard Carter. He was a member of the official party that stumbled down the slope into the hewn rock at the private opening in the Valley of the Kings. For years he had dreamed and talked of the marvel of visiting an unrifled tomb and believed it was pre-ordained that he should be there. He had received a personal invitation from Lady Evelyn Herbert, Lord Carnarvon’s daughter, and as Assistant Oriental Secretary he was included in Field Marshall Viscount Allenby’s Residency party.

But his journey to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings was jinxed. At the eleventh hour a series of unusual incidents occurred which nearly prevented his presence at Lady Evelyn’s al fresco luncheon party by the tomb of Ramesses VI. This succession of happenings was both lucky and unlucky, and it appeared to Pum as though two opposite forces were contending to determine whether he would be there. Firstly, unknown to him, the date and time of the reception was changed and only a chance remark by an acquaintance revealed that it was to be on the very next day at noon, leaving him just one hour to catch the last possible train to Luxor. Catch it he did, but it was seriously delayed by an accident so that he reached Luxor just on noon, still with a long way to go to get to Thebes. When he reached the ferryboat to cross the Nile he missed his footing jumping on board and sprained his ankle badly. But, scarcely had he limped painfully ashore on the other side than he saw to his intense relief that the Residency party had also only just arrived, equally late. He joined their cars for the last leg of the journey, six miles of rough desert road up the mysterious, coral-coloured valley to the tombs.

The newly discovered tomb-entrance was just a hole in the hillside, neatly shored up with dry masonry, recently built - ‘in such an obscure spot did that incalculable treasure lie’. Round the entrance was a reserved circle beyond which clustered a great crowd of inquisitive sightseers, tourists, journalists and photographers. Within the circle stood the ‘hosts’: Lord Carnarvon ‘looking tired and pale’, Lady Evelyn, Howard Carter and his staff, and some personal friends of theirs, Egyptologists, diplomats, foreign and Egyptian Ministers and so on. Now there was only one remaining guest to wait for, the Queen of the Belgians who had travelled to Egypt especially for the occasion with a Royal party including the teenage Prince Leopold, Professor Jean Cappart the distinguished Belgian savant, and, as attaché, “Jimmy” Watson Pasha, who Pum thought a delightful chap. While they waited for them in the crowd and heat, Pum passed the time with Carter and asked him if he thought there were any other unrifled tombs to be discovered: ‘I hope to God not!’, came the answer.

After all the bowing and scraping that greeted the arrival of the royals, Lord Carnarvon led the Queen down the sharp incline into the tomb. The rest of the assembly began to queue up, formally, in pairs to wait for their turn to go in, some twenty minutes later. As he waited, watching those coming up out of the tomb into the bright sunlight, Pum was reminded of the scene in JM Barrie’s play Dear Brutus (1917) in which the characters ‘stagger back from an enchanted wood beyond the world, from what might have been to what is, and are so dazed by their experience that they struggle for something to grasp and cling on to: even a word with a concrete sense, “A table, hold on to that; hold on to a table!” So, in this valley beyond the world did each guest emerge dazed and unsteadily into reality’. Pum was paired with General Sir John Maxwell who had served in the Mahdist War, the Sudan, the Boer War and the Great War, but who is most remembered now for his suppression of the Irish Easter Rising in 1916 and the execution of the rebellion leaders. The time came for them to descend into the underground chambers. Taking off their hats and coats (Pum had to leave his makeshift walking sticks outside and hobble down) they ‘passed through that portal’, sealed until then for over three thousand years, and stepped over the threshold into the tomb, ‘out of Time’.

Going down a short incline they found themselves in an ante-room, a long, low chamber, lit by electric bulbs which had been rigged up for the visitors. This chamber had been cleared of everything save a few large alabaster vases. At its south end, two magnificent life-sized black wooden figures of the young King seemed to guard the way into the burial chamber. They faced each other, identical apart from a detail of headdress, stepping out, staff-in-hand, life-like and imposingly resilient. Between them was a wide opening where there had been, until two days previously, the third or inmost sealed door of masonry, now completely removed. Through this portal gleamed the huge side of an extraordinary catafalque, an unbelievably gorgeous surface of gold and turquoise-blue inlays. No-one knew then that it contained, one within the other, three similar coverings, then a carved sarcophagus, and finally a coffin of solid gold in which lay the King’s mummified body wrapped about with a fabulous treasure of jewelry.

Pum and Maxwell stepped down from the ante-room to the floor level of the burial chamber. The massive canopy almost filled the rock-hewn space with only one or two feet separating it from all four walls, while its giant roof reached almost to the ceiling. So tight a space was it that the General got wedged as he tried to manoeuvre himself around the corner. Pum offered gallantly to pull him back but he said, ‘No! For God’s sake, push me on!’, and so he shoved and heaved the bulky man through the gap, just a few more yards, towards the treasure chamber. This room was fenced in by a newly-made barrier over which they leaned, as if over a garden gate, to peer into the inmost recess, ‘this holy of holies’. Though the place had an indescribably time-worn appearance after thirty-four centuries, all in it seemed to Pum’s eyes untarnished, not a stain, not a scratch, not a spot of dust on the vibrant, shining gold and blue surfaces, as if it had been dusted and polished but a moment before.

In the centre of the far wall was the unique canopic shrine containing the King’s heart and other viscera, so complete and delicately made inside and out that Pum thought it ‘one of the masterpieces of the collection’. Round about it stood the four wistful little golden goddesses, their arms outstretched, appealing and protecting, as if, it seemed to Pum, they were whispering to him to ‘Hush!’ and be careful not to wake the sleeper. Afterwards, Professor Breasted told Pum that they had seemed to him quite gay, ‘like happy girls joining hands to dance around a maypole’. Just across the barrier, staring him full in the face was black Anubis, watch-dog of the underworld, life-size and life-like, prick-eared and wide-awake. Beside him was the lovely cow-headed Hathor, gentle and shy - both were magnificently carved in wood. On the floor between them was a group of exquisite coffers, and stacked in one corner a pile of dismantled racing chariots. The remaining walls and corners were lined with black sealed boxes, on top of which were many charming models of ships, bright-coloured, full-rigged, that to Pum’s mind brought an air of youthfulness to the place. Inspired, possibly by these ‘toy boats’, the baby chairs and chariots, and especially the two adolescents guarding the way, he wrote home the next day: ‘I feel the King is a youth perhaps seventeen or eighteen years old’, and a later x-ray examination proved that he was just under eighteen when he died.

Their time in the tomb was up, and as Pum and Maxwell turned back they were shown the store or furniture-room that opened off the ante-chamber - a wonderful jumble of chairs, beds and boxes of all sorts filled it from floor to ceiling. Outside they found a table of cold drinks and sandwiches, and before they left for Luxor the party was taken to see the workshop established within the empty tomb of Seti II, deep in the cliff at the far end of the valley. Down both sides stood many deal tables and large wooden carrying trays, each occupied by an object in the process of examination or treatment - it reminded Pum of a hospital ward. As they drove back towards the Nile, the setting sun behind them, everyone in the party was quite silent. Luxor, when they reached it, was as crowded and excited as perhaps never since the days of the Pharaohs.