Tutankhamun’s first tour and its influence on popular culture
In contrast with Pharaonic figures such as Ramses II and Cleopatra, Tutankhamun only became famous 3,200 years after his death, when in 1922 he became a popular icon and when the cultural phenomenon ‘Tut-mania’ was born.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb had all the ingredients to set off a wave of fascination in the young king: the fact that the tomb was almost completely intact and filled with extraordinary funerary treasures, that Tutankhamun, until that point had been a little-known pharaoh who died in the prime of his life… and the rumours about a curse. From the time of the discovery in 1922, Tutankhamun experienced a second renaissance, well beyond the usual Egyptomania, and this time his fame could be seen in architecture, furniture, fashion, music, and even advertising (from lemons to nougat bars and Cleopatra soap).
Tut-mania was particularly prevalent in the Roaring Twenties, permeating every sphere of society; American president Herbert Hoover even had a pet German shepherd called King Tut.
A revival of the phenomenon occurred as a Tutankhamun exhibition toured in the 1970s, famously remembered for an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1978 when Steve Martin sang his song ‘King Tut’ live.
Tutankhamun’s gold burial mask is a graphic symbol that has been used and adapted on many occasions. It has widely been used in music, very recently by the singer Beyoncé. Although these references often have little to do with the real Tutankhamun and his reign, they do attest to the way in which ancient Egypt in now perceived and, above all, to the impact of the discovery of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in November 1922, shedding new light on the reign of a pharaoh which until that point had been somewhat overlooked.