Sunday, November 20, 2022

Tutankhamun: Allies & Enemies, on PBS

Maybe Cousin Matthew’s untimely death was part of King Tut’s curse. Remember, Downton Abbey is actually Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Earl of Carnarvon, the fifth Earl being the one who funded Howard Carter’s search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. He almost pulled the plug, but Carter convinced him to bankroll one more fateful season. Of course, Egyptian Egyptologists Dr. Yasmin El Shazly and Mahmoud Rashad are way too responsible to talk about curses. (That’s my job.) However, they are fascinated by the young pharaoh’s death and the suspects who might have done him in throughout the two-part Tutankhamun: Allies & Enemies, which premiere back-to-back Wednesday night on PBS.

It is the 100
th anniversary of Carter’s discovery, so there will be a good deal of books and programming coming to mark the occasion this month. Everyone knows the boy king died young, but El Shazly and Rashad do a nice job explaining his place in his era. Even though Tut had little time to do anything important himself, his reign was still crucially important, because it represented a transition from his father Akhenaten’s monotheistic embrace of the god Aten to his grandfather-successor Ay’s restoration of the polytheism advocated by Egypt’s powerful priest class.

Throughout the program, Ay and his successor, the powerful general Horemheb (sort of like Tut’s Gurney Halleck), are identified as the two prime suspects in the boy pharaoh’s convenient death. El Shazly and Rashad talk to numerous colleagues on all sides of the issue. Ironically, this might be the most “fair and balanced” exploration of a historical controversy you will see on PBS all year. Eventually, the hosts try to come to some sort of conclusion, but they are not dogmatic in their arguments.

In terms of depth and quality,
Allies & Enemies is about on par with numerous prior Discovery Channel specials, but El Shazly and Rashad take viewers on-location to many dig-sites and Egyptology museums. The scenery is fantastic, including some historical attractions from subsequent eras, just because they are cool backdrops. Egypt’s tourism bureau should be well pleased.

Rather shrewdly, El Shazly and Rashad conclude with the unveiling of a forensic bust sculpted from a scan of Tut’s skull. Throughout both parts, they do a nice job with historical background and context. Both experts also perform well as on-camera hosts, especially considering English is not their first language. Recommended for viewers who enjoy the art and vibe of the ancient Egyptian era,
Tutankhamun: Allies & Enemies airs Wednesday night (11/23) on PBS.