FACE TO BLACK FACE WITH KING TUT
Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A Balinese myth tells of the gods fashioning the first human beings from clay and baking them in an oven. The first batch was pale and undercooked and it was discarded. The second attempt was also a failure, because the figures were in too long and turned black. The third result was just right: the beautiful brown of the Balinese today.
This month, along with thousands of other tourists, I peered into the blank eyes of King Tutankhamun, on display for the first time in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor. The boy pharaoh was really overdone according to Balinese standards. Our guide, an expert on mummies, said that all mummies take on this dull black color, so this says nothing about King Tut's ethnic background.
Activists in the African-American community are up in arms about a reconstruction of King Tut's head from CT scan data. They say that the scientists, three teams of Egyptians, Americans, and French, have made him too white, and that this is an insult to the ancient Egyptians, who as Africans, would have been black. In response, the scientists, whose work was featured in the June 2005 issue of National Geographic, have said that there is no way to determine skin color from their data and they aimed for a compromise between black and white.
The ancient Egyptians considered themselves a unique people separate from their Asian enemies to the North and the black peoples of the South. At the entrance to the great temple at Abu Simmel, built by Ramses II 66 years after Tut's death, one finds distinctively African captives on the left and Asian captives on the right with clear Levantine features.
Zahi Hawass, the head of Egyptian Antiquities and TV personality, declares that "Tutankhamun was not black, and the portrayal of ancient Egyptian civilization as black has no element of truth to it." Emphasizing Egyptian uniqueness, Hawass further states that "Egyptians are not Arabs and are not Africans, despite the fact that Egypt is in Africa."
In response to criticism that an American exhibit did not portray Ramses II as a black African, an Egyptian embassy official complained that this was a form of "racial politics." He maintained that the great pharaoh "was neither black nor white but Egyptian." Obviously, having the pharaohs put on black face is an insult to Egyptians.
The ancient Greek geographer Strabo described the Egyptians as much like the Northern Indians, whose lighter skin and angular features contrasts with the dark skin, large lips, and small noses of those living in the south of India. African American activists make much of Herodotus' comment that the Egyptians were "dark-skinned and woolly haired." This comment is indeed puzzling, but scholars say that Herodotus, a light-skinned Greek, must have been speaking in a relative sense. Like all ancient commentators, Herodotus distinguished between Egyptians and Ethiopians (meaning black Africans), and the latter had "the woolliest hair of all." The hair one finds on Egyptian mummies is sometimes wavy, but it does not have tight curls.
In some inner city classrooms there now hang posters entitled "The Great Kings and Queens of Africa," and Egyptian royalty are depicted as black. The inclusion of Cleopatra, a person of Greek descent, completely undermines the credibility of this attempt to instill black pride. Also included in this poster are the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton and his wife Nefertiti. Akhenaton is most likely Tut's father and perhaps the world's first monotheist. This famous couple is historically portrayed as having broad noses and large lips, but other features such as big hips and protruding stomachs indicate disease. My tour guide, Egyptologist Robert Brier, believes that it was Mafan's syndrome.
King Tut's grandmother, Queen Tiye, is also said to have had Nubian origins, and her dark-faced busts appear to confirm this. Egyptologists, however, warn us that pharaonic art used color symbolically, noting that some faces are green, red, or yellow.
Archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley states that "there is nothing at all to suggest that Queen Tiye had anything other than the brown skin and dark hair of the typical Egyptian." In fact, Egyptologist Frank Yurco reports that Queen Tiye's mummy has "long, wavy brown hair, a high-bridged, arched nose and moderately thin lips."
There are many instances of great cultural accomplishments by ancient Africans. The Nubian kingdom of Meroe, Timbutktu's Islamic scholars and fabulously rich merchants, and the city state Great Zimbabwe are good examples. There is no need to exaggerate or to deceive in order to improve the self image of America's African-American children.