Thirty feet beneath thedesert of southern Egypt, Yehia Gad stands in a cramped, stone tomb. On the wall, brightly-colored paintings tell the story of an ancient king’s journey into the afterlife. The precise strokes show a mummy embalmed with great care, a perilous battle for his soul, and an eternity spent riding high with the Sun.
Gad moves slowly, encased in a protective mask and gown, and a hat that hides his neat, grey hair. In front of him, on a wooden table, is the body that was buried here more than 3,000 years ago.
The stick-thin figure is little more than a silhouette, black as coal, with empty eye sockets and skin that’s cracked like parched earth. This is Tutankhamun, Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, a man whose people believed was a god on earth.
Gad puts on a pair of white gloves and picks up a biopsy needle.
It is February 2008. President Mubarak reigns over Egypt these days, and the nation’s antiquities service is led by a forceful, charismatic archaeologist called Zahi Hawass.
Gad isn’t the first to attempt to test Tutankhamun’s DNA, but he is the first to get this far. Previous efforts by foreigners were cancelled at the last minute. After decades of outside interference, Egypt’s politicians were reluctant to hand over the keys to the pharaohs’ origins—especially when the results, if dropped into the crucible of the Middle East, might prove explosive.
Now American television, with its lavish budgets, has bought its way to the king. The Discovery Channel has paid millions of dollars to film a pioneering study of Tutankhamun’s genetic heritage, this time carried out by the Egyptians themselves. If successful, the project could fill state coffers, achieve a scientific coup and reclaim dented national pride. Yet the goal is so ambitious that many of the world’s top researchers insist it isn’t even possible.
Gad, one of the country’s top geneticists, was chosen to lead the team. He has just one chance to collect the stories hidden deep within the king’s crumbling bones.
The tomb is dry and hot. Opposite looms the gowned shape of Hawass, who is scrutinizing Gad’s every move; squeezed into the corner is Discovery’s film crew. Gad tries to hide his nerves. He knows that the others doubt his ability, and for good reason: he has little practice working with mummies. Back in his Cairo lab, he has always been supervised by a foreign tutor. But his very first day pulling DNA without his teacher will be watched by the world, and his subject is the incalculably precious mummy of Tutankhamun.
With God’s will.
As the camera zooms in tight to capture every ounce of suspense, he eases his needle into the pharaoh’s fragile form. Watching him from the burial chamber wall is Anubis, the jackal-headed guardian of the dead. Pushing boundaries can be a dangerous business, as Gad is about to find out.
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