How Reuters told the world about Tutanhkamun in February 1923
It was on the November 26, 1922 that archaeologist, Howard Carter looked through a small opening chipped in a 3000 year old wall and saw the glittering chaos of the ante room of the tomb of the Boy Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
“Can you see anything?” asked Lord Carnarvon, his chief backer.
“Yes, wonderful things” replied Carter.
The world went ‘Tut’ mad. From fashion to interior design, from Hollywood movies to hairstyles, ‘Egyptian’ became the ‘must-have-theme’ of the moment.
However, a burning question still remained unanswered. Was the young Pharaoh still in his grave beneath the dust and heat of the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor? Was the sarcophagus intact and was he the only pharaoh in the valley whose mummy had escaped the depredations of grave robbers? For the answer to this question, the public had to wait a further couple of months until February 1923.
Reuters sent Valentine Williams, brother of Chief Editor Douglas Williams, to Egypt as its special correspondent. However, there was a snag. Lord Carnarvon had reached an agreement with The Times for exclusive rights to the story. Despite this, Williams contrived not only to obtain news of the discovery of the intact sarcophagus within minutes of its happening but also to be the first to get a ‘flash’ out to the world.
The climax came on February 16, when taking a gamble that the final breakthrough into the chamber was imminent, Williams made his secret preparations.
First, he telephoned Reuters Cairo office to buy a car, and, as there was then no road, arranged for it and a driver to be sent to Luxor by rail. Under cover of night, 20 Eqyptians manhandled it to the Nile, levered it onto a small boat and hid it in the rushes on the western bank. This would be used to speed the news from the Valley of the Kings to the western bank of the river.
Next, a boat was hired to take the news across. He then arranged for a local car (a very ancient Model T Ford) to be on standby to carry the news from the eastern bank to the cable office in Luxor. As he waited near the tomb entrance, Valentine kept in his pocket two prepared telegram cables, each marked Urgent (triple rates). One read ‘Tomb empty’, the other ‘King’s sarcophagus discovered’.
Williams seized his chance when an Egyptian official briefly left the tomb to answer the call of nature. Bowing as he removed his sun helmet, he addressed the official. “Is it true, Excellency, that they have found two sarcophagi?” he asked in French, the language then of polite Egyptian society.
“No, no. Only one” came the reply.
“Quite plain, they tell me.”
“No, no. It is magnificently decorated. All blue and gold.”
No more was needed – Valentie Williams had his newsflash. Within 30 seconds his Eqyptian assistant was on his way in the car. The London evening papers put the stop-press news on the streets even before the archaeologists had left the tomb.
The Times retained its monopoly of subsequent descriptive accounts.
But it was Reuters who first alerted the world.