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A glittering spectacle that's worth its weight in gold

THOSE who delight in shaking their heads disapprovingly over the vulgar excesses of the Irish during the Celtic tiger years should really head on down to the RDS in Dublin to catch the newly opened exhibition 'Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures'.

When it comes to flaunting their wealth, the Irish were clearly in the halfpenny place. The ruling Ancient Egyptians threw their money around with dizzying abandon, and not only when they were alive.

Once dead, the one-upmanship dial was cranked up to 11. There's more bling on display in Dublin 4 right now than in Liberace's bedroom, all topped off by the iconic death mask of the man himself, the original of which weighs 11kg and cost $6bn (€4.4bn) to insure, making it the most valuable work of art in history.

They're all replicas, in case Martin Cahill wannabes start getting itchy fingers, reproduced to scale by expert Egyptian craftsmen; but it's still a mindblowing sight to see so much opulence gathered together under one roof, and all in intricate, highly symbolic detail.

There are amulets and weapons; a great number of large and small shrines; the throne ordered on King Tut's coronation at the age of nine; an incredible golden chariot -- 1,000 artefacts in total, intended to equip the dead Pharaoh on his journey to the afterlife. Stunning state-of-the-art multimedia technology bolsters the effect of authenticity.

Based on original photographs and diary entries from the period, the idea is to recreate for visitors, in three reproduction burial chambers, the exact moment when archaeologist or graverobber (take your pick) Howard Carter entered the tomb in 1922 and found the first complete collection of burial treasures ever discovered. The resting places of previous Pharaohs had all been stripped over the centuries by thieves.

It's probably the more gruesome exhibits which will hold most fascination for visitors, though, especially children, who don't seem to mind at all hearing how a hook was inserted up Tutankhamun's nose after death to hook his brain and yank it out by the same revolting route.

As for the gold coffins for the young king's internal organs, one each for the lungs, spleen, liver and intestines -- not to mention the pair of coffins for his two children, one stillborn, the other just a foetus -- that's all in a day's learning for a generation reared on Horrible Histories. The exhibition's sure to be a hit for school visits for that reason alone.

The premiere of this exhibition happened in 2008, but it was six years in the making before that. Nearly two million people have seen it since, and it's proved so popular that there are now three simultaneous shows on the road at any one time; right now, the other two are in Cologne and Manchester. When it finishes in Dublin, this one will be heading to Malmo in Sweden.

It's a testament to the enduring appeal of Tutankhamun in the world's imagination.

Christoph Scholz, the exhibition's chief producer, thinks the Egyptians continue to hold a fascination because "they're very close to our culture as Europeans" in a way that the "dark and dangerous" Aztecs and Incas are not.

The circumstances of the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb surely played a part too. He wasn't one of Egypt's best known pharaohs, and was quickly forgotten after his early death (murder, blood poisoning, sickle cell anaemia -- the various theories keep on coming), but he had the good fortune to be found again at the birth of a flourishing mass media, with readers keen to lap up exaggerated tales of curses in the distant desert, and bang on time for Hollywood to pick up enthusiastically, if inaccurately, on the Mummy legend.

The organisers have already been in the RDS for the past four weeks, painstakingly putting the exhibition together.

Aren't they worried about coming to Ireland at a time when we've all run out of money? Not a bit of it, insists Scholz. They've already sold 30,000 tickets in advance.

It's reassuring that there's still a sense of wonder out there amid the prevailing cynicism. Or maybe we're just nostalgic to see again what wealth looks like.

Whatever the reason, there ought to be a curse on anyone foolish enough to miss it.

Sorry, couldn't resist it.

'Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures' is at the RDS daily for a limited run. Tickets start from €16 for adults, €8 for children, and families from €39. Email sabrinasheehan @mcd.ie for school bookings

Sunday Independent