Let me give you some sound advice. We all live in a world of noise. Mine echoed with the grunts of crocodiles, the tramp of cattle, the banter of workmen and the wails of mourners. Yours endures the rumble of traffic, the pounding of jackhammers, the blare of televisions and the thump-thump-thumps escaping alike from nearby headphones and helicopters. In all this chaos and cacophony, your ears struggle to identify the sounds that matter: Is that my car backfiring? Are those crocs near my feet? Is there an aircraft landing on me, or is that just the heavy bass of someone’s playlist? You need help, and that’s where I come in. At least I did, long ago.
Called a sheneb in the language of the pharaohs, I am a royal trumpet. I was invented to cut through useless noise and let it be known that something important should be heeded. In full-throated blare, I announced to his people the god-king’s arrival on state occasions; I summoned worshipers to religious observances; I even commanded armies on the battlefield. Whereas your modern trumpets play, we sheneb worked for our livings. Our mission was never to make idle toes tap, but to bring order to the world around pharaoh. We were the ultimate communication technology of our day—megaphones, microphones and mass media all in one.
Our usefulness made us the mainstays of war and religion throughout the Middle East. My ancestors spread across North Africa and then into Spain and far beyond. In many places, the sheneb-like nafir still trumpets during Ramadan, and some say your English word “fanfare” actually derives from al-nafir. Many diverse believers expect us to make the final sounds of this world on Judgment Day. This expectation reminds me of the Egyptian legend that it was Osiris, lord and judge of the underworld, who invented the very first sheneb.
Sadly, only two of my family members survive from the long age of the pharaohs. Both of us were buried together in the legendary tomb of Tutankhamun. For years, my brother and I had given voice to the boy-king’s every command. Our different pitches allowed the right people to respond appropriately to our distinct calls, much as you program your cell phones with personal ringtones. Do not doubt, however, that I commanded the greater respect, as established by my fancier uniform. I, glistening in silver and gold, am the general; my little brother is my adjutant. I stand 58.2 centimeters tall, whereas he is shorter and made of copper alloy. My shape resembles, quite deliberately, a tall lotus in bloom. In fact, the unmistakable design of Nymphae caerulea Savigny has been pressed indelibly into my bell. There, too, a pair of my pharaoh’s many names may be read, recorded in two sets of cartouches that spell out Nebkheperuretutankhamun, followed by one of his royal titles. These hieroglyphs have been oriented so as always to be read from the vantage point of the trumpeter, meaning that no matter who might sound me on his behalf, I am the voice of Tut himself.
As a sheneb, I lack the separate, cupped mouthpiece found on modern trumpets, nor do I have those three valves to vary my length and, thereby, my pitch. This means that I cannot hum a tune, not even something as simple as a bugle’s “Taps” or “Reveille.” My natural voice is limited to a single harsh note (Greek writer Plutarch later likened me to “a braying ass”), but in my day a sheneb’s bold intonation could not be ignored: “Heed Pharaoh, Lord of the two lands,” say I! My voice carried across the Nile Valley, resonated with conviction and communicated in limited pitch, but with long or staccato bursts, rather like your simple Morse code.
Producing this sound was hard on the trumpeter. The trumpeter gripped me tightly by the throat, usually with both hands, and with a firm kiss issued the requisite number of blasts to convey pharaoh’s bidding. This took skill and stamina; in fact, the Greeks later made trumpeting an Olympic sport.
Because I needed to be with Tut wherever he traveled, in peace and in war, I required a wooden insert to protect me from dents and other damage. This body double, called a core or stopper, preserved my shape during the busy nine years of my pharaoh’s reign, and for the 33 centuries since. Painted red, blue and green to appear also as a lotus, this core is removed only when I am called upon to speak for pharaoh. In some Egyptian artwork, the trumpeter can be seen cradling the stopper under his arm while blowing the horn itself. Given my long tubular construction, I am ironically a fragile thing of power—as one of your bumbling modern musicians can personally attest. You will soon learn that after what he did to me, I am lucky to be alive.
Imagine pharaoh's palace, filled with people, all answering to my every call.
Many of you would shudder at all I have seen and signaled. Imagine pharaoh’s palace, filled with people, all answering to my every call. Picture grand processions marshaling under my orders. Contemplate the thunderous ranks of the god-king’s army as it wheeled at my whim. I sounded off at the center of it all, at a time when Egypt was the envy of the world. With me at his side, Tutankhamun restored to pre-eminence the ancestral gods of the Nile after the experiment of his predecessor Akhenaten, who had embraced monotheism. Egypt’s priests and generals found fresh hope in the reign of the boy-pharaoh whose potent voice I was. All seemed well.
Then, in a year now called 1323 BCE, I fell silent alongside my pharaoh. No one knows to this day exactly what illness or injury transformed Tut from living Horus to resurrected Osiris. The news that winter came as a terrible shock, since he had been idolized as the very image of youthful vitality in spite of his limp. Tutankhamun stood 1.7 meters tall, less than three times my own height, but he towered in the minds of his people. He smiled with unusually healthy teeth (a sheneb notices), and he enjoyed an adventurous if abbreviated life. Tut had a great fondness for chariots, and it is still rumored that a violent crash may have injured his left thigh and contributed to his death. No royal tomb was ready to receive him so young, thus attendants piled into a borrowed grave the treasures of this fallen teenager: six of his favorite chariots, eight fine shields, four swords and daggers, 50 bows and other weaponry. They also stacked boxes, beds and model boats. Clothing and cosmetics vied for space next to jewelry and jugs of wine. Even the two tiny mummies of Tut’s stillborn children were stowed inside the tomb. I, along with my brother, joined pharaoh in these cramped quarters—he in the antechamber, but I more prestigiously in the burial chamber, my mouthpiece oriented toward Tut.
Before taking my place beside the royal sarcophagus, I let skilled artists attire me for the occasion. They added to my gilded bell a design showing the triad of Egyptian deities: Amun-Ra, Ptah, and Ra-Horakhty. These particular gods embodied all the worthies of the vast Egyptian pantheon, perhaps as a final repudiation of Akhenaten’s heresy. They also represented three divisions of pharaoh’s army. Thus, the decoration that altered me from active sheneb to funerary offering had the added benefit of pleasing both the priests and the generals of Tutankhamun’s entourage. This must have been the brilliant idea of old Aye, who buried my pharaoh and soon became the next god-king of Egypt.
Do not imagine, in your modern way, that in that dark abyss I despaired. Along the Nile, the buried stay busy. Tut the eternal teenager lived on; I could hear his bird-like ba (soul/ personality) come and go as it pleased, its flight unhindered by the eight meters of rock above us. Sometimes, I sensed tremors as workmen nearby chiseled out more tombs, followed by the faint trudge of feet as funeral followed funeral in the Valley of the Kings. I now know that a tomb begun by Ramses v crossed directly over Tut’s and continued 116 meters into the rock, angling over the tomb of Horemheb (whom I knew as one of Tut’s generals) and eventually crashing into the tunnels of yet another grave! It was like a gigantic ant farm.
Yet, not every sound was welcomed. Three times impious tomb robbers disturbed the king and me. The first came early in Tut’s afterlife. Brutes broke through the outer doorways of the tomb and rifled through the pharaoh’s personal effects. Their unclean hands pawed at Tut’s jewelry, perfumes, oils, linens and even the chest that contained my copper brother in the antechamber. Thankfully, local authorities swooped in and restored order to the violated sepulcher. The heavy doors were resealed, only to be breached a short time later by more determined thieves. They prowled the entire tomb, passing right by me on their way to the so-called treasury.
Much was taken, but so were some of the robbers. I suppose these captives were tortured and then impaled according to custom. A great deal is known about the tomb robbers of ancient Thebes thanks to the survival of their case files. Papyrus records immortalize their misdeeds. I am ashamed to say that a sheneb player named Perpethewemōpe was among the worst of these thieves. He dared supplement his wages by plunder and even falsely accused a fellow trumpeter named Amenkhau, with whom he had a grudge.
In Tutankhamun’s tomb the mess was heartbreaking. The royal scribe Djehutymose inventoried the disheveled tomb and hastily repacked its contents, leaving me beside the king’s burial shrine, wrapped in reeds beneath a beautiful alabaster lamp. There I lay contented until the third— and worst—of the plunderings.
For a very long time the funerals had ceased, but then the digging began again. I noted the noise of tramping feet above and wondered what pharaohs now were seeking their rest. Little did I know that a new kind of grave robber was looking for me. I heard their leader long before I saw him. He spoke an alien language, and he directed his band of thieves with annoying patience, as though he had no concern at all for the necropolis police. He called himself “Howard Carter,” “Englishman” and “archeologist.” According to his strange calendar, his gang found the first hidden steps leading down to Tutankhamun’s tomb on November 4, 1922. I could hear their scrabbling and their excited chatter, and then it suddenly stopped. For some reason, the men reburied the entrance they had found. I learned later that the looters had decided to wait for the arrival of Howard Carter’s overlord, a rich man with almost as many names and titles as Pharaoh: “George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon.” When he and his daughter Evelyn arrived, the shoveling began again in earnest. A few days later, I heard someone bang a hole through the antechamber door; the next day, the robbers entered. From the other side of the sealed passageway to the burial chamber, I could hear them.
Knowing something of tomb robbery, I was not surprised by what transpired next. Late one night, three of the band—Carter, Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn—tunneled into the burial chamber looking for the body of Pharaoh. I bristled as they stepped past me, taking note of their faces in the pale but painful flicker of their candles. Light of any kind had long been banished from my world. I wanted to sound an alarm but could not myself remove the protective core inside my throat.
Muted, I watched the robbers creep away. They painstakingly concealed the breach they had made in the door as if to deceive the necropolis police. Many months would pass before two of them came back; the third had apparently died in the meantime from the infected bite of an insect, and his demise was immediately blamed on Tut, just as I would eventually be accused of killing Howard Carter—along with 60 million other of his fellow humans.
On February 16, 1923, Carter and his crew “officially” opened the burial chamber in the presence of a small audience seated comfortably in the antechamber. Few of these spectators knew anything about the secret intrusion made some weeks earlier, so the robbers feigned surprise at everything they found, including me. I was scooped from the floor and studied, as recorded in Carter’s notes. I was given an unpleasant cleansing in ammonia and water; my wooden core was treated with something called celluloid. In a letter he later wrote, Carter let slip another of his little secrets involving me: “Though I am no expert with such musical instruments, I managed to get a good blast out of it which broke the silence of the Valley.” Yet the alarm I finally sounded (in Tut’s name, you recall) brought no one—no necropolis police, no royal troops, no one at all. Where had they all gone? Incensed at such insubordination, I soon was posted to the Egyptian Museum at Cairo, 600 kilometers away from the crypt and king to whom I still belonged.
I fumed without another sound until February 1933, when I was summoned before a visitor named Percival Kirby, who had taken a keen interest in all the musical instruments of Africa. Naturally, he wished to study me. With the encouragement of my museum keeper, this professor put me to his lips and the one loud note that he produced was, on your Western musical scale, a C.
Six years later, I spoke up again, but in a strange new way. A radio pioneer named Rex Keating arranged for me to broadcast a message from the Cairo Museum that would be heard all around the world. Keating, of course, knew that I could only issue a single note, and this he deemed unworthy of the event. So, he allowed a military trumpeter stationed in Egypt to stuff a modern mouthpiece down my throat in order to play some sort of tune. During the second rehearsal, the strain was too much, and I cracked. Then and there, in the presence of a latter-day pharaoh named Farouk, I fell to pieces. The horrified king, trumpeter and museum staffers dropped to their knees and scrambled to recover my broken remains. All witnesses to this disaster were sworn to secrecy, lest the world be outraged at my mistreatment. While experts labored feverishly to restore me to life, much as Isis had done for Osiris, Keating searched for a more reliable musician. He chose a British bandsman named James Tappern, who treated me with greater respect according to my superior rank.
At the appointed hour on an April evening in 1939, Keating and Carter’s old associate Alfred Lucas introduced me to millions of rapt listeners. A BBC announcer with a sonorous voice intoned with all the gravity he could muster: “The Trumpets of Pharaoh Tutankhamun! Lord of the Crowns, King of the South and North, Son of Ra!” On cue, trumpeter Tappern, using a modern mouthpiece now held safely in place by cotton batting, teased from me notes I had never heard in my life. I was quite shrill, climbing in flourishes well above my native C, all to Keating’s great satisfaction. Tappern made me perform something called the “Post-horn Gallup,” a lively tune unknown to the sheneb of ancient Egypt. I suppose this exploit was therefore historic, if not quite historical. I am told that my performance can still be heard by anyone at any time simply by searching through a communications maze called Internet. On that day my adjutant brother played a little, too, but no one paid him much heed. I, on the other hand, apparently killed.
The one loud note he produced was, on your Western musical scale, a C.
Many frightened listeners insisted that my voice unleashed a curse, one that murdered, at that very moment, my abductor, Howard Carter. This was nonsense, of course: He had already expired several weeks earlier. No less surprising, many people even claim that I caused the carnage you call the Second World War. My mighty voice allegedly summoned to battle a host of nations wielding weapons no pharaoh imagined. I vow I gave no such order! As I said, Tappern’s mouthpiece gave me a modern voice, not an authentic mandate from either my pharoah or ancient Egypt. Keating had apparently been warned that listeners might misunderstand me, especially given the infamous “Curse of King Tut’s Tomb” that allegedly began with the death of Lord Carnarvon. I must say such talk of murderous mummies reflects poorly on your civilization. Statistics actually show that Carter’s gang lived full lives that generally exceeded the norms of the time: Carnarvon died at 57, Carter at 65, Lucas at 78, and Lady Evelyn at 79.
I have only performed twice more since that day. In 1941 I sounded a few notes as part of an acoustic experiment conducted at the Cairo Museum. Later, in January 1975, I blared another brief solo. The trumpeter, famed musician Philip Jones, said of me: “Its sound was not exactly melodious ... but it was probably the most thrilling experience I shall have as a trumpet player.”
Probably? Can you think of anything grander than touching your lips to the sheneb of Tutankhamun? I am sure he spoke in jest—after all, I am the horn of Africa. Those present were among the last ever to hear a sound from an ancient civilization.
Now, given my advancing age and recent misadventures, I may never sound again, although, in the fashion of your civilization, I have been on tour for some time now. I have been traveling first class again, learning along the way that beyond my native Nile, many lands exist. Your towns are of course much harder to pronounce than my Tjeb-nut-jer, Hut-Tahery-Ibt, and Taya-Dja-yet. Go ahead, try to say them: Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Dallas, London, Melbourne. I find the fan-frenzied exhibitions in these exotic places fascinating from my side of the glass. Children no older than Tut when he ruled an empire crowd around my case, their mouths blowing into their little fists as if to make me speak. Kids naturally appreciate anything meant to make a noise. They jostle and joke about mummies and curses, while their elders hum a trumpet-laden parody linked to a certain Steve Martin and his band, the “Toot Uncommons.” Apparently, Tut was once celebrated in a festival called Saturday Night Live. I watch these antics indulgently, mindful that you honor Nebkheperure Tutankhamun in your outlandish way even as I, still dressed for his funeral, cherish for eternity his memory in my traditional fashion.