As 18th-Dynasty pharaohs’ chariots go, the one that arrived in Times Square on Friday night was not a Mercedes or a Bentley. There was no gold leaf or fine animal-fur interior or richly appointed cartouche-ing. It was more like a teenager’s dragster stripped down for speed, just a lightweight frame of tamarisk, elm and birch, missing only its two-horsepower engine.
Late on Sunday night, in a subterranean exhibition space on West 44th Street, a group of gloved art handlers under the wary supervision of Sanaa Ahmed Ali, director of the Luxor Museum in Egypt opened a wooden crate, unpacked the left wheel and slowly slid it onto the axle where it had once turned. An hour later they did the same with the right wheel. Then everyone in the room fell silent for a moment, looking at the result, before breaking into applause.
“Boy, that’s amazing,” said Mark Lach, a senior vice president of Arts and Exhibitions International. “Really just amazing.”
Though there were much fancier ceremonial chariots among the six discovered, in 1922, in the tomb of King Tutankhamen (as his name is often spelled), this one to be unveiled on Tuesday as a late, crowd-luring addition to “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” the commercial exhibition of Tut treasures at the Discovery Times Square Exposition is considered uniquely amazing by scholars because it is the only one that shows signs of wear and tear. So it has long been thought that it was the chariot actually used by the boy king for battle or, more likely, for hunting.
And with recent forensic and DNA examinations showing that Tut suffered from a degenerative bone disease and could have died from complications of malarial infection after he broke his leg in a fall, the chariot has taken on new importance as the centerpiece of a theory that it might have been the instrument of his premature death, before the age of 20.
“I think it’s one of the best solutions to the mystery so far,” said David P. Silverman, a chief curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the curator of the traveling Tut exhibition. Given the weakness of the king’s bones, “it is possible that he might not have been able to stay in the chariot as well as he should have, and it is possible that he might have fallen out and broken his leg.”
Mr. Silverman allowed that this was not quite as sexy as the previous theory that the king was murdered (based mostly on an erroneous interpretation of a hole at the back of his skull, one actually made after his death for the mummification process).
“It doesn’t make for such good television everybody likes intrigue and betrayal, I guess,” he said. “But it does make more sense.”
The plan to send the chariot to New York its first trip out of Egypt since its creation 3,300 years ago was initiated by Zahi Hawass, the colorful general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who is now the star of his own reality show on the History channel, “Chasing Mummies,” and a wily promoter of both himself and his country’s archaeological riches.
In a telephone interview from Cairo he said that he had decided to embark on the lengthy process of seeking approval for the fragile chariot to travel because he felt it was an important element in the story of Tut’s life and maybe his death, a kind of grand utilitarian artifact not seen in the legendary 1970s Tut tour. But Mr. Hawass added unabashedly that the most important reasons for its addition were attention, attendance and money.
The show’s tour, which began in Los Angeles in 2005 and ends in New York on Jan. 2, after passing through six other cities, has raised more than $100 million to be used for the improvement of Egypt’s museums and its archaeological sites. And Mr. Hawass said he believed that displaying the chariot and turning the exhibition into the ultimate B.C. car show would guarantee a packed house through the fall and winter.
“It’s a gift to the people of New York,” he said. “And we hope they will give us a gift as well.” (Neither he nor the exhibition’s other organizers have released to-date attendance numbers for the New York leg of the tour, though they said the overall attendance since the tour began is about eight million visitors.)
The chariot was expected to be part of the New York show when it opened in April but was held up as conservators, antiquities officials and Egyptian officials debated whether it was sturdy enough to travel. A separate room and a huge, climate-controlled glass case were built into the exhibition, but they remained curtained off as dates came and went for the chariot’s arrival.
Finally, last week, the disassembled vehicle, having made its way by truck from the Luxor Museum to Cairo, was put aboard a Lufthansa cargo jet, accompanied by Nemat Mousa, a curator at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The two managed to get all the way to John F. Kennedy International Airport before being stopped by one last logistical hurdle.
When New York traffic officials reviewed the papers required for the oversize truck that would transport the chariot into Manhattan, they saw that the cargo inside was classified as a vehicle, and demanded its Vehicle Identification Number.
“I’m totally serious,” said Mr. Lach, the exhibition’s designer. “But we got it cleared up.”
A special lift was constructed inside the exhibition space once the printing floor and paper-storage rooms for The New York Times and on Saturday the chariot’s crates were brought into a clean room, where they were opened so the condition of the contents could be assessed.
“I was a little bit scared, I must admit,” said Ms. Ahmed, who came to oversee the chariot’s reassembly with Amany Emiel Nashed, a conservator from the Luxor Museum. “Many people say that this chariot should not leave Egypt, and you worry. But then I saw it and I knew that everything was O.K. and I breathed.”
She and her colleagues worked on the installation until 4 a.m. on Sunday. (Most of the work had to be done at night because the exhibition’s organizers did not want to lose money by closing for installation.)
By 9:30 on Sunday night, as the strains of melodramatic music wafted in from the exhibition’s speakers lent an air of Indiana-Jones-like suspense, the chariot’s wheels were secured to the axles with the tiny original wooden pins that had been found in the tomb. After being let go, the left wheel spun a few inches on its own. Ms. Mousa gasped quietly and reached out for it, thinking it might fall, but it quickly stopped moving and was determined to be secure.
By 10:45, the back of the chariot was lowered gingerly from the white wooden jacks that kept it up off the base of the platform. The whole thing could have rolled if not for the transparent wedges pushed in front of and behind its wheels to keep it in place.
“Nice job, people,” Mr. Lach announced. “That’s it for tonight. Tomorrow we bring in the horses.”
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs continues through Jan. 2 at Discovery Times Square Exposition, 146 West 44th Street, Manhattan; (888) 988-8692 or discoverytsx.com.