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Ampton Reads: Cigars of the Pharaoh

Like many kids, I had my phase of being obsessed with Egyptian history. It was for this reason that Cigars of the Pharaoh used to be my favourite Tintin book. It’s considered the first book after Hergé’s early period, and marks a lot of firsts, including the arrival of Thompson and Thomson, Rastapopoulos’s first proper appearance as an antagonist, and Oliveira da Figueira’s first attempts to sell Tintin things. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Cigars of the Pharaoh is the first book that truly feels like a Tintin book.

Cigars of the Pharaoh was first published in Le Petit Vingtième as Tintin in the East, and the current name was only adopted when the whole adventure (which included The Blue Lotus) was split into two different books. It was published between 1932 and 1934, and was partially inspired by all the ‘curse of the Egyptian mummy’ type stories that flourished after the unearthing of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Like in Tintin in America, where Hergé exhaustively researched the aesthetics of the Blackfoot people to make his illustrations accurate, Cigars of the Pharaoh is rich with accurate visual representations of each setting. Egyptian tomb friezes were derived from real friezes in the Louvre, and he put effort into the depictions of gunrunners and ships and Maharajahs, signalling the early stages of what would later become a pedantic dedication to visual accuracy.

The main real-life event to impact the development of Cigars of the Pharaoh was the removal of Abbot Wallez from the leadership of Le Petit Vingtième and its’ parent newspaper. Wallez, who had always been a fascist sympathiser and a promoter of far-right propaganda, had fallen afoul of public opinion by (in the words of Wikipedia, because I’m not entirely sure I understand what this means) being “accused of defaming the Bureau of Public Works. The accusation resulted in a legal case being brought against the newspaper, and in response its owners demanded Wallez’s resignation, which was tended in August 1933.” He was out, and Hergé almost went with him, if not for a promised pay increase and some reduced working hours. Around this time is when Hergé starts publishing his first jabs at the current German Nazi regime in Le Petit Vingtième, which would culminate in the bitterly anti-Nazi story King Ottokar’s Sceptre.

The only other historical context that I believe is necessary to provide is that both India and Egypt were under the control of the British Empire when Cigars of the Pharaoh was written. The British ruled in India from between 1858 and 1947, during which time they squeezed massive profits from this colony and ruled it poorly enough that famines rocked the nation, causing massive losses in life and culture to the Indian people. The British technically occupied Egypt from 1882 to 1922, but even after Egypt had come under native royal rule the British maintained an occupying force there in order to control the Suez Canal and generally tell them what to do, which lasted until 1952, when the Egyptians completely expelled the British. Just in case anyone thinks the British Empire’s colonialism wasn’t recent, my grandparents were born in the late 1920s and were therefore adults when Britain finally left both of these countries alone.

I’m reading the version of the story that Hergé redrew in colour in 1955, when he was at his artistic best. Since it wasn’t redrawn for quite a while, and since it was translated into English very late (in 1971) there are a whole lot of anachronisms and continuity snarls in the story, like adding Alan into the story, who didn’t actually appear until Captain Haddock did, in The Crab with the Golden Claws.


The story opens with Tintin talking happily about how he’s enjoyed his cruise around Asia. He’s docking in Egypt soon, and in Istanbul shortly afterwards. Then it’s a trip through the Mediterranean and the Straits of Gibraltar, and back home. Snowy’s complaining about how boring it is. There’s probably not much for a terrier to do on a boat.

We have our first chronological flub on the very first page, where Snowy wants to settle for Marlinspike, a place neither of them have heard of yet. Snowy can either see into the future with unerring precision, or this is an artefact of the late translation of this book.

Tintin bumps into the exceeding eccentric Professor Sophocles Sarcophagus, the very first of Hergé’s string of loopy academic characters. Calculus is obviously the best-known example of this trope, but he uses it over and over again in various forms, usually giving them a silly beard. Hergé thought beards were the peak of humour, and maybe he was right. Sarcophagus is focused on a papyrus he has obtained that he thinks can lead him to the lost tomb of the pharaoh Kih-Oskh, and yes, that is a play on the word ‘kiosk’.

Hergé is here developing a knack for a kind of comedy that he would become well-known for: establishing a character’s personality and then immediately clowning them. He’s very good at milking a character’s comic potential. Probably the best example of this is The Castifiore Emerald, which derives almost all of its comedy from playing well-known characters off against each other. We also see the first real appearance of Rastapopoulos, not really counting his one panel background shot in Tintin in America.

And we awkwardly crunch our way into another chronology error. This one is poorly integrated. Saying ‘it’s not the first time we’ve met’ after your first meeting isn’t great, and Tintin really doesn’t have any reason to suspect Rastapopoulos of being anything except a jerk just yet. We can thank the redraw and translation of this, which obviously took place after other adventures with Rastapopoulos had occurred.

A few notes about Rastapopoulos’s design: a friend of Hergé’s suggested the name, and he thought it was goofy enough to be perfect for this character. The name is Greek-sounding, and Rastapopoulos was intended to be Greek-Italian. Accusations that he was designed along the lines of an anti-Semetic stereotype don’t hold up to historical scrutiny, but this is a common misconception about this character. Hergé had a tendency to ignore criticism rather than refute it, so he did a terrible job of clarifying his intentions with Rastapopoulos’s design.

Straight off the bat, Tintin is framed for narcotics possession, and Thompson and Thomson are set on him. This is their first true appearance in the comic, although they remained unnamed in the original run until King Ottokar’s Sceptre. They’re also surprisingly competent in their initial depictions, and their foolishness doesn’t start to get in their way for a while. Here they are still being trusted with important missions.

The detectives were inspired by a few different things, but most notably they were inspired by Hergé’s father and uncle, who were identical twins and who would frequently dress in similar clothes and walk around the neighbourhood to weird people out. It’s also believed that Hergé saw a picture of a pair of moustached, bowler-hatted detectives with umbrellas on the cover of a magazine known as Le Miroir escorting a prisoner. The magazine cover in question is from 1919 but the resemblance is uncanny.

I even found the image in question. They do look like the detectives.

Tintin is thrown into jail in the ship for his love of heroin, and escapes by wriggling out a porthole. He is now loose in Port Said, Egypt, but without his belongings.

In this version, Thompson and Thomson are named. I just wanted to call attention here to the gorgeous background art detailing the city of Port Said. Also, Tintin bumps back into Sarcophagus and the two of them team up to hunt down this lost tomb.

They find the tomb thanks to Sarcophagus’s genius, and start to unearth the entrance. Tintin locates a cigar with the pharaoh’s symbol on it (the symbol being similar to, or derived from, the Taiji symbol that represents yin and yang) and while he’s distracted, Sarcophagus falls into the tomb, seemingly disappearing. Tintin initially blames the curse of the pharaohs, but then realises he can access the tomb and climbs in, only for the door to shut behind him with no way of opening.

He walks into a large chamber to find all the missing Egyptologists, mummified, and with spaces available for Tintin, Snowy, and Sarcophagus. I also want to draw attention to the art in these panels, which is lovely, and as I said it’s derived from some actual Egyptian friezes found in the Louvre that Hergé had a chance to study. Tintin is very certain that he needs to find Sarcophagus and leave, but all he can find are Sarcophagus’s belongings, left around the tomb. He walks into another chamber to find crates of cigars being stored there.

For reasons I’m not quite sure of, a lot of critics have written about this short dream sequence. Tintinologist Michael Farr described it as ‘one of the most imaginative and disturbing scenes’ in the story, and others calling it unforgettable and an obvious example of Hergé’s growing storytelling ability. It’s definitely more ambitious than any sequence we’ve seen in earlier books, and it’s not like Hergé to move into surrealism.

Tintin, Snowy, and Sarcophagus are packed into coffins and flung into the ocean. We get a brief glimpse of Alan, who isn’t supposed to be in this story until Haddock joins the cast. It turns out that they were supposed to be using the coffins to smuggle illicit goods, and Alan flung them overboard to avoid the coastguard, only learning later that he really, really shouldn’t have done that. Our three characters then break free of their coffins and survive on the seas for a while. After an awful storm, they are rescued by a boat carrying recurring character Oliveira da Figueira, bringing him into the story for the first time. He’s on a merchant mission, and manages to sell Tintin a whole pile of comical objects.

They land on the Arabian coast and Figueira starts selling even more random items to the locals. I’ve neglected to add those images in because there’s some fantastically awful golliwog-style depictions of black people in there and I don’t really want to post images full of racial stereotypes unless it’s to make a specific point.

Unrelated, but this guy looks like Captain Haddock, except soapier. Also, a namedrop of the local Sheik, which is relevant later. Look at Hergé go, setting up future plot events here and there. He’s growing out of just waking up in the morning of publication and making some shit up, although he himself admitted he was still occasionally doing it at this point.

As Tintin heads inland, he is seized by a group of horsemen and dragged in front of the Sheik,  who chews him out for feeding soap to one of his main men. And we get another chronology error:

One of the Sheik’s racist caricatures brings in a copy of Destination Moon, probably startling the hell out of Tintin, who had no idea that he would one day be shot into space. The inclusion of this book specifically occurs because Destination Moon was the Tintin book that had most recently come out when Cigars of the Pharaoh was redrawn. So, it was good at the time, but has aged into incomprehensibility.

The Sheik is so delighted by Tintin that he gives him supplies and transport for his journey. He spots a city in the distance, then stumbles across two men beating a blonde woman. He throws them off, only to discover that he has just ruined a shot in the film of Arabian Nights that is being produced here. The city was built for the purposes of the film, and the director is none other than Rastapopoulos, who invites Tintin to dine with him.

Eventually, Tintin heads back to the ship that rescued him from the storm, but finds it totally abandoned. What’s more, it’s full of arms and ammunition, and when he tries to leave to alert someone, the captain pops out of nowhere and threatens him with a gun. He ties Tintin up and heads onto the deck to intercept a police ship that is bearing down on him.

Thompson and Thomson appear to find Tintin seemingly embroiled in arms smuggling, and are really disappointed in him. I always found it hilarious how the detectives are consistently given actual high-profile cases on which the fate of the world might depend, even as they slide further and further into comic uselessness.

And now we’re getting a proper look at their characters. I have no idea what this scene looked like in the original version. Since they were more serious back then this may be a later inclusion. Tintin and Snowy use a dummy grenade to spook everyone off the ship, and then swim for shore and meet up with Rastapopoulos again. He is given clothing more appropriate to the area and sets off inland again, aiming for the fictional city of Abudin.

This may not be how mirages work, but it did make me laugh, so I figured it was worth including.

Tintin almost dies of thirst before he makes it to Abudin. He’s unhappy to find that the city is going to war and he’s expected to join the army immediately. He’s forced to, and gives the name Ali-Bhai (alibi) which is a pretty good joke. Since he sucks at being a soldier, he’s put on cleaning duty, and while cleaning he finds a label off one of the cigars from the beginning. He’s back on the trail!

And for his crimes, he’s imprisoned and executed. Someone tries to break him out and can’t manage it in time, and he faces the firing squad. Due to his mystery benefactor’s meddling, the weapons fire blanks and he is buried alive to be dug up later and rescued. It’s complicated and I feel like Hergé probably came up with it about five minutes before he sent Le Petit Vingtième to publication. In any case, it turns out that Thompson and Thomson orchestrated all of this because they are very serious about arresting Tintin themselves. He flees the city, giving the detectives the slip, and steals a plane to finish his getaway. He survives an aerial dogfight, but runs out of fuel, and is forced to crash-land the plane in the jungle.

This marks an abrupt change in the story, as it moves from Egypt and Arabia to India. We get a sweet sequence of Tintin finding a sick elephant and helping to cure it. The elephant then gets attached to him and helps look after him. Elephants are very helpful, have long memories, and remember debts, so this isn’t unlikely. I should note that Tintin probably attended an animal rights seminar at one point, because this is definitely preferable to that one time he blew up a rhinoceros with a stick of dynamite for the fun of it all.


Tintin now has a new problem: he was so nice to the elephant that it won’t let him leave. After spending time with the elephants, Tintin begins to understand their language, and whittles a trumpet so he can communicate with them. This actually works.

Now that Tintin has become one with the elephants, he begins exploring his immediate area. Imagine his shock when he finds the symbol of the pharaoh Kih-Oskh painted onto trees around him! The culprit is none other than Sarcophagus, who seems to have gone insane.

Tintin and the elephant head for civilisation in order to find a cure for Sarcophagus’s madness. He hands the professor over to a doctor who can find Sarcophagus a place in a local hospital. Meanwhile, they stay at the house, and the colonial settlers are spooked by a variety of strange occurrences that culminate in Sarcophagus fleeing the house with a big, gruesome knife.

Tintin tracks him down to find him wandering, delusional, in the jungle. He is talking about someone with dark eyes telling him what to do. This turns out to be a fakir who has been influencing Sarcophagus to become belligerent, and who almost succeeds in hypnotising Tintin. I feel like this sequence in particular highlights how glaring the jump from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to India is. We now have a villain who is totally thematically different from the first half of the story, and while Sarcophagus is here, he’s now serving a totally different role in the story. Hergé might have done better to make the first half and second half longer and make them two separate, related stories, but in this early stage in his career he didn’t have the luxury of such methodical planning.

Tintin takes Sarcophagus back to the house and confronts the poet who is staying there. The fakir mentioned that the poet was in cahoots with him. Tintin now learns that there’s an international gang of drug smugglers who want to bump off Tintin. And then the poet is poisoned and goes insane, too. The fakir shot him with a dart. The poet and Sarcophagus are taken together to the hospital.

This is a pretty good ruse. One thing I’m enjoying about reading Cigars of the Pharaoh as opposed to the first three books is that it’s got some good humour in. The sincere look on Sarcophagus’s face as he doffs his hat is killing me.

Tintin escapes, daringly, and hops the fence of the hospital so that he can leap onto a train and make a speedy getaway. This train happens to contain Thompson and Thomson, who set about trying to arrest him all over again. As the train goes through a tunnel, Tintin once again uses the darkness to confuse the detectives and vanish.

Through a complicated series of forgettable events, Tintin ends up hanging in a tiger trap in the middle of nowhere, separated from Snowy. He is rescued from this by hunters riding an elephant. I’m just taking this opportunity to mock how bad Hergé used to be at drawing big cats. The one above is pretty good, while, uh:

Yeah. Looks like Hobbes from Calvin & Hobbes.

The guy that Tintin is sharing a basket with is the Maharaja of Gaipajama, which is not a real place. Tintin strikes up a friendship with him and goes to stay at his palace. He learns that the Maharaja’s family are being struck with sudden madness not unlike that which Tintin has already seen. Tintin asks if said family have been fighting drug smuggling and realises that people who oppose the smuggling are being targeted. Tintin fears that the Maharaja will be attacked next and stays awake that night to try and stop the fakir from doing just that. Instead he discovers a secret passageway under the palace where purple KKK members toting the symbol of Kih-Oskh are meeting.

He sneaks in, and finds out that this conspiracy includes most of the people he has met in India so far. I do find it interesting that the cast of colonials from the house is included in there. White people + KKK-like outfits + villainy = unsubtle message. Tintin takes them all down except the fakir, and the detectives arrive. They have found out that Tintin is innocent and commend him on arresting all these people.

When they get back above ground, they find out that the Maharaja’s son has been kidnapped by the fakir and a mystery man, and Tintin pursues them both by car to retrieve the boy. He captures the fakir, but the mystery man escapes. The good work Tintin and the detectives have done lands them in the newspapers.

In the celebrations afterwards, some cigars are bought out, and they turn out to be the same ones that have Kih-Oskh’s symbol on them. Tintin finally inspects them to find out they are full of opium, finally realising how the smuggling operation managed to move all that opium around the world. Tintin is getting ready to head home, but he’s not sure how easy it will be, leading into the events of The Blue Lotus.

A feature of Cigars of the Pharaoh that I quite like is that it’s Hergé’s first attempt at a mystery story. Tintin walks in on something weird at the start, dragging him into a world of drug smuggling that is mysteriously linked to a secret society. Hergé uses this format many times in later stories in order to give Tintin an overarching goal to link together his misadventures. It works because with an enduring mystery, the reader is compelled to finish the story in order to figure out what’s going on. It definitely made Cigars of the Pharaoh more of a delight to read than its predecessors.

In the end, Tintin gets his traditional celebratory parade, and my read-through of Cigars of the Pharaoh is over. Since it was originally published as one long volume along with The Blue Lotus as Tintin in the East, Hergé already knew where he was going next. His next volume would take him to China.

There were a decent number of Chinese people in Belgium and Hergé knew some of them, but he didn’t really know anything about China that he hadn’t gained in the same vague way he’d learned about Soviet Russia or the Belgian Congo. A reader of Hergé’s wrote to him, concerned about his ability to depict this country in light of their current delicate political situation (more on that next time), and offered to introduce him to a student at the Brussels Palace of Fine Arts, Zhang Chongren (also romanised as Chang Chon-Ren). This relationship would have a massive effect on Hergé’s art, worldview, and life.

Join me next time for The Blue Lotus,which I know is many peoples’ favourite!

– Aмртоп


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