Empress of the Nile: The daredevil archaeologist who saved Egypt’s ancient temples from destruction
Scribe, $36.99 pb, 448 pp
In the 1960s, as Egypt built the second Aswan Dam, the monuments of ancient Nubia, including the colossi at Abu Simbel, risked vanishing beneath a lake. Backed by UNESCO, an international coalition of archaeologists, celebrities, politicians, and engineers succeeded in moving them. Whole temples were cut off their rock bases and lifted with hydraulics, or removed in segments from cliff-faces and sinking islands, for reassembly on higher ground. The struggles involved, American author Lynne Olson’s book Empress of the Nile makes clear, were fiendish. The engineering problems were considered insoluble, the politics foolhardy. For the sake of flood regulation and hydroelectricity, ancient buildings seemed an acceptable loss. Rousing the political will to save them took scholarship, conviction, charm, and sheer nerve. In short, it took French Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt.
In a long career divided between Egypt and the Louvre, Desroches-Noblecourt fused scholarly rigour with a passion – which Olson persuasively characterises as near-religious – for presenting ancient heritage as a public good. Crucially, she was taught by archaeologists who sought artefacts other than kingly treasures. She dug at sites that were considered marginal, such as the Valley of the Queens, where her discoveries shed light on lives beneath or around the pharaohs. This sympathy for the disregarded extended to Egyptian dig labourers, to whom Desroches-Noblecourt gave medical care while learning their dialects and involving them in choosing sites and interpreting finds. In a field run by foreigners, she supported Egyptians to become Egyptologists. By the time the Aswan flood loomed, Desroches-Noblecourt could seek aid from more locals than any other foreign archaeologist.