Dear Commons Community,
I just finished reading Lynne Olson’s Empress of the Nile: The Daredevil Archaeologist Who Saved Egypt’s Ancient Temples From Destruction. Olson is a bestselling author (Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, Last Hope Island, and Citizens of London) and an historian. This book is a biography of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, a French archaeologist who goes to great lengths to preserve ancient treasures. Olson traces Desroches-Noblecourt professional rise in the male dominated archaeology field to become one of its major contributors. Olson includes riveting chapters on Desroches-Noblecourt’s clandestine activities to preserve the Lourve’s collection during the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II. The coverage of the preservation of Abu Simbel and Philae (two places I had the pleasure of visiting ten years ago) from the construction of the Aswan Dam is inspiring.
A great read and I recommend it to anybody interested in Egypt and its ancient legacy.
Below is a review published in The New York Times.
The New York Times Review of Books
The Woman Who Gave Indiana Jones a Run for His Money
In “Empress of the Nile,” Lynne Olson tells the story of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, the archaeologist who broke into a notoriously misogynistic men’s club: Egyptology.
By Joshua Hammer
Published Feb. 28, 2023 Updated March 3, 2023
EMPRESS OF THE NILE: The Daredevil Archaeologist Who Saved Egypt’s Ancient Temples From Destruction, by Lynne Olson
Egyptian archaeology has never been regarded as an equal-opportunity profession. Charismatic males have dominated the field since its inception, from Giovanni Belzoni, a onetime circus strongman who located the hidden entrance to the second Pyramid at Giza in 1818, to Howard Carter, the Briton who shot to global fame after uncovering Tutankhamen’s tomb. Then there’s Zahi Hawass, the self-styled Indiana Jones who ruled over Egypt’s antiquities for years. Driven out by allegations of corruption during the Arab Spring, Hawass resurrected himself, Osiris-style, under the current dictatorship.
Lynne Olson’s “Empress of the Nile” tells the story of the most accomplished woman ever to break into that men’s club. The author of a number of books about World War II, Olson was researching the Musée de l’Homme resistance movement when she came across references to Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, a curator at the Louvre who led a secret life in the anti-Nazi underground. Desroches-Noblecourt went on to become a field archaeologist with a knack for finding intact tombs, and a master bureaucratic infighter who played a key role in rescuing Egypt’s endangered antiquities from destruction by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Along the way, Olson relates in this fast-paced, highly entertaining book, Desroches-Noblecourt survived a Gestapo interrogation, faced angry crowds during the 1956 Suez crisis and sparred with everyone from Gamal Nasser to Charles de Gaulle.
Desroches-Noblecourt (she added the second name after her 1942 marriage) became infatuated with Egypt as a small girl after her grandfather took her to admire the great obelisk of Rameses II. Liberal-minded intellectuals, her parents enrolled her in a progressive girls’ public school, then encouraged her to study for a degree in Egyptology at the prestigious École du Louvre.
There she fell under the tutelage of Étienne Drioton, a priest who later served as the director of the French-run Egyptian Antiquities Service in Cairo. Drioton arranged the first of his student’s many field trips to dig sites along the Nile. In camps infested with cobras and scorpions, she mastered Arabic, developed a rapport with the local workers and won the attention of powerful mentors. At Edfu, she made the first of several remarkable discoveries: the untouched 4,200-year-old tomb of Lady Sechséchet, the wife of a chief government minister who was revered as a “living god.” As she gazed on a sarcophagus, surrounded by delicate objects of gold, alabaster, copper and calcite, Desroches-Noblecourt recalled, “the euphoria I felt was indescribable.” She also endured the mistreatment of a chauvinistic French archaeologist, Alexandre Varille, who bullied her at a dig they worked on together, then stole credit for her notes and photos.
Olson’s narrative gathers steam in the tense days before the Nazis invaded Poland. Along with the Louvre’s debonair director, Jacques Jaujard, Desroches-Noblecourt evacuated thousands of pieces, including the “Mona Lisa” and the museum’s entire Egyptian collection, to a remote chateau. A year later, she organized a second removal through Nazi-occupied territory, on roads clogged with refugees, to the free French zone near the Spanish border. All the while, as Olson relates with brio, she was sneaking messages out of Paris for the Musée de l’Homme resistance network. The Gestapo soon broke up the movement and executed its leaders; Desroches-Noblecourt fell under Nazi suspicion, but she escaped unharmed.
The highlight of Olson’s book is her thrilling account of the rescue of the giant statues of Rameses II and the Abu Simbel temples from inundation by the Aswan High Dam. After Nasser announced his intention to build the dam — the centerpiece of a huge 1950s modernization drive — Desroches-Noblecourt, then the chief of a UNESCO mission to Egypt, embarked on what she called a “David and Goliath” effort to move the colossi out of harm’s way. Turning on the charm and twisting arms, she got Nasser’s government to embrace the project and enlisted the support of UNESCO’s leaders, the Kennedy administration and the French government. Desroches-Noblecourt held her own against powerful skeptics. In her first meeting with Charles de Gaulle, the French president rebuked her for her unilateral pledge of French government support for the plan. “And you — did you demand the authority of Pétain’s government on June 18, 1940?” she shot back. “Then Charles de Gaulle did something exceedingly rare for him: He laughed,” Olson writes. The funding was approved.
Olson wrests high drama from small moments, such as Desroches-Noblecourt’s scramble to find a Roman-letter typewriter in Cairo in order to meet a crucial deadline, and huge ones. In meticulous detail, she lays out the effort, carried out by hundreds, to extricate the great temple from the cliff into which it had been built three millenniums ago. Workers cut the sandstone colossi into pieces, lifted the fragments high above the floodwaters and reassembled them.
“Empress of the Nile”’s momentum falters after the Abu Simbel rescue. Desroches-Noblecourt oversaw digs, organized overseas tours of the mummy of Rameses II and the treasures of King Tutankhamen, and wrote popular books about ancient Egypt, but none of her achievements could match the drama of her early years. Some later chapters take on an episodic feeling without adding much insight to Desroches-Noblecourt’s formidable personality. Olson meanders into an account of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ growing role as a cultural preservationist and the Metropolitan Museum’s successful effort in 1967 to acquire Egypt’s Temple of Dendur.
Desroches-Noblecourt died in 2011 at 97. Though she left a rich legacy as a fund-raiser, logistician, diplomat and scholar, she considered herself primarily an archaeologist. She was “galloping like a gazelle over the sands of the Egyptian deserts at an age when others had long since put on their slippers,” one colleague wrote. Her last fieldwork in Egypt, carried out at 70, was a survey of the Valley of the Queens, the burial ground of the wives and daughters of the Pharaohs — a fitting final expedition for a figure who never let Egyptology’s gender gap stand in her way.
Joshua Hammer is the author of “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” and “The Falcon Thief.” His next book, about the race to decipher the world’s oldest writing, will be published in 2024.