REVIEW: Empress of the Nile: The Daredevil Archaeologist Who Saved Egypt’s Ancient Temples from Destruction by Lynne Olson
The remarkable story of the intrepid French archaeologist who led the international effort to save ancient Egyptian temples from the floodwaters of the Aswan Dam, by the New York Times bestselling author of Madame Fourcade’s Secret War
In the 1960s, the world’s attention was focused on a nail-biting race against time: Fifty countries contributed nearly a billion dollars to save a dozen ancient Egyptian temples, built during the height of the pharaohs’ rule, from drowning in the floodwaters of the massive new Aswan High Dam. But the extensive press coverage at the time overlooked the gutsy French archaeologist who made it all happen. Without the intervention of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, the temples would now be at the bottom of a vast reservoir. It was an unimaginably large and complex project that required the fragile sandstone temples to be dismantled, stone by stone, and rebuilt on higher ground.
A willful real-life version of Indiana Jones, Desroches-Noblecourt refused to be cowed by anyone or anything. During World War II she joined the French Resistance and was held by the Nazis; in her fight to save the temples she challenged two of the postwar world’s most daunting leaders, Egypt’s President Nasser and France’s President de Gaulle. As she told a reporter, “You don’t get anywhere without a fight, you know.”
Yet Desroches-Noblecourt was not the only woman who played an essential role in the historic endeavor. The other was Jacqueline Kennedy, who persuaded her husband to call on Congress to help fund the rescue effort. After years of Western plunder of Egypt’s ancient monuments, Desroches-Noblecourt did the opposite. She helped preserve a crucial part of Egypt’s cultural heritage, and made sure it remained in its homeland.
Dear Ms. Olson,
When the publicist reached out to me about reading this book, I thought “Heck yeah. I enjoyed “Madame Fourcade’s Secret War” so I’m in. We’ve got a woman who (shockingly in early 20th century France) was raised by her forward thinking parents to do what she wanted and to not hide her intelligence, who helped move and save the treasures of the Louvre from the Nazis after ignoring and out performing the assholic male jerks in Egyptology, who took part in resistance activities during World War II, who refused to go along with colonialism by treating the Egyptian workers with dignity at the sites she was assigned to and in return was respected by them, who was chosen by Egyptian authorities to help jump start their Egyptology programs after World War II (before then, it was mostly Westerners in those roles) when they took back control of their country, who urged that the “at risk” cultural heritage of Egypt in danger from the Aswan High Dam be saved, who managed to snag the first exhibition of some of the priceless items in King Tutankhamun’s tomb for a show outside of Egypt, and who also charmed and outfoxed Charles de Gaulle.
Wait, if all that wasn’t enough, she gave sparkling lectures in Paris, mentored the next generations of Egyptologists, led excavations in the Valley of the Queens, wrote books, and helped save many of the temples of Philae. Yes, I wanted to read this.
Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt might have been short of stature but she was fierce and she got things done. While her French male contemporaries might have sneered at her, older mentors took note of her passionate interest in Egyptology and nurtured her talents. She became a towering figure in her field, a leader, a teacher, a mentor, and an inspiration. She did have her detractors – beyond jealousy – who faulted some of her conclusions and her lack of footnotes to bolster her arguments but the woman was amazing.
Her work with UNESCO to save Abu Simbel and other priceless Egyptian monuments eventually gave rise to the practice of designating UNESCO World Heritage sites. The exhibit in France of artifacts from King Tutankhamun’s tomb sparked a worldwide fervor by museums for their own shows and gave us Tut mania (?”He gave his life for tourism”?).
As fascinating as Christiane’s life was, it took place against a backdrop of world events. The book spends a good amount of time delving into many of these: World War II and the efforts of the staff at the many Parisian art museums to safeguard the country’s art treasures and note which pieces of this as well as items stolen from French Jews were taken out of the country; the Suez Crisis; and the efforts around the world to raise awareness of the threat to antiquities posed by the Aswan High Dam. Though these were needed and interesting, at times chapters sank into a lot of details that could have been edited down in order to get back to the main narrative. I really didn’t need so much homage to Jacqueline Kennedy and her love of all things French. During these chapters, Christiane disappears almost entirely.
I did enjoy the parts focusing on some of the bizarre suggestions for saving Abu Simbel (one of which would have just go ahead and let the temple be flooded and required tourists to be scuba divers in order to view them) and then the engineering of how many of these temples (there were several saved) were moved. The efforts of the marmisti, skilled Italian marble cutters, were amazing.
But I learned a lot, marveled at how dynamic this woman was and how much she managed to get done by not accepting the word “no” and continuing to work until she (usually) got what she wanted done. B
NOTE – this is being released tomorrow on February 28th
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