Empress of the Nile by Lynne Olson


Lynne Olson has found another brave and impressive woman to write about. I was enthusiastic about Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, about a resistance warrior in World War II, as well as Citizens of London. Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, born in 1913, became an Egyptologist for the Louvre in the mid-1930s. She was a rare, perhaps unique, female figure in digs and was unusual in making good connections with the Egyptian workmen at her digs. She had enough medical knowledge to treat illness, snake-bite, and accidents to stand her in good stead. She learned enough of their language to be able to describe the importance of their finds at the end of each day.

At a dig at Edfu, she had a stroke of good luck. One of the French archeologists with whom she had contentious political discussions asked the head of the dig to switch his area of exploration with hers, an unusual request. The head was embarrassed to ask her, but asked for her pity for this man who had been there two years with no significant finds. She agreed and found nearby an untouched tomb that had not been disturbed for more than 3000 years, that had gold, alabaster, copper, calcite vases, jewelry, oil lamps, and perfume cups.

When war broke out, she worked to transport Egyptian treasures from the Louvre to safe locations outside Paris. She was part of a Resistance group until some in the group were discovered and they ended their efforts.

After the war she headed a UNESCO operation in Egypt and was one of the few Europeans the Egyptians were willing to have working in their digs. Her goal was for Egyptians to be in charge of the work sites.

The Aswan High Dam was an important project for the Egyptians; archaeologists were concerned that the importance of it would outweigh the loss of the ancient treasures in Nubia that would be under water. Desroches-Noblecourt was able to work with Egyptians to enlist international support for moving the great treasures. The Temple of Dendur, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was given to the United States in thanks for the projects. The story of saving this and others is recounted by the author and involves Jacqueline Kennedy and many other figures. Other treasures saved were giant statues of Ramses II and the temple of Abu Simbel.

Though Olson succeeds in making the case for the exceptional work of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, she goes into details that are far afield from the work of the archeologist, including the social aspects of ancient Egypt. While the book is always entertaining, the author does ramble about.

Lynne Olson, Empress of the Nile, Random House, 2023, 426 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.

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