VALLEY OF THE QUEEN
The Woman Who Conquered Egypt
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
All early, legendary Egyptologists were men: Champollion, Belzoni, Carter.
But there is one exception: Mme Christiane Desroches Noblecourt.
Her love for Egypt started in 1922, she taught herself hieroglyphics in her teens and by 1938 she was the first ever female member of the School of Cairo.
“For my male colleagues, the idea that a woman could do the same work as them was shocking, scandalous!”
Today, she is considered one of the world’s authorities on pharaonic Egypt, especially Nubia, Amenhotep IV, Tutankhamen, and Ramses II.
ERIC PASQUIER and OLIVIA VERKADE look at the life of this extraordinary, adventurous woman.
Christiane Desroches Noblecourt is one of those women who just can’t help inspiring others.
Her name means little to the average person, but to anyone remotely interested in archaeology she is to Egyptology what Marie Curie, Emily Pankhurst, Dorothy Parker or Aretha Franklin are to their fields.
Her long and impressive career started in the 1920s, when most women only spoke when spoken to and certainly didn’t go gallivanting off to Egypt all alone to dig about in the dirt. But Mme. Desroches Noblecourt was – and still is – impelled by a passion that started young: a love for ancient Egypt.
In 1915, the year she was born, Egyptology was still a relatively young field of expertise. Napoleon Bonaparte, of all people, had been instrumental in its birth over a century earlier, when he was waging his campaigns against the Mamalukes in Egypt.
Before the battle near the pyramids of Giza, Napoleon is reputed to have said to his troops: “Soldiers, forty centuries look down upon you from these Pyramids.”
One of these soldiers discovered the truth of this statement when, in 1799, he found a slab covered with hieroglyphs in a small town called Rosetta.
The Rosetta Stone would hold the key to the entire field of Egyptology; the man who deciphered it would pull back the veil that had covered a civilisation for several millennia.
Egypt fascinated the west, especially the well-to-do, who could afford to travel to the pyramids themselves.
Amelia Edwards, for instance, was a British woman whose journals of her stay in Egypt were eventually published under the name ‘A Thousand Miles Up the Nile’ and would become the nineteenth Century equivalent of a block-buster best-seller. Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian engineer and circus strongman, arrived in Egypt in 1816, discovered the tomb of Seti I, and – given the many signatures he left on any ancient structure he came across – became the world’s first graffiti artist.
But it was in 1822 when the French scholar Jean Françios Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone, that an entire world of study was finally within reach.
And when the construction of the Suez Canal was completed in 1869, Egyptologists could, at last, begin formal excavations – the field was now officially a profession.Europe, meanwhile, couldn’t get enough of gold, royal tombs and epic history. This was the time of Schliemann’s discovery of Troy, where his first amateurish excavations began in 1871.
The treasures he found – and which his wife wore in a ‘photo-shoot’ – included the mask of Agamemnon and Priam’s golden hoard; stunning and momentous finds that generated much publicity at the time. The public was hooked on all that glittered.
If Christiane Desroches Noblecourt were at all pre-destined to be an Egyptologist, she couldn’t have been born at a better time. By 1915, Egyptology was enjoying something of an explosion in popularity, was old enough to provide the young Christiane with fodder for her mind and imagination, but was still sufficiently in its infancy – well, adolescence – to allow for newcomers and breakthroughs.
Moreover, the role of women during and after the Great War was such that by the time Christiane was old enough to make up her own mind about her life, the idea of an independent woman – especially a well-educated, wealthy woman – was not as outlandish as before the War. But it was her determination and passion that made all the difference.
In 1922, when Christiane was just 7 years old, she discovered her love for all things Egyptian. “I was just a child when I found some books about Egypt that contained pictures and illustrations. The monuments and the images of daily life really struck me, they seemed to speak to me, they were so alive. They showed handsome men and pretty women who looked happy – I have discovered since then that the Egyptians really are like this: noble, elegant, walking with head held high, even the beggars are gentlemen.”
In that same year, 1922, one of the greatest discoveries was made: Howard Carter found the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamen, almost intact, in the Valley of the Kings. Christiane’s and King Tut’s paths were to cross again later.
Meanwhile, her love for Egypt, its history and its people went from strength to strength. She decided early on she would be an Egyptologist, and between 1922 and 1930 she read everything she could about the subject. “An Egyptologist must be an expert on many things: the languages, the hieroglyphs, the classics, the basics of astronomy, mathematics, geography, botany, zoology and so on.”
She laughs when she thinks back on her passion then: “I was very determined – I still am –but I had to study for ten years before I could sort of find my way around the immense collection of information about this civilisation. Especially one that was so detailed, complex and elaborate that it lasted for 3000 years. If you want to understand the ancient Egyptians, their society and evolution, you can’t just stop at the Pharaoh; you have to learn about their administration, their religion – that is, their concept of life and death – their cosmic truths.”
Her curiosity and determination were, however, to win her a place in the history books. By 1934, when she was just 19, she began working in the Louvre’s Egypt collection as curator – the famous Champollion himself had been its first curator back in 1826, so she was following in some big footsteps. Undaunted, her expertise led her at last to Egypt in 1938, where her knowledge and work were so notable, she was nominated for membership of the School of Cairo. The first woman ever. This illustrious – and all-male – clique of scholars in the field of Egyptology was, however, less impressed.
“The obstacles I found were not so much pebbles as boulders,” she recalls. “The idea that a woman could do the same work as her male colleagues and carry the same title as them… well, that was shocking to them; scandalous! There had never been women in either the School of Rome or the School of Athens, and of course never in the School of Cairo – it was unthinkable. One delegation actually came forward to demand that my nomination be annulled. I was just 23 years old, still quite a timid little thing.” Her eyes twinkle as she says this; it’s hard to imagine her as timid... “I had to gather all my courage and resolve to stand up to them.”
She evidently succeeded because between 1938 and 1954 she booked many successes. She helped excavate many sites, including at Deir el Medineh, continued as curator of the Egypt collection at the Louvre, became Honorary Inspector General of the Museums of France, and was teacher at the Louvre of Egyptian language and archaeology.
But it was 1954 that would mark a personal milestone for Christiane: this was the year her long co-operation with UNESCO began. Their collaboration, and Christiane’s subsequent move into the public eye, was prompted by the single most important issue in this region; one that had always caused wars here since time immemorial: water.
For millennia, the Nile had flooded annually, with the southern-most cataract – Assuan – forming the natural boundary between the Upper Nile (Khartoum to Assuan) and the Lower Nile (Assuan to the Mediterranean). Every year, late summer rains in the Simien Mountains hundreds of miles to the south in Ethiopia, caused the Nile’s tributaries to swell and irrigate surrounding land. This natural rhythm and clement climate made the Lower Nile region ideal for agriculture – and, indeed, the birth of civilisation.
By the late 1890s, however, both Egypt and Sudan were experiencing a surge in their populations – if there were to be agricultural stability along the banks of the Nile, its waters would have to be controlled. Harnessing the river’s hydroelectric power in a newly industrialised world proved the deciding factor, and in 1899 the first Aswan Dam was built and completed in 1902.
Over the years, the first dam was raised repeated but still this was not enough, and plans for a second dam at Aswan were conceived in the 1950s. UNESCO, however, quickly realised that, if built, this second dam and the reservoir created behind it would submerge much of Lower Nubia, destroying monuments and archaeological sites from the First to the Third Cataracts of the Nile River. The news prompted UNESCO to seek Christiane’s help in 1954.
To someone who loved Egypt as much as Christiane did, the dam was catastrophic, and UNESCO found in her a willing ally. Her tireless campaign to save history incarnate from extinction began in 1954 and would continue for the next 20 years.
It made her something of an expert at diplomacy, entreating the Egyptian powers that be for support and for the political green light for archaeological excavations. She travelled often during this period.
“During 1957, my work at the department and my weekly classes at the School of the Louvre meant I couldn’t stay anywhere for very long. So I used to leave for very short periods only to take care of urgent problems; usually travelling on TWA’s night flight – Air France had, of course, stopped its flights to Cairo at that time.”
The reason being international politics: the Suez Crisis of 1956-7, which didn’t make Christiane’s mission any easier. When Egyptian President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, the Israelis dropped paratroopers near the Canal, prompting, in turn, French and British ‘intervention’ bombings. The crisis ended in 1957, but with all this going on, Christiane was often forced to detour to Syria, “since Egypt and Syria had formed a ‘united Arab Republic’. So I often had to leave Cairo almost immediately to go on to Damascus because that was where the Egyptian Minister of Culture was.”
With the Suez Crisis over, Egypt could resume its plans for the second dam and with the signing of the Nile Water Agreement by Egypt and Sudan in November 1959, work began on the High Dam: the Sad el Ali Dam.
It prompted one of the most ambitious rescue plans in history: to move all 24 of the threatened Nubian temples stone by stone onto higher ground, safely out of reach of the Nile.
So started the public appeal by UNESCO’s Director-General, Vittorio Veronese, which launched Christiane into the public world. The most impressive of the monuments was undoubtedly the temple of Abu Simbel, commissioned by Ramses II in 1250 BC.
Nothing less than a Herculean effort would do and in terms of scale and magnitude, the project echoed the building of the pyramids themselves. It involved not just moving every stone from the temple itself, but actually building a hill 60 metres higher up, on which the temple could be re-built. Underneath the entire complex would come an enormous ventilation system of tunnels.
Later, Christiane would joke and say that she and Dr Sarwat Okasha – the Egyptian Minister of Culture in whom she found a valuable ally – were “the last two fossils of the rescue operation.” But they succeeded, against all odds. Abu Simbel found a new home in 1969 and UNESCO would thank both Christiane and Okasha: “You are inspired by an enthusiasm capable of moving mountains.”
This does seem to be the defining characteristic of Christiane Desroches Noblecourt. To listen to her now, when she is 86, it seems her passion has not diminished at all.
One of the recipients of her passion was Tutankhamen, whose tomb was found almost intact by Howard Carter and the Earl of Carnarvon in 1922. Dating from the 14th Century BC, his fabulous sepulchre, filled with his gold sarcophagus and a treasure hoard, was a revelation to the world. What made this find so popular was that he was a boy-king; a mere 18 years old when he died, leaving a broken dynasty and a land in turmoil.
King Tut’s tomb probably helped to inspire a rash of movies like The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff, once Hollywood started churning out ‘talkies’ – or ‘screamies’ in this case…
Christiane had a more professional interest in the young pharaoh’s tomb. When in Paris, she was approached by an editor asking her to use her influence with the Egyptian Government to obtain permission to take colour photographs of Tutankhamen’s tomb – something which had never been done before. Happily, she was already friends with Dr Okasha and him, grateful for her work on the Nubian temples, acceded.
“This editor, a very persistent fellow, actually followed me all the way to Abu Simbel to ask me to write a text to accompany the photographs. At the time I fulfilled quite a few roles already: curator, an archaeology professor, saving monuments, wife, mother and housewife… I didn’t really have time to write a whole book! But the man was so insistent, in the end, I gave in – and anyway, Tutankhamen was a person who interested me greatly.”
The result was published in 1963: Tutankhamen, Life and Death of a Pharaoh, translated into 16 languages and – as the French say – un succès fou.
The book, in turn, led to a massive exhibition of the tomb’s treasures in 1967, now that the diplomatic relations between Egypt and France were much improved after the 1956 Suez Crisis. Dr Okasha was again to prove instrumental in the exhibition, whose preparations alone would take a year and a half.
It was the first time that King Tut had ever gone on a round-the-world trip and the first time that there had ever been an exhibition around such a precise theme in Egyptology. “Before then, people had been happy enough just to gawk at pretty objects from all eras. But I wanted the exhibition to explain important elements like the funerary rites or the notion of an Egyptian renaissance.”
The exhibition would pull 1,250,000 visitors – it would have been more, but the Six Day War between Egypt and Israel intervened. “Today, though, we can see that this exposition breathed new life into Egyptian tourism.”
There would be many other books, many more exhibitions – Christiane had the contacts, the experience and the expertise, so she would often be called upon. Ramses II, Amenhotep IV (better known as the ‘heretic’ Akhenaten), Abu Simbel, women in pharaonic Egypt and Egyptian art and architecture all received her meticulous attention.
She has received several illustrious awards for her work, including from the Académie Française and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique – and was often the first and only woman to do so.
What makes her so extraordinary – sets her apart from so many others – is her unwaning passion and curiosity, her thorough research tempered by intuition, her childlike sense of wonder and tireless quest for insight.
Even at 86, she is still interested in a wide range of topics. From the exact whereabouts of Kheops’ burial chamber to the precise meaning of the word ‘religion’, she tends to take nothing for granted, preferring to trust both empirical evidence and her instincts.
She has even studied the meaning of the zodiac which was born in ancient Egypt – a study which, so far, has taken 30 years. “Between Osiran religion and sun-based worship, between diurnal and nocturnal gods, between life and death, these zodiac signs have a very precise significance. I have now interpreted all the signs, except one: Capricorn. It defies my understanding, with its goat-head and fish-tail – I cannot be certain of anything.”
It rankles her, that she cannot pinpoint the answer to a question with accuracy, but, she says, that’s the nature of Egyptology – and research. “In Egyptology, there is always a simple solution to a difficult question.
Always. But reaching this simplicity is very difficult as if it were a dust-particle in a desert, and finding it is often guided by chance – you may stumble across the answer when you’re looking for something totally different.
But chance serves only those who are ready to interpret it. You have to go through a lot of science for just a tiny particle of dust…”
Asking interesting questions is, however, often the first step to arriving at answers that satisfy. Even if the questions are unpopular: “Pointing out a problem is often threatening to researchers, it undermines their convictions and sense of safety.” But she has never yet backed off when reaching a truthful answer was at stake.
She recently entered the cyber-age, bringing out a CD Rom of her books on Nubia and Ramses II to break open the field of Egyptology and make it more accessible to Joe Public.
Even at 86, Christiane Desroches Noblecourt keeps up with the times – ancient and modern – always guided by her love for Egypt. “When the sun sets over the Valley of the Kings, you have the impression that the mountains surround you and take you in their arms. At first, it all seems so mysterious, so different, but then it slowly becomes clear: this was the cradle of our own civilisation.”