Christiane Desroches — she later added her husband’s name to her own — was born to an upper-middle-class Parisian family in 1913. From an early age, she was fascinated with Egypt, hieroglyphs and stories of archaeological discovery.
Fortunately, her enlightened father encouraged his daughter’s scholarly interests and financially supported her when, in 1934, she landed an unpaid internship at the Louvre cataloguing objects from its storeroom of Egyptian antiquities. In 1937, the 23-year-old received a three-month study grant that allowed her to travel to the Valley of the Kings, where she met one of her heroes, the distinguished French Egyptologist Bernard Bruyere.
Back in 1922, Bruyere had bucked up a despondent Howard Carter when the Englishman was about to abandon his long search for the tomb of Tutankhamen. A few weeks later it was found, intact, and, in Carter’s famous words, “full of wonderful things.”
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Just before the outbreak of World War II, Desroches-Noblecourt joined the Louvre staff as a junior curator. Foreseeing the likelihood of a German invasion, the museum’s shrewd director, Jacques Jaujard, was already making plans to move the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and other treasures out of harm’s way.
Olson, whose many previous books spotlight unsung heroes and heroines of that war, is here at her best. As the roads swarmed with people fleeing to safety, the Louvre personnel, including Desroches-Noblecourt, trucked their precious cargo to various chateaus on the Loire away from the eyes of rapacious Nazi collectors, notably Hermann Goering.
Shortly afterward, the young Egyptologist joined the now-legendary Resistance network formed by scholars from Paris’s Musée de l’Homme. In 1942, the group — which mainly focused on intelligence-gathering and publishing an underground newspaper — was betrayed by a mole. While some of its members, including Desroches-Noblecourt, escaped capture, others were deported to concentration camps. Seven of its leaders were executed. In their last moments before the firing squad, these martyrs for France lifted their voices in “La Marseillaise.”
Before and after the war, Desroches-Noblecourt spent considerable time in Egypt, excavating at the Valley of the Queens and other sites, photographing and cataloguing artifacts. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy for a woman to pursue field work in those days: The petite Desroches-Noblecourt confronted male condescension at every turn.
Still, she nearly always managed to earn a grudging acknowledgment of her abilities from most senior scholars of the Egyptology establishment — and would, of course, eventually become a distinguished member of that establishment herself.
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Most crucially, this hard-working woman possessed what we now call people skills. She learned modern Arabic, taught herself enough basic medicine to treat emergencies among the site workers and made allies in Cairo’s Antiquities Services. As a result, Desroches-Noblecourt retained the approval and respect of the Egyptians during a time of increasing political tension.
The 1950s saw the last gasp of overt Western colonialism, the bloodless coup that brought Gamel Abdel Nasser to power, Britain’s loss of control of the Suez Canal, and the ever-increasing involvement of the United States and the Soviet Union in Middle Eastern affairs.
In the early 1960s, Desroches-Noblecourt’s friendships and grit proved essential to the success of her career’s crowning achievement: the seemingly quixotic campaign to save from destruction the temples, sculptures and artifacts at Abu Simbel, near Egypt’s border with Sudan.
Nasser’s planned construction of the Aswan High Dam would create a reservoir — Lake Nasser — that would leave these antiquities, including four colossal figures of Pharaoh Ramses II, drowned in the waters of the Nile. The only hope of preserving the monuments was to move them to higher ground and safer locations. Bear in mind that the 65-foot-tall sculptures of Ramses II were actually carved from — and were still part of — the rock face of a sandstone cliff near the river’s edge.
How this crusade acquired the support of Egyptian Minister of Culture Sarwat Okasha, dashing UNESCO chief René Maheu and American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy forms the second half of “Empress of the Nile.” It’s a complicated story of international cooperation achieved only after intense diplomatic back-and-forth, the promise of vast amounts of financial aid and, above all, extraordinary human effort.
To move the Ramses sculptures, for instance, required master craftsmen from Italy’s Carrara marble quarries to slice the gigantic figures into huge blocks that could be lifted by derricks and placed on trucks or barges. Like Legos, they would later be put back together on a site similar to their original riverside location.
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Desroches-Noblecourt also wanted Egypt’s treasures to be better-known in the West.
During and after these massive salvage efforts, she helped pave the way for sensational exhibitions in Paris, London and other cities. Many of us in Washington can still remember the crowds in 1976 for the fabulous “King Tut” show at the National Gallery of Art.
In her later years, Desroches-Noblecourt brought out several books about ancient Egypt for popular audiences and lived long enough to watch a documentary made about her career and accomplishments. She died at age 97 in 2011.
It was quite a life. Certainly “Empress of the Nile” tells her story well, embedding it in the history of modern Egyptian archaeology, though at times it does approach the hagiographic. This lack of shading can grow tiresome. Only toward the end of the biography does Olson — whose previous books include “Madame Fourcade’s Secret War,” “Last Hope Island” and “Those Angry Days” — suggest that the archaeologist was sometimes a difficult personality. But this is a minor cavil. “Empress of the Nile,” which publishes Feb. 28, is a welcome and needed work of both rescue and reclamation.
The Daredevil Archaeologist Who Saved Egypt’s Ancient Temples From Destruction
Random House. 448 pp. $32
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