Funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Thebes.
AS THE SUN SET OVER THE NILE AND THE CALL TO PRAYER WAS heard from a thousand mosques, guests arrived for a dinner party at the British Residence, an elegantly tailored Carter among them. He was older than when we last saw him. His mustache was thicker, his hair thinned, his body filled out, and he was dressed for the part he had been playing for the last few years: chief inspector of the Service des Antiquités for Upper Egypt—that is, he was wearing white gloves and a tasseled fez, the standard turnout for an official of the Ottoman Empire, or “the Sublime Porte,” as Turkey was then called.
For confusingly enough, at this time Egypt was an Ottoman province, though in fact the British ruled here. Not directly—nothing was that simple in Egypt. No, British decrees were issued in the name of Egypt’s king, or khedive (another anomaly: The title is Persian)—Abbas Hilmi II, who ruled at the pleasure of the Turkish sultan Abdul Hamid.
But if Chief Inspector Carter was thus somehow in the Turkish civil service (as his fez proclaimed), his appointment had been made not by the Egyptian king; and not by the British viceroy; and not by the Turkish sultan or his bankers or eunuch—but by a Frenchman. For in deference to French influence in Egypt, it had been settled that the director of the Service des Antiquités must always be a Frenchman.
Which is Ummi Dunya Masr for you—Egypt, Mother of the World, as her children call her. Her history has more twists and turns than one of the khedive’s belly dancers. The country’s identity is fractured, its memory long, its political processes subtle and indirect—too subtle and too indirect, as it will turn out, for the blunt, politically unsophisticated Carter.
He had achieved much since his apprenticeship with Petrie in 1893, and his hard work and many discoveries earned him the inspectorate of Upper (that is, southern) Egypt, where some of the most important archaeological work in the world was being carried out. But his success had come at a price. His life had been too one-sided; he had descended into those tombs of his for twelve years, to come forth, Lazarus-like, chief inspector at a stylish dinner party, proper and dignified—but with a streak of craziness just under the surface … an intense, driven quality that had made him and would soon be his undoing.
But what did it matter? Though disgrace was waiting just around the corner for the white-gloved Carter, though he would lose his position and have to turn in his fez, he had already accomplished more than most in Egypt, leaving his mark in almost every royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
He could tell many stories as he dined at the residence, although he didn’t, being by nature silent and reticent. Instead he listened to his dinner companion, a young woman who must have been vague about his identity. Enthusiastically, she told him about the discovery of Thutmosis IV’s tomb—a “thrilling experience” at which she was present: A pair of white horses were used to drag Thutmosis’s chariot from belowground.
To which Carter responded ironically, “Indeed!” as word went round that the cook had just collapsed with cholera (causing the guests to skip straight to dessert, Um Ali from the famous Groppi’s).
Irony-proof, Carter’s companion went on about her experiences,and for once Carter restrained himself. Perhaps the absurdity of the situation amused rather than offended him. For he had spent much time in Thutmosis’s tomb, taking special pains over that same fragile chariot “dragged out by white horses.” He had managed to rescue its body intact, preserving the intricate battle scenes molded on its sides.
The tomb was an important one for him. It strengthened his hand, giving him more archaeological authority and reputation; and it taught him to trust his instincts when wandering among the boulders and limestone chips, deciding where to dig. He described its discovery at length in his unfinished autobiography, in one of the fragmentary sketches: “A few eroded steps led down to the entrance doorway partially blocked with stones. We [Carter and his reis] crept under its lintel into a steep descending corridor that penetrated into the heart of the rock. As we slithered down the mass of debris that encumbered this corridor, the stones underfoot rolled with a hollow rumbling sound, echoed, re-echoed, in the depths of the tomb.
“At the end of this corridor we came to a steep flight of steps with a shallow recess on either side. These steps, sixteen in number, led down to another descending corridor which brought us to the brink of a large gaping well [an ancient protective device, common to Eighteenth Dynasty tombs]. We looked down into the dusky space. At the edge of this abyss we waited until our eyes became more accustomed to the dim light of our candles, and then we realized in the gloom that the upper part of the walls of this well were elaborately sculpted and painted. The scenes represented the Pharaoh Thutmosis IV standing before various gods and goddesses of the Netherworld….
“As we stood on the edge of the well we could see the [door] in the opposite wall, wide open. Just as the last dynastic [ancient] tomb robbers had left it. Dangling from it and reaching to the bottom of the well was a stout palm fiber rope which the last intruders employed when they quitted the tomb proper. It had kept this attitude for more than three thousand years.”
With rope of their own, they crossed the deep well and made their way through long corridors, finally reaching the pillared burial chamber. However, it was empty. Thutmosis’s body was no longer in the tomb, having been removed and hidden elsewhere in the Valley. But a prince remained—rather, his unwrapped mummy remained—a naked boy leaning against the wall, his stomach ripped open by ancient thieves searching for plunder.
Strangely enough, a graffito near the despoiled prince would later become part of the legal battle over Tut’s treasures. In black ink, an ancient priest had written that the burial of Thutmosis IV was “renewed” (whehem) in year 8 of Horemheb—meaning that robbers had broken into Thutmosis’s tomb, which was then set in order, purified, and resealed during Horemheb’s reign. Lawyers for both sides in the Tut case, the Egyptian government and the Carnarvon estate, would cite the inscription as they argued a key issue: What constitutes an intact royal tomb? In fact, as the bitter fight over who got what from Tut’s tomb heated up, all kinds of ancient evidence and sepulchral analogies were dragged in, though the real issue—Egypt’s political reawakening—would decide the matter.
But though that fight was still in the future, its seeds were being sown right now. The signs were there for anyone to see. When in 1899 thirteen royal mummies were discovered in Amenhotep II’s tomb, they could not be shipped down the Nile as the earlier DB tomb #320 cache had been. Orders came to keep the mummies in the tomb—where they would remain until some years later. The government understood that just such a spectacle, Egypt’s ancient kings in the hands of foreigners, would set off a riot or worse—an outright rebellion like the one in the Sudan.
“Would that Egypt had no antiquities!” exclaimed the exasperated British viceroy, Lord Cromer. However, Egypt did have antiquities, and a stubborn inspector of these antiquities who would soon cause the viceroy some of his worst headaches.
But just now, Carter was oblivious to anything but his tombs. If we are political animals, as Aristotle observed, if the human being who lives alone is either a beast or a god, then Carter was both. Daily he wandered in the desert, exploring what had become his home, the Valley of the Kings, or “the Great Place,” as the priests of Amun called it—a barren stretch of land where for five hundred years Egypt’s pharaohs were buried together with everything they had loved in this life or might need in the next: their pets and perfumes, their chariots and boats, their leather loincloths and their linen underwear, and, of course, their gold.
The Valley of the Kings is located in the desert, to the west of the Nile. To the east of the river is Egypt’s ancient southern capital known as Wast to the Egyptians and Thebes to the Greeks (the “hundred-gated Thebes” had been in existence for more than a thousand years by the time Homer sang of its glory).
Despite the location’s fame, by medieval times both splendid Thebes and the mysterious Valley of the Kings were forgotten. The early Christians living in Egypt had no interest in its ancient monuments and tombs; nor did the Arabs who swept into Egypt in AD 642.
A handful of solitary European travelers passed through the region in the 1600s without any idea of the Valley’s history. The first to connect the place with its ancient associations was Father Claude Sicard, a French Jesuit priest living in Cairo. In 1707, he made the difficult and dangerous journey south in a quest to collect antiquities at the order of the dauphin. Throughout the century, several other Europeans visited the Valley, recording their impressions of the approximately eleven royal tombs then lying open, some since antiquity.
One can get a sense of how difficult it was for a European to visit the Valley of the Kings from the memoirs of the Scotsman James Bruce, who attempted to see the tombs in 1768 on his way to Ethiopia. Leaving his boat moored in the Nile and taking along sketching materials, Bruce engaged guides to lead him to the desert valley. The plan was for him to be quickly taken through a few of the tombs’ large, rock-cut chambers. But Bruce was entranced by the tomb of Ramesses III and insisted on drawing the blind harpists painted on its walls.
His terrified guides urged him to leave. The longer they stayed, the greater the danger from the bandits and cutthroats inhabiting the desert cliffs. But Bruce stubbornly continued to draw until his guides threw their torches to the ground, giving him the choice between staying in the dark and following them back.
Their urgency was well timed, for word had gotten out that a foreigner was in the tombs. As Bruce mounted his horse, large stones were rolled down toward him from the mountainsides. Defending himself, he wrote that “I took my servant’s blunderbuss and discharged it where I heard the howl, and a violent confusion of tongues followed.”
He escaped with his marvelous (though inaccurate) drawings of the harpists, which created a sensation in Europe and caused the tomb of Ramesses III (KV #11) to be known forever after as “Bruce’s tomb.”
With Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1799 and the two-year occupation of the French, the Valley of the Kings was visited by the scholars Napoleon had brought along to make a thorough study of the country (resulting in the monumental twenty-one-volume Description of Egypt). The Baron de Denon, one of the expedition’s artists, accompanied the army south, where he sketched as many as he could of the Valley’s tombs. But he had to work almost as hurriedly as Bruce, and under conditions equally dangerous (feeling was strong against the infidel invaders, though the Mamluk regime that Napoleon had swept away was backward, oppressive, and cruel).
After the French occupation was over, foreigners had a better time of it in the Valley. The Albanian adventurer Mohammed Ali, who ruled Egypt in the name of the sultan, counted on Europeans to help him modernize the country, and he saw to it that they were well protected.
Perhaps too well protected, for Mohammed Ali cared so little about the ruins and monuments that he would have quarried the pyramids to build factories if it had been practical (a scheme he actually considered). Foreign consuls shipped colossal statues and boxes of tomb friezes back to Europe, where they found their way into collections such as that of the Louvre or the British Museum. It was only with the creation of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1858 that the Valley’s tombs began to be protected and preserved and that foreign excavators digging in the Valley found themselves regulated by Egyptian law.
Carter had come to the Valley directly from his work with Petrie at Amarna in 1893—or rather, almost directly, after a few months in the north. But this interlude at Timai al Amdid proved to be irrelevant to him, something of a farce. Almost everything went wrong. It rained incessantly. The excavation permits never got issued. And Carter’s co-worker was a young athlete just arrived from England with barbells, a horizontal bar—and a nervous system totally unsuited to life on a lonely, windswept desert mound.
They were supposed to retrieve a Ptolemaic library, but, as Carter remembered, “the rain made it impracticable to extricate anything of the nature of burnt papyri from under masses of mud bricks and earth now sodden with water. This inclement weather terminated in a tempestuous night, the force of which caused our tents to collapse and expose us to the elements, like wet and bedraggled crows. Upon this, my esteemed assistant began to weep profusely. So I hastily packed up….”
To unpack again … where? The directors of the Egyptian Exploration Fund hesitated. Petrie had reported that Carter’s work had been satisfactory—high praise from such an exacting man. But other candidates had been proposed for the important assignment they considered giving him—candidates who, after all, were gentlemen. For a few months he was employed on minor tasks, sent back and forth between sites in Middle Egypt.
Then the good news came: He had been chosen to assist Édouard Naville at Deir el-Bahri, the site of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple (1490 BC). It was perhaps the most beautiful building in Egypt, certainly the most dramatic in its setting. Three perfectly proportioned terraces, one on top of another, rose against the towering, reddish cliffs surrounding the temple in a semicircle. And just on the other side of these cliffs—an hour’s hike over steep footpaths—was the Valley of the Kings.
He arrived in Luxor by the newly introduced “screeching train,” as Carter called it in a letter home, admiring the speed with which the trip could be made from Cairo: a single long day’s journey rather than the three weeks it would take by faluka, or sailboat, sometimes lengthened by contrary winds.
Naville had sent his reis to meet him. In a calèche jingling with little metal hands against the evil eye, they drove through the town with its dusty streets; its shabby buildings and crowded bazaars; its smoke-filled water-pipe cafés, where Carter, unlike his European colleagues, would spend many hours. Here, he listened to the storytellers (even translating some of their tales) and paid close attention to the gossip—often empty rumors, sometimes valuable information, but focused always on one subject: the tombs, the digs, what had been found, and by whom.
The ferry across the Nile here was just beneath the ancient temple that dominated the city; but Carter had no time to visit it since he had to get onto a boat so crowded, it seemed likely to sink. Word had gotten out that Naville’s excavation would be a large one, and desperate fellahin had shown up from far and near. The crops had been poor; overirrigation had led to a rise in the water table; there had been locust plagues and pest infestations—one disaster after another had brought them here, looking for work.
Making his way among them, Carter crossed the Nile and then rode out past the Memnon colossi to the desert. The whole area where he had come to live was like a huge Casino of Tombs. Over the years, many treasures had been unearthed here—and for sure, more remained to be discovered. Where? Almost anywhere—“in the innermost recesses,” Carter noted, “in clefts and crevices, some [tombs] being cut high up in the rock faces of perpendicular cliffs.” It was a place where one could dig for years and find nothing. Or else one could suddenly turn up, at the first lucky swing of a pickax, the burials of hundreds of ancient priests (the Bab el Gasus), together with their grave goods.
Carter’s private explorations began here; he wandered in the desert every chance he got, every moment his duties left him a free hour. Over the years, his map became covered with hatched areas that he’d ruled out and circled, possibilities that became fewer and fewer. Nothing was overlooked. A coin minted by Ptolemy III, dropped in antiquity and still lying near a lonely desert path. A drawing at the base of a cliff: a man with his arms raised—an ancient “marker” for a tomb somewhere above? the rough beginnings of a tomb begun and then abandoned—perhaps the unstable shale caused the diggers to move nearby?
He wrote in his journal: “I have marked HC and the date so that any future investigator will know that some attempt has been made to note or copy these tombs, or the places that might contain tombs.” Which was exactly what happened some eighty years later: “I saw a shiny vertical line at the precise spot on the wall I was seeking,” recalled archaeologist John Romer. “Next to that pencil mark were the initials ‘H.C.’ and the date. Few tombs escaped his attention. It was not surprising that Carter had been there before me.”
But there was no time for such exploration when Carter first showed up at the beginning of 1894. He had been sent here not to look for tombs, but to copy the friezes that covered Hatshepsut’s temple—together with the long inscriptions found everywhere, behind doors and across walls and high up along the architraves. This part of the job was perhaps the most difficult. His copies of the rows upon rows of hieroglyphs must be exact if scholars were to rely on them. James Breasted, whose life was spent in such work, forever after suffered blind spells on account of it.
Sitting high up on wooden rigging built by the temple sides, Carter squinted through glaring sun reflecting on white stone, day after day. There were thousands of hieroglyphic images to be recorded, sometimes in their ancient colors, which still remained. After which his copies had to be verified by colleagues or sometimes by Naville himself, who was greatly interested in this aspect of the work.
Because if Naville was a “slovenly” excavator (as Petrie called him), he was meticulous when it came to his scholarship. An expert linguist, he impressed upon Carter that nothing must be left out—a few small strokes could alter a phrase’s meaning; a tiny horned serpent or loaf of bread could shift a grammatical mood or indicate gender.
Before this phase of the work began, though, two years went by. The temple Carter saw when he arrived was half-sunk beneath sixty tons of debris. Its blocks were scattered, its chapels were filled with sand, and its rows of Osiride pillars had cracked and fallen. The heavy work of clearing and reconstruction must be carried out before Carter could take up brush and pen.
It was an enormous job—which was why the fellahin had been flocking here, thinking many laborers would be needed. They had not counted on a new invention, though, which reduced the number of men who would be employed—the Decauville (or movable) railroad tracks with open wagons to cart away spoil, railroad ties that could be easily laid down and then quickly taken up again to be replaced in a different direction.
As Carter appeared, riding along the sphinx-lined temple approach, his way was blocked by the crowd of men who had encamped on the dromos. More than a thousand had shown up so far, though there was work for only a hundred. Their shouts echoed in the silent desert as excavation guards tried to send them away, but there was nowhere for them to go. They had shown up here, and here they would remain, their numbers increasing by the day.
For Carter, they were part of the scene, like the cliffs and the ruined temple rising above them. The shouting and shoving, the building violence, didn’t intimidate him, now or later, when the inevitable riots broke out. He took the situation as he found it. “He is absolutely fearless …,” Emma Andrews wrote in her diary, “carries no arms and rides about quite unattended all hours of the night.”
Naville, however, did not have such fortitude. He had asked for soldiers to supplement the usual excavation guards, and he walked through two rows of them as he appeared from his large, luxurious tent to greet his new assistant. A dignified, white-haired man whose perpetually half-closed eyes gave him a supercilious expression, Naville was as different from Petrie as it was possible to be: in his philosophy, in his archaeological interests, in his lifestyle, and in his appearance.
Whereas Petrie was ragged, Naville was dressed impeccably in a dark suit and clerical collar (he was a pastor as well as a scholar). While Petrie’s ideas tumbled forth in an almost incomprehensible torrent, Naville spoke in a slow, soft drawl. And if Petrie scampered over excavation mounds like a sure-footed goat, Naville laboriously climbed the terraced temple on Carter’s arm, pausing to take snuff.
He pointed out to Carter what must be done. A late Coptic monastery (fourth century AD) had been built at the end of one of the terraces. The monks had quarried many of its stones from the ancient temple, and the monastery had to be demolished and the stones put back. Retaining walls must be strengthened, chapels must be cleared, and large slabs of frieze must be fitted together.
Some of these, sections from the “Expedition to Punt [Somalia]” series, were already in place. In one, the queen of Punt was depicted, a squat, “steatopygous” figure, to describe her “archaeologically” (that is, Her Majesty had an enormous behind). In the frieze, she stood next to the sweet-smelling myrrh trees she had sent as a gift to Egypt. Just below, in front of the first terrace, the stone-lined pits could still be seen where they were planted thirty-five hundred years before (during his work here, Carter would find some more pieces of the Punt frieze—scenes from the African marshes).
Taking his new assistant through a recently cleared corridor, Naville showed him the secret places where Hatshepsut allowed her architect—and lover—Senenmut to inscribe his name (on the backs of doors opening inward, where it would never be seen). For the queen had showered Senenmut with honors, even granting him a tomb in the Valley. (In the end, though, she denied him the last gift: “eternity.” His name was scratched out everywhere in the tomb, while her name remained; he was not someone with whom she chose to spend eternity. After all, she was a queen, while what was he? A commoner—a one-lifetime stand.)
High up on the surrounding cliffs, however, some naughty ancient artist had drawn them naked and making love—a find Naville most emphatically did not take Carter to see.
It was one of the ironies of this first meeting that as the two men walked through the ruins, Petrie was telegraphing the Egyptian Exploration Fund, trying to prevent Naville from being given the site. Much would be lost, Petrie warned, it was nothing less than a crime to put the temple in the hands of such a man.
But Naville had an established international reputation. He had had long experience in Egypt and influence both in Cairo and in Europe. Taking the temple away from him would cause a major rift, the fund’s directors knew. Not to mention the loss of financial support—for Naville had written extensively on biblical aspects of Egyptian finds, and such a tie-in was a major draw (an economic fact of life, pure and simple, of turn-of-the-century archaeology).
Caught between the two, Carter was able to divide his loyalty without loss of principle. Though Petrie-trained, he realized there was much he could learn from Naville as well—if not about excavation, then about architectural reconstruction and the linguistic aspects of the inscriptions he was copying. Moreover, once Naville came to trust his assistant, he left Carter in charge for long periods of time and decamped to Cairo, where he spent his time in the khedival library.
For Naville was addicted to his studies, though his writing would lead one to believe the opposite. “I believe that henceforth it is in the soil, in the excavations, that we shall find the solution of important questions which criticism has hitherto sought too exclusively in philological study,” he wrote (in The Discovery of the Book of the Law Under King Josiah: An Egyptian Interpretation of the Biblical Account, one of many such studies he produced). But even when he was out of his library and near the soil, he did not, like Petrie, get his hands dirty.
As Amelia Edwards ironically wrote to Petrie: “I regret to tell you that though you have been excavating for years, you do not yet know the correct manner. It takes five to do digging in the true (high and mighty) style. At Bubastis, there was Mr. Naville to preside (in his tent, bien entendu) where he probably spent his days in writing to Madame and the children; there was Mr. Macgregor to take photographs; Mr. Goddard to spend American dollars and curl his hair and mustachios; Mr. Griffith to rescue a few small objects and Count D’Hulst to talk Arabic and pay the men.”
But if Naville proceeded at a more leisurely pace than Petrie, and in greater comfort, the Decauville railroad wagons kept running, and the mountains of spoil were removed from Hatshepsut’s temple day by day—riots or no riots. Over the months and then the years, as Naville came to respect Carter’s artwork and reconstruction skills, more and more responsibility was shifted to his shoulders.
“It is certainly quite remarkable how well that difficult work of rebuilding is done by Mr Carter,” Naville reported to the Egyptian Exploration Fund. “The whole of the execution … has been done admirably. He has a very quick eye for finding the places where the stones belong; besides, as he has a thorough command of Arabic, he can direct and superintend the men, or rather teach them what they are to do.”
“I have been able to judge what Mr. Carter can do,” he wrote to a colleague once the clearance had proceeded far enough for the copying to begin. “He certainly has much talent. His drawings are very good, and in this respect I do not think we could have a better artist. His copies when reproduced in colour or in black will make very fine plates….” Which they did. When it was published, Carter’s many-volumed record of Hatshepsut’s temple set a new standard for archaeological art. It was one of his most significant accomplishments in Egypt.
But Carter wanted more—he wanted to excavate. “Due possibly to Petrie’s training, [that] was my great desire,” he would say later, understating the matter. For it was not simply Petrie’s training that spurred him on—he had caught Petrie’s digging fever. The beauty of Hatshepsut’s temple, the surroundings at Deir el-Bahri, left their impression. He never forgot “the temple setting … the delicate sculptured reliefs upon its walls. In those six years,” he wrote, “I learnt more of Egyptian art, its serene simplicity, than at any other time or place.” But he was haunted by the excitement of excavation.
AS 1900 APPROACHED, THE TURN OF THE CENTURY BROUGHT Carter a great surprise. The excellence of his work for the last five years had been noted by Gaston Maspero, director of the Service des Antiquités. He was requested to join the department as chief inspector for the south, a vast area including the Sudan (then an Egyptian province). Though his duties included all kinds of official obligations and administrative work (which Carter took very seriously), and though there was much work to be done in the many temples included in his new domain (especially in the Ramesseum and at Abu Simbel and Edfu, where the ancient structures needed shoring up), at last he was able to concentrate on “his” tombs.
For the next four years, from 1900 on, he spent more time underground than in the light of day, working on a long list of tombs, both royal (Seti II; Amenhotep II; Ramesses I, III, VI, and IX) and nonroyal (Maihipri, warrior companion of Amenhotep II; Hatshepsut’s wet nurse; Sennefer, mayor of Thebes—among others).
Though these tombs were already “opened,” some recently, some since antiquity, the work of thoroughly exploring them demanded everything Carter had—stamina, patience, skill. He would file many reports about the southern temples, but it was in the tombs that he really came alive.
Each one had its unique challenge, some requiring a more delicate hand—the murals, reliefs, and fine architectural details were, after all, more than three and a half millennia old. Others called for the sheer strength of will to keep slugging away—tomb KV #20, unidentified when Carter first tackled it, showed him at his best: a fighter “with heart.”
“The tomb proved to be 700 feet long …,” he remembered. “With the exception of the first portion cleared by former explorers [Denon, 1799; Belzoni, 1823; Lepsius, 1845] almost the entire length was filled to the roof with rubble, most of which had been carried in by water from spates of past centuries.
“The filling was cemented into a hard mass by the action of water. To excavate, it needed heavy pickaxes, and the whole of this rubble had to be carried to the mouth of the tomb by a continuous chain of men…. Half way down its corridor the white limestone stratum came to an end, and a stratum of brown shaly [shalelike] rock of uneven fragile nature commenced. It was here when our difficulties began, for the latter stratum of rocks was so bad there was a serious danger of its falling in upon us.
“To add to our troubles the air was also very bad [from centuries’ accumulation of bat dung and the like]; candles would not give sufficient light to enable the men to see to work….”
Undeterred, Carter set up an air pump and ran an electric line down to replace the candles that kept flickering out. Sometimes they passed over rubble that had reached up to two feet of the ceiling—crawling on their stomachs as bats fluttered by or the sudden screeching of an eagle-owl they had disturbed shocked them into a moment’s pause.
They descended to the lowest depths, reaching the entrance of the burial chamber. Here they discovered that the ceiling had collapsed, filling the room with fallen rock. Digging their way in foot by foot, there, finally, was the prize: A huge stone sarcophagus carved and covered with spells was revealed; one at first, and then a second sarcophagus, both royal, both empty, though inscribed with their owners’ names: Hatshepsut and her father, Thutmosis I.
Carter emerged covered with sweat, black dust darkening his face and hands, sick from bad air—and jubilant. For the real prize was the knowledge. The royal names that allowed him to scratch two more rulers off his list. Each such find took him a step closer to Tut, over whose tomb he unknowingly walked almost every day as he performed his duties, sometimes extraordinary, more often routine.
A sample, from the Egyptian Exploration Fund archaeological reports:
Report, 1901: “Ramesseum. Northeast Wall of 2nd Temple Court, West face of which bears support about to fall.”
Report, 1902: “Tomb #42 Fine yellow mud, now dry, carried in by flood.”
Report 1902-1903: “Kom Ombo Temple. Repairs to the end enclosure wall in progress.
“The tomb of Merneptah has been completely excavated.
“Sheik Abd el Qurneh. Mr. Robert Mond [industrial chemist; amateur Egyptologist; patron] has cleared twelve tombs already known.
“Quft. A naos [shrine] of Nectanebo [last native pharaoh] has been obtained from sebakh-digging [peasants searching for fertilizer].”
Report, 1903: “Tomb #60. Found: Hairpins. Fragment of alabaster vase. Late, intrusive burial: 4 rough wooden coffins, Christian Coptic; skeleton of a child.”
Carter lived alone in a house at the edge of the desert. His pets kept him company; his donkey, San Toy, was so attached to him that startled visitors reported he pushed open the door and came searching through the rooms, braying, until he had found Carter. He had two gazelles, tame enough to eat from his hand. He had a pigeon house and got to know them so well that he recognized the individual sound of their cooing. On a photo he sent to his mother, he noted at the bottom that “the pigeon on the right … has a mournful note different from ordinary pigeons.”
But the gazelles sickened mysteriously, and Carter buried them under the acacia trees just outside his window. A cobra—which he shot—bit his donkey, and he was left alone with his mournful pigeon and his conjectures.
Sometimes he ferried across the river to Luxor. During the fierce summer heat the town was deserted by Europeans, but that did not disturb Carter, who in any case was a habitué of the Egyptian cafés (his status-conscious colleagues would never allow themselves to be seen in such places). In the summer, the pace of life slowed, especially when the Nile rose and the ancient rhythm of life asserted itself. The high dam at Aswan did not yet exist to check the flood. The waters turned the low-lying desert basins into huge lakes and half covered the temples.
Lying in a small boat, covered up with straw, Carter floated over the desert; he watched and sometimes sketched the great flocks of birds brought here by the inundation. Thousands of pelicans swooped down to fish among the ancient pillars, while jackals and hyenas roamed at the water’s edge.
But even during inundation, thieves, dealers, and vandals continued their work. It was Carter’s duty to be vigilant, and he was vigilant, whatever the season. The hapless thieves he caught were locked up inside rooms of the Karnak temple, where wine and incense were once stored.
If he was sometimes too zealous, that was his nature. An astonished colleague (Arthur Mace) found him hiding behind a temple portico like a jealous lover, watching and ready to pounce. A little girl had arranged the pieces of a broken jug in front of her. As visitors to the temple approached, she began to cry over her “misfortune.” But before they could toss her some coins, Carter jumped out to foil the ploy. Another colleague (Arthur Weigall) told of him chasing a man who had been begging in the ruins. Carter jumped his horse first over a canal and then over a garden hedge in hot pursuit.
But though he could be “rabid,” his workmen liked and respected him, even those he had treated harshly. James Breasted recounted that when Carter lost his post, “the reis [chief] of the guards whom Carter had dismissed took him into his house, fed him, gave him money, tided him over until he had painted some pictures to sell….”
Even during the one “big robbery” of Carter’s inspectorate—the break-in at Amenhotep II’s tomb—the men he prosecuted bore him no ill will. Later, one of the thieves brought him a “tip” leading to the discovery of Amenhotep I’s tomb, even though Carter had gone to great lengths to make sure that he was punished.
As soon as Carter heard of the break-in, he had his tomb guards arrested—obviously they were in collusion. He took photographs of footprints near the tomb and matched them with the feet of the suspects. He gave testimony about a gun that was fired, or not fired. Or fired after the fact—the complicated evidence was not worth unraveling, since nothing came of Carter’s sleuthing.
The judges understood that the robbery was part of a game, and a very old one at that, with the poverty-stricken pitting their wits against the guardians of vast treasure. Every one of Egypt’s ninety pyramids had been robbed in antiquity. If tons of stone had not stopped the ancient thieves, how could the service’s tomb gates be expected to?
Furthermore, they knew that the break-in could not have taken place without the entire village’s complicity, and they had no wish to put the village on trial (when two years later the British ordered floggings all around in Denshawee, the incident became a nationalist battle cry). Perhaps most important, the court was mindful that just to the south, in the Sudan, the mahdi with his dervish army had not long ago seized Khartoum and slaughtered all the foreigners. Next to such considerations, pharaoh’s burial equipment did not weigh heavily. The case was dismissed.
The ill-gotten gains provided a month of feasting. As the smoke of roasted lambs rose from the huts together with the sound of song, Carter grieved for Amenhotep II’s lost royal barge and great bow, while in the meantime Egypt’s French newspapers attacked him. Insinuating that Carter had worked hand in hand with the thieves, Le Phare d’Alexandrie asked: Who is this Inspector of Antiquities? He is little more than an agent for the “rapacious” and “unscrupulous” collector Wallis Budge, keeper of Egyptian antiquities for the British Museum. Why would “a person of no importance” such as Carter be raised to this position? L’Égypte asked, pointing to his lack of scholarly background and even the low salary that he had been receiving before his appointment.
It was against this background that in 1904 the service director, Gaston Maspero, decided to switch Carter to the inspectorship of Lower (or northern) Egypt and to bring the northern inspector south. Not as a reproach—Maspero would always be a staunch supporter of Carter’s, admiring his dedication and his energy. But he felt that the measure would prevent his inspectors from becoming too entrenched in their domains while providing an invigorating change of scene.
“A change of scene” it turned out to be, but not in the way Maspero had imagined. Before Carter had a chance to settle in to his new responsibilities, the “incident” occurred—or “the affray,” as Carter called the brawl that took place—a knock-down, drag-out fight. He was paying a courtesy call on his old mentor, Petrie, who, together with his wife, was excavating in the desert just outside of Cairo. Some other visitors were there as well, Arthur Weigall among them, a colleague and enemy whose eloquence and social ease always intimidated Carter.
As the sun began to set (it was a late winter afternoon), one of Carter’s ghaffirs, or tomb guards, rode up. There was trouble at Saqqara, the man reported, and Carter’s presence was urgently needed. Excusing himself, Carter left hurriedly, his ghaffir giving him details along the way. As Carter related in his report:
“About three pm, some fifteen visitors, whom I believe to be French, arrived at the Necropolis of Saqqara in a rowdy condition…. They eventually came to the Service’s Rest-house (known as Mariette Pasha’s House) where they stayed for an hour or so talking in a loud manner and drinking. They afterwards stated a wish to visit the monuments. Upon this, the Ticket Inspector Es Sayid Effendi Mohammed … requested the necessary fees. It was not until after some trouble that he was able to collect the money for eleven tickets.
“The whole party then went to the ‘Serapeum’ [collective burial chambers of the sacred Apis bulls] accompanied by a gaffir, who at the entrance requested to see who had tickets and who had not, knowing that some of the party had not obtained tickets…. The party would not wait for this inspector, but rushed at the door [leading to a descending staircase] and forced it open, breaking one of the side catches which held the padlock. Upon their finding, when they entered, themselves in darkness they returned and demanded candles from the gaffir. The gaffir explained to them that he had not any candles nor did the Service supply visitors with candles. The party then roughly handled the gaffir and demanded their money back….”
It was fitting that the fight began at the Serapeum, where for century after century the animal-gods were buried. Though the French visitors did not descend into its endless corridors, the psychic energy of the gloomy labyrinth worked on them—at least in the opinion of the clairvoyant gossips, the mediums who held court at Cairo’s soirees. For the Serapeum was a place of magic and spiritual energy. So much so that the Ramesside prince Khaemwaset—a famed adept in the esoteric arts—chose to be ritually buried here.
Whatever one believed, one fact was certain: The excited French party was clearly under the influence of spirits—either bottled, as Carter claimed, or buried, as the mediums asserted. Shouting and shoving the ghaffir, they returned to the service rest house, where they barricaded the doors and tried by force to get back their entrance fees.
When he arrived, Carter had difficulty entering the house, where the drunken visitors were becoming more and more unreasonable. As his report recounted: “On finding one of them knew English I requested him to give an explanation. He and all of them spoke to me in an exceedingly rough way and I was unable to get from them a proper explanation. I then requested the above Inspector to explain what had occurred, and he told me how they had entered the ‘Serapeum’ by force and of their general behavior.
“I then explained to them that they had no right to take such steps or touch the men and that they had no right to be in the house, it being private property, and that they must leave it at once. This they refused to do. I told them that if they did not go out steps would have to be taken to remove them and at the same time I requested their names.
“They … became more offensive. On my again warning them, and on my telling the gaffirs that the party must be turned out, one of the party immediately without any reason struck a gaffir with his fist in the face and knocked him down in a savage manner. On my interfering the same man raised his hand and threatened to strike me. I arrested his striking arm and warned him. The number of gaffirs … being inadequate to remove these people, I commanded Reis Khalifa to send for more and on their entering by the second door the whole of the [French] party immediately attacked them with their sticks and chairs belonging to the Service.
“Seeing that the gaffirs were being very badly knocked about I at once gave them the order to defend themselves and drive the people out. In the affray some of the party were hit, one of them being knocked down. The party fled leaving one injured man which I attended to and during the meantime one of the party returned. From outside stones were hurled at us…. I wish to commend the gaffirs on their behavior during the whole affray.
“Upon the arrival of the police a complete enquiry and procès verbal was made, consisting of some 35 sheets of foolscap.
“I beg to request that legal steps should be taken against these people for assaulting the gaffirs, in raising a hand with intent to attack me, and for damaging Government property. Howard Carter.”
Carter not only wrote on foolscap, though, but wore one as he pursued “justice.” He telegraphed a shorter version of his report to the British viceroy, Lord Cromer. “My Lord, I am exceedingly sorry to inform you that a bad affray has occurred….”
More important than the text, as it turned out, was its context. Carter had only to look above or below the lines he was writing to see what the outcome of the case would be.
The telegram’s top: “Administration des Télégraphes.”
Les indication au dessou de cette ligne ne sont transmises que
sur la demande expresse de l’Expéditeur
Signature de l’Expéditeur….
That is, a mere glance at the telegraph form should have reminded Carter of France’s influence in Egypt, strong enough to make French the second language. In addition, any newspaper he picked up would have made some mention of the Entente cordiale, then barely a year old. Great Britain and France were drawing together as World War I approached; the powers that would fight together had begun to choose sides. Carter must have realized that the rowdy Frenchmen would complain to their consul. And if he thought that Cromer would back him, it was because he understood nothing of the political balancing act that went on every day in Egypt.
In their complaint, the French stated that Carter ordered his guards “to drive away these dirty French and to strike them …;” and that one man was struck with a stone and fell “bathed in blood,” while another man’s forehead was cut open by a stick. The French consul asked Lord Cromer to “draw the conclusion of such an act ordered by an English official….” For in such a case as this, Carter was identified with the English, his Turkish fez notwithstanding.
A Justice Department commission investigated and vindicated Carter—which meant nothing to the British viceroy. Carter recorded that during his interview with him, “Lord Cromer said that he considered I was entirely in the wrong, that I could have prevented the affair when I saw the people were excited instead of aggravating it. To set natives against Europeans was not a proper thing to do, that he agreed with Sir William Garstin [an official who severely reprimanded Carter], and that he can have nothing more to do with the matter.”
How could Carter have been such a babe in arms? Did he really believe Cromer would permit Egyptians to strike Europeans, whatever the provocation?
If they beat the French today, tomorrow the British would be in danger. Besides which, Europeans were civilized while Egyptians were dirty, dishonest, unscrupulous, inferior, savage, sensual, half-naked, fatalistic, lazy, unambitious, shifty, and scheming—so went the old song.
Even Arthur Weigall, supposedly liberal, wrote in his description of Lord Cromer, “In no disparaging sense it may be said that he did not trouble himself to understand the Egyptian mind…. He never learnt to speak Arabic [though Cromer was fluent in Turkish, French, Greek, and Latin] and he made no effort to adapt his manners to the habit of the land. When he retired he knew as little of Egyptian thought as he did of Arabic grammar.” Weigall’s phrase “in no disparaging sense” said it all—the assumption was that a British viceroy need not take the trouble to understand these “sensual … scheming” people over whom he ruled.
Only Petrie lauded Carter’s action (both at the time and later in his memoirs). But Petrie’s attitude was exceptional. Like Carter, Petrie admired the Egyptians; and like Carter, he lived with his workers on the closest terms. Both men were protective of their helpers, sending them out of unstable tunnels while remaining themselves to dodge rock slides. And both men were more attuned to life in the villages than they were to sophisticated London or Cairo.
But while Carter did not reflect on the situation in general or on his own attitude—it was second nature to him—Petrie was more self-conscious and thoughtful. When Petrie praised the Egyptians, as he often did in his writings and lectures, his praise contained an implied criticism of his fellow archaeologists: “They [the Egyptian workers] had dry bread to eat and brackish water to drink…. They toiled for sixpence a day … and they had to walk twenty-five to forty miles to get food. For shelter, they dug holes in sand mounds or made booths with tamarisk bushes….
“Each night a blazing row of camp fires flickered their yellow flames up into the starlight all along the line of booths…. The boys playing games in dark starlight, the girls singing and clapping hands … and not another sound, nothing but sand and tamarisks and marsh and water and desolation.
“But I liked it better than most civilized places; one lives with the people more and the ever fresh desert air, doubles one’s contentment and peace of mind. Neither [the linguist] Gardiner nor Griffith [of the British Museum] would appreciate it, I fear; they neither of them like having to do with the people and would prefer an immense excavating machine to do their work. To me, all their [the Egyptians’] by-play and jokes and songs and ways give a color and an interest to life here which no one will ever reach in staid, school boarded England.”
But it was one thing to admire the Egyptians, and it was another to order your workers to beat up some drunken Frenchmen. And while that was bad enough, what made it worse, inexcusable, was that Carter insisted he was right.
On Cromer’s orders, Sir William Garstin, legal adviser to the Department of Public Works, instructed Carter to apologize. Carter refused. Maspero tried to smooth things over—what was really required, he told Carter in his suave way, was not an apology but an expression of regret for what happened. Surely Carter regretted the “affray”?
Carter did, or felt obliged to say he did. But he still insisted that any expression of regret must be accompanied by the other side’s expression of regret.
Maspero wrote to Carter: “You are to come with me tomorrow between nine and ten and pay a call on M. de la Boulinière [the French consul] there to express our regrets that the order you gave brought so strong consequences. That will stop the matter which is becoming irritating.”
Carter answered Maspero: “I feel the humiliation to an exceeding extent. The treatment I have received after I have carried out my duty which has always been my endeavor and after my services to the Department [of Antiquities] is inconceivable.”
Theodore Davis (the American millionaire patron of Egyptology) wrote to Carter: “Pay no attention to whatever the papers or vain and silly people may say! All men whose respect is worth having will praise and approve of your action. Contemplate the harm of being dismissed from the service ‘for disobedience.’ It will stick to you as long as you live, and all your justification will be forgotten.”
Carter to Davis: “I cannot believe that they will allow a gentleman to be treated in such a way while endeavoring to carry out his duty.” And so forth.
Davis to Carter a long emotional letter: “I received your letter and have in sadness and thoughtfulness considered your attitude. You are so entirely wrong, and in danger of a crushing blow. The row at Sakkara was submitted to a [Department of Justice] Commission and you were held to be justified in your activities even if you used ‘a high hand.’ Now comes your trouble. The French minister asked the Government to desire you (or rather to desire the Inspector general) to apologize for the connection the Inspector General had with the Sakkara row.
“It seems that the government concluded that whatever might be the rights and wrongs of the affair, it would be a wise and friendly thing to do as between the two Governments, particularly as the French minister stated that he wanted only an expression of regret of the affair, a shake of the hand etc.
“Thereupon you were directed or requested to go through the form as above stated. This you refused to do, in spite of astounding fatherly advice of M. Maspero and Sir William [Garstin].
“I have as per your letter your reasons are:
“1st ‘I have no doubt that the instant that I went to the French embassy the papers would publish at once.’ The natural deductions from this, and certainly that of the public, would be, that thereby your pride, vanity, or self love would be wounded. Can you for a moment lay yourself open to such attribution?
“2nd ‘My offer has been that if these people will apologize to my Director, then I will take the step of responding etc.’”
Davis concluded with a statement that summed up the opinion of European Cairo (Petrie excepted): “There is only one upright and gentlemanly thing to do etc.”—that is, apologize!
But Carter could not. Some months went by, and at the beginning of the summer of 1905 he was banished farther north, to Tanta in the Delta, to take up a position of reduced responsibility. To make matters worse, Arthur Weigall was appointed chief inspector in his place.
Dispirited, physically sick from the strain, Carter arrived in Tanta among thousands of pilgrims—it was the moulid, or birthday of the dead saint El-Sayyed el Bedawi, buried at the city’s edge. Maspero, sensing that Carter was about to resign, had repeatedly implored him to put his work first, not to let his pride get the better of him, to stay at his post and do his duty.
But again, Carter could not. To the sound of the pilgrims’ revelry and prayer, he wrote Maspero asking for three months’ leave. Maspero arranged it, and Carter traveled to England, where he visited the scenes of his youth. But when he returned to take up his post in Tanta, he was just as unhappy as before: His heart was not in it. After a few months of trying to throw himself into his work, he finally wrote a letter of resignation.
He had lost the inspectorate it had taken him twelve years to gain. With no immediate prospects in sight, he returned to Cairo.
It would take another decade of backbreaking work for him to triumph over his critics. But at that moment of triumph, when he discovered Tut’s tomb, he would make the same mistakes all over again. He would act without discretion, he would allow his dark feelings to get the upper hand, he would ignore political realities—and again disaster followed, this time magnified times ten.
He would be locked out of Tut’s tomb for two years by the authorities. All work ceased; the doors were resealed, though Carter had been in the midst of crucial work, raising the heavy stone sarcophagus cover with rope and tackle—with Tut lying just beneath, within three nested coffins. This, while the enraged Carter spent his days writing angry letters, issuing self-justifying pamphlets, consulting with lawyers, badgering British officials, and snarling at newspaper reporters—among whom was Arthur Weigall. For after a nervous breakdown, Weigall had turned to writing to make a living (his malicious articles about Carter brought him hefty fees).
Watching the spectacle even from this distance in time, one wants to cry out: No! Stop it! Control yourself, Carter! But the truth of the matter is that Carter could not control himself. For though he was remarkable, he was also a little—more than a little—crazy. You couldn’t be Howard Carter and not be. The same driven quality that enabled him to find Tut’s tomb also brought about his downfall.
Weigall privately circulated a caricature he’d drawn of Carter looking very much like Charlie Chaplin. In the sketch a ragged Carter hit the road, following a sign advertising cheap lodgings. Weigall especially had little sympathy for the ex-chief inspector: Carter had brought the Saqqara trouble upon himself, Weigall wrote to his wife, the man was filled with childish pride, vanity, and stubbornness.
Say Weigall was right, Carter’s flawed character had led him to resign—his pride, vanity, and anger. Or say Carter was right, that a strong sense of principle and ethical disgust made him throw in the towel. Or—probably the case—say both were right: In the end it came to the same thing. The strong flow of Carter’s feelings, the intensity that made him abandon his post at the service, was also what led him to make the greatest discovery in the history of Egyptology … perhaps a bad moral with which to conclude, but an interesting reflection on our human nature.
Right or wrong, Carter was suffering, alone and without a penny, after his resignation. But the insult he had received only fueled his determination. He might be down in Cairo—but he was not down and out.
One Month Later
Cairo was a city of refuge for outcasts. It was blind to faults, forgiving of sins, delighted by scandal. When Lady Atherton, for example, was exposed as an adulteress by her French maid, where did she go? She left the terribly straitlaced London and came to Cairo, of course, where the new inspector of antiquities—Arthur Weigall—squired her around. Or, to take another example, when Prince Oblonsky lost everything at the Baden-Baden casino, where was he next seen? In Cairo, naturally, where he was all but applauded for his prodigality.
Even that supposedly virtuous dame the Statue of Liberty planned on taking up residence here. (Her original name was An Allegory of Egypt Holding Out the Light of Learning to Asia. She was intended as a gift from the people of France to Egypt.) But King Isma’il of Egypt was going bankrupt and didn’t have the dough to bring her over from France. Otherwise she might have been the Statue of License, not Liberty, and her inscription would have proclaimed: “Give me your spendthrifts! Your lustful! Your social outcasts yearning to be free!”
Only one outcast was beyond the pale—the unrepentant Carter. After resigning as chief inspector, he was cold-shouldered by the elite and blacklisted as an excavator. It was not official, of course, but for the next three years, all doors were shut. Nothing could open them—neither Maspero’s affection for him, nor the efforts of Percy Newberry his old Beni Hasan colleague, nor his brilliant record as inspector. He had ordered Egyptians to beat Europeans. (“That is the really bad part of the business,” Maspero wrote to Carter in an off-the-record letter. “Native policemen ought to let themselves be struck without striking back.”) No, Carter had proved himself not to be a gentleman. He was all washed up.
The only reasonable course of action, he knew, would have been to beg, borrow, or steal the return fare to England. But instead, Carter used whatever money he had to head south, to the Valley of the Kings. When he got off the train at Luxor in 1905, he had no place to live, no money, and no idea whether he would be able to support himself.
The American Egyptologist James Breasted reported firsthand (and Breasted’s son has confirmed) that Carter went to live in the hut of an Egyptian tomb guard whom he had fired. He ate at the man’s table and even borrowed money from him. What Carter’s fellow Europeans thought about this arrangement may be easily guessed. But Carter did not care. He was determined to find a way of remaining in the Valley and quickly settled into a routine, spending his nights in the hut at Gurneh (the desert’s edge) and emerging each morning to paint the ruins.
The ex-chief inspector at his easel—what an astonishing sight it must have been for the beggars, urchins, and thieves he had driven away. Now they were thrown not into the Karnak temple jail, but into Carter’s paintings, where they were used to create local color—a child playing at the entrance of a tomb, a beggar stretching out his hand under a crumbling arch. It was not great art, but it was salable, that was the main thing: It appealed to all sorts of people passing through Luxor and helped Carter keep body and soul together.
He developed other sidelines as well. He became a familiar figure at the ruins, taking around visitors who wanted a deeper understanding of their history. He was to be seen in the bazaars, offering his expertise to those who were interested in purchasing antiquities but were afraid of ending up with one of Oxan Aslanian’s “masterpieces” (the great Berlin forger was working in Egypt during this time).
Now and then, the thieves themselves helped Carter to earn a commission. We find him approaching the American millionaire Theodore Davis on their behalf (at that time Davis was digging, or rather bankrolling the archaeologist Edward Ayrton to dig, in the Valley, unmethodically, striking out in all directions for whatever they might find). Carter offered Davis a hoard of small precious objects, jewelry and scarabs, all stolen from his dig. For a fair price, they would be returned—no questions asked, no arrests made. It was a mark of the thieves’ respect for Carter that they had made him their emissary—and a thief’s respect is worth having, especially in the antiquities game.
With such makeshift stratagems as these, Carter managed to survive while, unknown to him, the man who would be his future partner arrived in Cairo. And in style—the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon took a suite at Shepherd’s, where they prepared to remain for the 1905 season—or so the Egyptian Gazette reported.
It was not long, though, before Carnarvon tired of the social round and thought it might be just the thing to try his hand at some excavating. He took up the idea lightly. And though as time went on he pursued it with increasing seriousness, it never became the desperate obsession for him that it was for Carter. He never went slithering over mounds of debris in unstable tomb corridors or spent his nights brooding over maps of the Valley of the Kings.
But as his enthusiasm grew, so did his commitment. Especially after World War I, when inflation ate away at his income and the sums spent on his work with Carter mounted higher and higher, he was tested. And though his test was only a financial one, still Carnarvon cared greatly about money, not to mention the fact that he had heavy expenses maintaining Highclere Castle, his ancestral estate.
In 1905, however, Carnarvon began with a simple proposition—that it would be very pleasant to sit in the shade, watching as objects of rare beauty were dug up from the earth. Using influence, he obtained permission to excavate in the hills near Hatshepsut’s terraced temple. His plan was to go it alone with only a team of workers. But though he had no interest in engaging an archaeologist, or “learned man,” as he called them, still and all as he traveled south to begin his dig, the paths of the earl and the outcast Carter had begun to converge.