Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 18

Deir el-Bahri

1899

THERE WAS NO SHADE to be had in the valley of Deir el-Bahri, not so much as a dancing speck. So as Carter set up his easel atop the ruins of an ancient and quite spectacular mortuary temple, the clock was ticking.

The rising March sun was just now lining the horizon. Within an hour, the heat of the day would get uncomfortable, and beads of sweat would drench Carter’s hatband.

Within two hours, his brushstrokes would dry almost as soon as he applied the watercolors.

And within three hours, the lead of his pencil would become too soft to sketch even a single line.

So he worked quickly, drawing the exterior of the temple, making sure that its massive proportions were in scale with the equally massive cliff rising like a great wall behind it.

The precision and symmetry of the sprawling complex, with three levels and sculpted columns, evoked images of an army of craftsmen, at the height of their talent, proudly building a structure that would last for all time.

What an idea. No wonder he could never leave this magical place.

Carter had acquired a reputation as a very good artist—indeed, his subjects ranged from the animals in the Cairo Zoo to intricate tomb interiors. But he had been in Egypt eight years now. It was impossible for him to paint a watercolor like the one on which he now labored without mentally filling in the history behind it.

A bead of sweat trickled down his face, but he was already lost in a reverie.

The temple before him had belonged to Queen Hatshepsut. It had taken fifteen years to build, but then the queen had been buried someplace else. The building looked more like a palace than a tomb and was peculiar for being so ostentatious. At the time of its construction, back in the fifteenth century BC, pharaohs were trying to conceal their burial places, not flaunt them for tomb robbers.

art

Hatshepsut’s temple, where Carter spent many years excavating. The Valley of the Kings lies on the other side of the cliff.

But just as this was no ordinary temple, Hatshepsut had been no ordinary pharaoh. After her husband (who was also her half brother) died, she ruled as one of the first female pharaohs. Her reign had been prosperous, as were those of her children and her children’s children.

Carter knew that Hatshepsut had once been deeply in love, for she was a queen before she was a pharaoh. He knew also of her father, Tuthmosis I, the first pharaoh to be buried in what came to be known as the Valley of the Kings rather than in a pyramid.

The pyramids, so obvious and tempting, had been easy to plunder, which meant the pharaohs were deprived of their possessions during their journeys into the afterworld. Carving a tomb in a desolate valley seemed the best way to discourage thieves.

Sadly, the architect Ineni had been wrong about that.

So had Hatshepsut.

Despite the fact that the massive mortuary temple sprawled like a small city across the valley floor, no trace of Hatshepsut had yet been found.

Carter dabbed more paint on the paper—quickly. The sun was low on the horizon and directly in his eyes. He averted his gaze to reduce the risk of ophthalmia, bleeding of the eyes that came from looking too long at the sun. The disease was common among Egyptologists and could easily end a career.

A few hundred yards off, tourists and their Egyptian guides were dismounting mules and making their way to the temple.

Little did they know that one of the world’s most promising Egyptologists was in their midst. Carter had worked his way up from being a poorly paid junior draftsman and was now learning the methods of the great excavators.

The key to becoming an excavator, Carter knew all too well, was luck. But after that came money, a great deal of money. He needed to find a wealthy benefactor to cover his costs. He had seen such patrons in Luxor, hanging out at the Winter Palace Hotel or enjoying the Nile nightlife aboard lavish yachts.

Carter didn’t know how to mingle comfortably in that society—or any society, really—but it was time that he learned.

How hard could it be to fool a bunch of fools?

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