Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 20

Valley of the Kings

January 1900

CARTER COULD NOT AFFORD to purchase a concession.

Nonetheless, just a few weeks into his new position, he was busily making the valley his own. In addition to setting up a donkey corral that could accommodate a hundred animals, he had begun installing heavy metal gates on all tomb entrances—to keep out the pesky robbers and squatters who prowled the valley at night.

He was also introducing electric lighting to make the tombs more inviting to the European tourists who visited the valley during the day.

And for reasons having nothing to do with his job and everything to do with his own future success, Carter had begun to woo wealthy foreign tourists, hoping they might be convinced to fund a concession for him.

American businessman Theodore Davis was just such a tourist.

Davis was a small, hugely opinionated man with a dense white mustache spanning ear to ear. A regular visitor to Luxor (the site of ancient Thebes), he had begun to display an obsessive interest in Egyptology.

Now Carter stood with Davis and his group at the entrance to the tomb of Amenhotep II, a spectacular and yet dangerous place to be leading novices, especially rich, influential ones who might break a leg or suffer heatstroke. “It was a fine hot day,” wrote Emma Andrews, Davis’s traveling companion, who also took pains to point out that Carter was “pleasant, despite his dominant personality.”

These tourists were hardly dressed for tomb exploration, the men wearing hard shoes and ties, and the women floppy hats and long dresses. Carter gave them each a candle and issued sharp instructions not to lag behind.

He led them down a narrow, low-ceilinged corridor, which descended steeply into the side of the cliff.

“Pay careful attention to each and every step, please,” Carter advised as the earth suddenly disappeared: the tomb builders had excavated a well thirty feet deep and ten feet wide to dissuade—or trap and mangle—the uninvited.

Carter had laid boards across the chasm, and one by one the party made its way safely to the other side. In truth, he was playing up the danger a bit to pique the interest of these potential investors.

The tunnel plunged deeper into the earth, revealing an ancient stairwell that had given way and forced the group to scramble over a pile of loose stones. Paintings lined the walls here, ancient murals in subtle shades of maroon and yellow.

Carter was an impatient tour guide, despite his desire to woo a potential benefactor. Slower and weaker members of the group were tolerated but just barely.

At the site of another crumbled stairway, the tourists had to pick their way, hand over hand, up the rocky pile, then squeeze through a narrow opening to continue the journey. By now most were sweating and breathing hard. The close air made some of them sick. More than one finger and forearm had been burned by dripping wax as the sightseers struggled to manage their candles.

Yet they gamely pressed on, following Carter, quite literally, into the bowels of the earth.

The corridor turned a corner, and suddenly the group was inside a great rectangular chamber, and this room made the difficult trip worth every step.

The ceiling was painted with blue and yellow stars. And there, in the middle of the room, was a stone sarcophagus—with the mummy still inside.

“Notice the band of hieroglyphics around the top of the sarcophagus,” said Carter in a hoarse whisper. “That is the mummy’s curse, and that’s the only thing that has protected it from being stolen.”

As the group gaped in awe, wondering if their mere presence might somehow invoke the curse, Carter had to suppress a smile. What incredible idiots they were! The hieroglyphics said nothing of the sort. He was lying through his teeth, hoping that his fabrication might incite Davis to purchase a concession.

To Carter’s delight, he did just that.

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