Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 37

Thebes

1908

HOWARD CARTER had been summoned.

His old friend and Antiquities Service boss, Gaston Maspero, wanted to meet and discuss Carter’s “future.” In the four years since Carter had left his post, there hadn’t been much talk like that—more a hand-to-mouth existence that barely kept Carter’s dreams alive and often made him look foolish for having them.

So Gaston Maspero’s request for a meeting was more than welcome. It could be a lifesaver.

The distance from the Winter Palace Hotel to the Valley of the Kings was roughly five miles. If one stood on the great marble steps leading up to the hotel’s main lobby, it was possible to gaze across the Nile toward the distant cliffs that formed the backside of the valley. When there was no wind and the desert dust was not clouding the air, those cliffs seemed almost close enough to touch.

That’s the way Howard Carter felt every day of his exile. A man less passionate about Egyptology would never have debased himself the way Carter had, standing out on the streets to hawk his wares to tourists, no different from the hordes of carriage drivers, ferryboat captains, and beggars who lined the dirt road at the river’s edge.

Like them, he existed on the most meager of handouts. His serviceable watercolors would probably have been completely overlooked and ignored were he Egyptian rather than European.

To say that Howard Carter’s life had fallen into disarray would be an understatement. He’d become a shadowy version of himself: at once haughty and penniless.

To supplement his modest living as a watercolorist, he also sold antiquities on the black market, thus sinking to the level of the men he’d once prosecuted for tomb robbery.

Carter dressed well enough, even though his clothes were worn, and still had a taste for fine food and expensive hotels, but he’d become dependent on wealthy patrons to make his way. Adding insult to injury, his most beloved patrons of all, Lord and Lady Amherst, had fallen on difficult times. They’d been forced to sell Didlington Hall in 1907, and Lord Amherst was in poor health. At the age of thirty-four, Howard Carter had become little more than a self-educated sycophant.

Enter, thanks to Maspero, the inimitable Lord Carnarvon.

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, better known as the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon—or, more simply, His Lordship—was a pale, thin man with a hound’s face pitted by smallpox. He smoked incessantly, despite damaged lungs; raced cars; owned horses; and otherwise reveled in living the life of a wealthy, self-absorbed bon vivant. Even the 1901 car crash that had almost killed him didn’t stop Carnarvon from spending his money recklessly and living a life of entitled leisure that no one deserved—at least not in Carter’s opinion.

His Lordship had first come to Egypt in December 1905, thinking that the warm weather and dry air might help him recuperate. That visit and subsequent other “tours” whet his appetite for all things Egyptian.

In winter he maintained a luxurious and spacious suite at the Winter Palace Hotel. Little by little, Carnarvon was transformed from a man consumed by the here and now into a man consumed by the past—the ancient past.

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