Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 75

Luxor

November 23, 1922

AS THE TRAIN FROM CAIRO pulled into Luxor station, nearly three unnerving weeks had passed since the tomb’s discovery.

Not a bit of work had been done since the staircase had been filled in on November 5. Sentries guarded the site night and day. As added insurance, boulders had been rolled over the opening.

These safeguards were vital. Rumors about the find had already sent droves of tourists into the valley, leading Carter to note wryly in his journal that “news travels fast in the small town that is Egypt.”

Yet he refused to open the tomb.

“Lord Carnarvon was in England,” he explained. “In fairness to him I had to delay matters until he could come. Accordingly, on the morning of November 6th I sent him the following cable: ‘At last have made wonderful discovery in valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; congratulations.’”

Carnarvon had replied by telegram two days later, saying that he might not be able to come.

Before Carter could take that as a reason to resume digging, a second cable announced that Carnarvon would arrive in two weeks.

“We had thus nearly a fortnight’s grace, and we devoted it to making preparations of various kinds, so that when the time of reopening came, we should be able, with the least possible delay, to handle any situation that might arise,” Carter wrote.

Somewhat ominously that same week, a cobra had slithered into Carter’s home and eaten his pet canary. Otherwise, all went smoothly. A friend named Arthur Callender had been hired, tasked with mundane details Carter might be too busy or too distracted to handle. Lord Carnarvon’s favorite foods and drinks were purchased. Electrical wire and lamps were procured in Cairo.

But most of all, Carter spent those two weeks in a state of perpetual self-doubt and second-guessing. It was as if his entire life was tied up in this tomb.

“One thing puzzled me, and that was the smallness of the opening in comparison with the ordinary valley tombs,” he wrote. “Could it be the tomb of a noble buried here by royal consent? Was it a royal cache, a hiding place to which a mummy and its equipment had been removed for safety? Or was it actually the tomb of the king for whom I had spent so many years in search?”

As the days slowly passed and the news rapidly spread around the world, Howard Carter became a public figure.

This terrified him. Not that he minded the fame—after years of failure and struggle, it was nice to have his ego massaged. But if the tomb was empty he would be a laughingstock everywhere, and his reputation for failure would only grow.

Carter tried the best he could to go about his business, spending night after sleepless night waiting for Lord Carnarvon and his family to arrive.

At last they were here!

As the train settled to a stop, the dapper earl, wearing a scarf and wool coat on the cool November day, stepped down from his first-class compartment. His daughter Evelyn, a twenty-year-old beauty, was at his side. She and Carter had enjoyed a clandestine enchantment the season before, despite the nearly thirty-year difference in their ages. The two were “very thick” in the words of one chatty observer, though with Carnarvon spending night and day with Carter in Luxor, it was impossible for him to take the romance with Evelyn very far.

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Lady Evelyn Herbert and Howard Carter. Their purported romance was one of the few sources of friction between Carter and Lord Carnarvon.

Carter greeted them both eagerly, handing Evelyn a bouquet of white flowers. Next, the three would mount donkeys for the six-mile ride to the Valley of the Kings.

The path would take them through the lush green fields outside Luxor. They would then cross the Nile by ferry and continue down the dusty dirt path to the valley.

But even though Lady Evelyn was her usual radiant self, Lord Carnarvon was weak and tired. He needed rest.

The opening of the tomb would have to wait one more day.

A disappointed Howard Carter led his guests to his home, where he would spend yet another sleepless night.

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