Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 8

Beni Hasan

1891

CARTER WOKE UP INSIDE A TOMB. He was eager to begin working, though it was totally dark, and the small room smelled like, well, death warmed over.

The floor of the burial place was carved stone covered in a fine layer of sand. Bats clung to the ceiling, the rustle of their wings making a sound like what Carter would one day call “strange spirits of the ancient dead.”

Newberry lay nearby. Like Carter, he had spent the night in the tomb, for they had arrived after nightfall and had nowhere else to sleep.

If this was to be Howard Carter’s first day as an Egyptologist—and it was—it couldn’t have gotten off to a more atmospheric start.

From Alexandria, Carter and Newberry had taken the train to Cairo, where they spent a week with Flinders Petrie, whom Lord Amherst had called “the master” of Egyptian excavation for his years of experience in the tombs.

Those days spent in the Egyptian metropolis had been exciting, but soon it was time to move on. From Cairo, Carter and Newberry chugged south.

The tracks hugged the Nile, but while the scenery on the train ride from Alexandria had been lush and green through the river delta, just outside Cairo it had turned barren and desolate. A thin strip of greenery sprouted along either side of the Nile, thanks to its annual habit of overflowing its banks, but otherwise the sensation of being surrounded by desert was powerful indeed.

After two hundred miles, the men disembarked at Abu Qirqas station, where they hired donkeys—one each for themselves, and one each for their luggage.

Carter had no problem handling his animals, thanks to his many years living in the country.

“Just watch me,” he told Percy Newberry. “Do as I do, and you’ll be fine.”

The fertile black loam of the riverside path soon turned dry and rocky. The sun was setting, and Carter and Newberry knew that it would be a race just to get to the tombs before dark.

They lost.

The trail became increasingly narrow and rugged as it climbed an escarpment. But eventually they reached the tombs, which provided acceptable shelter from the wind and nighttime cold. Their remote location allowed the two men to simply step through the ancient stone doorway and stretch out for the night.

Now Carter shuffled outside to see for himself what the Egyptian desert looked like at dawn. He wasn’t disappointed.

“The view was breathtaking,” he later wrote in his schoolboy prose style. “The Nile Valley glowing softly in the sunlight, stretching far into the distance, the edges of the tawny desert contrasting amiably with the fertile plain.”

He was in a land that couldn’t have been more different from the verdant pastures of Swaffham.

But Howard Carter felt like he had finally come home.

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