The remarkable story of the intrepid French archaeologist who led the international effort to save ancient Egyptian temples from the floodwaters of the Aswan Dam, by the New York Times bestselling author of Madame Fourcade’s Secret War
“A female version of the Indiana Jones story . . . [Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt] was a daredevil whose real-life antics put Hollywood fiction to shame.”—The Guardian
In the 1960s, the world’s attention was focused on a nail-biting race against time: the international campaign to save a dozen ancient Egyptian temples from drowning in the floodwaters of the gigantic new Aswan High Dam. But the coverage of this unprecedented rescue effort completely overlooked the daring French archaeologist who made it all happen. Without the intervention of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, the temples—including the Temple of Dendur, now at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—would currently be at the bottom of a vast reservoir. It was an unimaginably complex project that required the fragile sandstone temples to be dismantled and rebuilt on higher ground.
Willful and determined, Desroches-Noblecourt refused to be cowed by anyone or anything. As a member of the French Resistance in World War II she survived imprisonment by the Nazis; in her fight to save the temples she defied two of the most daunting leaders of the postwar world, Egypt’s President Abdel Nasser and France’s President Charles de Gaulle. As she told one reporter, “You don’t get anywhere without a fight, you know.”
Desroches-Noblecourt also received help from a surprising source. Jacqueline Kennedy, America’s new First Lady, persuaded her husband to help fund the rescue effort. After a century and a half of Western plunder of Egypt’s ancient monuments, Desroches-Noblecourt helped instead to preserve a crucial part of that cultural heritage.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
This stunning biography dives into the story of a woman who might just be the most trailblazing archaeologist you’ve never heard of. Historian Lynne Olson traces the life of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt from her childhood in France in the 1910s to her passionate fight to break into the antiquities boys’ club in the 1930s. We loved following as Desroches-Noblecourt chased her passion for ancient Egypt from one research project to another throughout the 20th century, with a unique focus on studying the everyday lives of ancient people. Olson paints a smartly detailed portrait of Desroches-Noblecourt and her colleagues, and she never hesitates to provide historical context, even when that includes uncomfortable topics like colonialism and the lasting impact of World War II. If you love the history of ancient Egypt—or of 20th-century feminism—you won’t want to pass up Empress of the Nile.
Bestseller Olson follows up Madame Fourcade's Secret War with another scintillating biography of a woman who worked in the French Resistance against the Nazis. But Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt (1913–2011) had an even more impressive second act, according to Olson: as an Egyptologist, she spearheaded "the greatest single example of international cultural cooperation the world has ever known," a campaign in the 1950s and '60s to save Nubian temples and other antiquities from flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt. Throughout, Olson details the misogyny Desroches-Noblecourt dealt with from her male colleagues at the Louvre and the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, even as she reached the top of her field. Beginning in 1958, she helped raised money from dozens of nations to dismantle the temples block-by-block, transport them up the Nile, and rebuild them on higher ground. Olson also credits first lady Jackie Kennedy with helping persuade her husband's administration to support the campaign, and documents Desroches-Noblecourt's involvement in a 1967 Paris exhibition of King Tutankhamun's treasures. Enriched by fascinating digressions into Egyptian history, museum rivalries, the plundering of archaeological sites, the 1956 Suez Crisis, and more, this is a captivating portrait of a pathbreaking woman. Readers will be enthralled. Photos.