Egyptian archaeology has never been regarded as an equal-opportunity profession. Charismatic males have dominated the field since its inception, from Giovanni Belzoni, a onetime circus strongman who located the hidden entrance to the second Pyramid at Giza in 1818, to Howard Carter, the Briton who shot to global fame after uncovering Tutankhamen’s tomb. Then there’s Zahi Hawass, the self-styled Indiana Jones who ruled over Egypt’s antiquities for years. Driven out by allegations of corruption during the Arab Spring, Hawass resurrected himself, Osiris-style, under the current dictatorship.
Lynne Olson’s “Empress of the Nile” tells the story of the most accomplished woman ever to break into that men’s club. The author of a number of books about World War II, Olson was researching the Musée de l’Homme resistance movement when she came across references to Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, a curator at the Louvre who led a secret life in the anti-Nazi underground. Desroches-Noblecourt went on to become a field archaeologist with a knack for finding intact tombs, and a master bureaucratic infighter who played a key role in rescuing Egypt’s endangered antiquities from destruction by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Along the way, Olson relates in this fast-paced, highly entertaining book, Desroches-Noblecourt survived a Gestapo interrogation, faced angry crowds during the 1956 Suez crisis and sparred with everyone from Gamal Nasser to Charles de Gaulle.