Empress of the Nile

Empress of the Nile

The Daredevil Woman Archaeologist Who Saved Egypt’s Ancient Temples from Extinction

In the 1960s, the attention of the world was focused on a nail-biting race against time—an international campaign to save more than a dozen ancient Egyptian temples from drowning in the rising floodwaters of a gigantic new dam. But the massive press coverage of this remarkable rescue effort—the greatest of its kind in history—completely overlooked one essential element of the story: the feisty French woman archaeologist who made it happen.

Without the intervention of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, the temples would now be at the bottom of a gigantic reservoir. A project of almost unthinkable magnitude and complexity, the rescue initially was dismissed as a fool’s errand by virtually everyone. Its enormous engineering challenges were compounded by the towering political difficulties of urging worldwide cooperation during an especially dangerous spike in Cold War tensions. In a world growing increasingly divided, the project was regarded as “woefully starry-eyed and out of step.”

Desroches-Noblecourt refused to accept that verdict. A willful, real-life version of Indiana Jones, she refused to be cowed by anything or anyone. She’d already had plenty of experience dealing with powerful men who didn’t take her seriously. In the macho, rough-and-tumble world of archaeology, women were an extreme rarity, and she’d been shunned and harassed since her earliest days in the field. “You don’t get anywhere without a fight, you know,” she once told an interviewer. “I never looked for the fight. If I became a brawler, it was out of necessity.”

Of Desroches-Noblecourt, a female colleague wrote: “She was disruptive. Her spontaneity and outspokenness, her aplomb, her oratorical talent deeply irritated a large number of her male colleagues, as well as other men. They didn’t like that kind of behavior.” This was not, in their opinion, the way a woman should behave.

Throughout her career, Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt resembled nothing so much as a female action hero come to life. A woman who swaggered. A woman who talked and fought back. A woman who owned her power.