Review: ‘Empress of the Nile,’ by Lynne Olson

Tribune Content Agency

NONFICTION: Lynne Olson’s ninth book of history profiles a fiery Egyptologist who led an international campaign.

“Empress of the Nile” by Lynne Olson; Random House (406 pages, $32)


As “Empress of the Nile” begins, Christiane Desroches is pulled from a train in 1940 by a Nazi SS officer, who didn’t believe this 27-year-old could possibly be the Louvre’s acting curator of Egyptian antiquities. Interrogated by the Gestapo, she scolded them for their poor manners and even cursed them before they eventually let her go.

That story exemplifies the book’s overriding theme, that this French archaeologist who became one of the world’s foremost experts on ancient Egypt was willing to take on powerful men. Small in stature — just 5 feet tall — she spent much of her career refusing to be deterred by obstacles. From male classmates who resented her presence — “the more she shone, the less her fellow students in the field liked it” — to floodwaters threatening to submerge centuries-old monuments.

Egyptologists are certainly familiar with her legacy, but since not all of her many books are translated into English, author Lynne Olson has written an engrossing biography that makes Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt’s life and work accessible to a broader audience. Sidenote: Even her married name shows her willingness to defy norms; few people hyphenated names back in the 1940s.

Olson writes that Desroches-Noblecourt’s fascination with Egypt began as a child when her grandfather took her to see the Obelisk of Luxor in Paris — created during the reign of Rameses II, a pharaoh she later wrote a biography about — and turned into her life’s work as she began traveling there. She wasn’t daunted by the oppressively hot primitive conditions at the digs and became unofficial nurse to the workers, in one case saving a man bitten by a cobra.

While Descroches-Noblecourt’s accomplishments are many, perhaps her biggest and most visible was her fight to preserve Abu Simbel and other monuments along the Nile from the rising waters created by the Aswan Dam in the 1960s. She helped persuade world leaders to give money to save temples far from their borders, arguing that “these monuments belong to all of us.”

While we know she succeeds (it’s in the title), Olson writes what at times reads like a suspenseful political thriller, with feuds and setbacks and promises of money rescinded. Olson describes how workers pulled off the “greatest archaeological salvage operation in history,” cutting the temples into blocks and carefully transporting them to higher ground.

Desroches-Noblecourt is such a compelling figure that the book’s side tangents — context about the Suez conflict or a benefactor who financed her digs in retirement — occasionally take away from her narrative. Having said that, the sections about Jackie Kennedy, who quietly lobbied her husband and others to help fund the rescue effort, add to the story.

Wonderful photos, including Desroches-Noblecourt copying hieroglyphs and massive temples being dismantled and reassembled, are sprinkled throughout the book.

When she died in 2011 at the age of 97, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called her the “grande dame of the Nile.” This book should ensure that more people know her story.