The Search for Nefertiti
The True Story of an Amazing Discovery
The First Glimpse
As the early morning mist began to rise slowly from the silent waters, our boat crossed over to the Land of the Dead. It was here on the west bank of the Nile that the pharaohs had been buried some four thousand years ago, and we were on our way to the most famous cemetery in the world, the Valley of the Kings. With little more than three hours' sleep, I felt unprepared for what was to come. It was the stuff of dreams, the fulfilment of a lifetime's ambition and an opportunity given to very few. I hardly dared think of what we were about to do, let alone who we were about to see, having waited twelve long years for an audience with perhaps the most familiar figure in the history of ancient Egypt.
Lost in a world of my own, I made my way down the narrow gangplank to where the water lapped the shore. As the sun made its first appearance of the day, I stepped into the bus. I'd made this journey so many times before, but now it was very different, and nerves began to play with my mind. What if the tomb was empty? What if there was nothing there? And what if the official permissions we'd worked so hard to obtain from the Egyptian authorities had been withdrawn at the very last minute? It did happen.
I comforted myself with the knowledge that the perceived identity of the one we were about to meet was to all intents and purposes 'unknown', and, together with the two other bodies which had been laid to rest close by, protected by anonymity. When mentioned at all, they tended to be passed over as minor members of a royal house who'd played little part in ancient Egypt's story, so my request to see them was not particularly controversial.
As the ancient landscape whizzed past my window and the two colossal stone figures of Amenhotep III loomed up in front of us, I could almost hear the blood pumping through my head. I had to stay calm, I kept telling myself. I was about to meet Egypt's Head of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, who was at this very moment flying in from Cairo to meet me inside the tomb. It was important at least to try to maintain an appearance of professionalism -- not that I'd ever been much good at playing that game. The word 'nervous' doesn't even begin to describe it.
We passed lush green fields fringed with palm trees, farmers off to work and overburdened donkeys trotting along beneath great bales of sugarcane, all of them reassuringly familiar on this otherwise emotionally fraught morning. Even the bleary-eyed children getting ready for school still managed a smile or a wave at the funny-looking hawajaya (foreigner) with her big orange hair and little black glasses looking at them from the bus.
The hillside of Qurna stretched up before us, a fabulous backdrop of colourful houses built alongside the ancient tombs. Turning right, the bus sped on past the temple of Ramses II, Shelley's Ozymandias, and then to Deir el-Bahari, built by one of Egypt's great female pharaohs, the mighty Hatshepsut. Today, however, my mind was firmly fixed on one who came after her, and who wielded no less power.
In case I needed any reminding why the Valley of the Kings was a place familiar to everyone, we turned left at 'Castle Carter', home of the twentieth century's most famous archaeologist. Howard Carter, the man who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, has always been something of a hero for me, a working-class lad made good who stuck two fingers up at the sneering establishment by making the greatest archaeological discovery of all time. Carter and Tutankhamen are very much part of this story, both of them closely linked to the three who now awaited us in the valley whose barren, limestone sides loomed on either side. As the bus rattled on and the summer temperature began to rise steadily towards its 40°C June average, I spared a thought for Carter and his trusty donkey.
Slowing down, the bus stopped at the first of numerous security checks, the legacy of the terrible events of 1997 when Islamic extremists had murdered foreigners and Egyptians alike in their attempt to destabilise Egypt's secular government. And in today's political climate another attack can never completely be ruled out. But thanks to a stack of official paperwork and security clearances, we were waved through the barrier where vehicles normally have to stop to offload their passengers, and drove right up to the entrance gates of the Valley itself. Carrying nothing more dangerous than a camera, torch and my trusty umbrella, I began the final walk up to the tomb.
I had first come here as a dumbstruck teenager, unable to take it all in as tomb after tomb revealed some of the most beautiful images I had ever seen. Their hidden chambers and sealed doorways only fired my long-held determination to become an Egyptologist, and by the time of my second visit I was an Egyptology student at last, able to start making sense of the complex blend of wall scenes, passageways, corridors and side chambers unique to each tomb. Many more visits followed, initially for postgraduate research, then accompanying groups of tourists, students and television researchers, and most recently as part of a team excavating KV.39, quite probably the first royal tomb to have been built here. Yet today was something else, a visit to a very different royal tomb. Unlikely to be repeated, it was surely my one and only chance to confirm what I had believed for so long.
Approaching the small group of officials and police who clustered around the tomb's entrance, I was greeted by the local antiquities inspector and his staff, smiling nervously and chain smoking as they awaited their new boss ... The Search for Nefertiti
The True Story of an Amazing Discovery
. Copyright © by Joann Fletcher. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.