Saving Ancient Temples and Facing Modern War

The civilization of ancient Egypt has fascinated Europeans for centuries. When Napoleon’s army invaded Egypt during the early 1800s, they brought many Egyptian artifacts  to France and placed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.  It is no wonder that a young girl being raised in Paris a hundred years later became fascinated with Egypt and decided to devote her life to the study of Egyptology. But no one would have predicted that Christiane Desroches would become a world-famous Egyptologist and the savior of some of the most important tombs ever built in Egypt.

Christiane Desroches was born in Paris on November 17, 1913, the daughter of a prosperous lawyer who encouraged his children to read and to study. She was lucky to have teachers who recognized her abilities and helped her to find her path. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 caused a great stir in France and like many other young people, Christiane decided to become an Egyptologist. Unlike most other students of her time, Christiane never lost her enthusiasm. Encouraged by her teachers, Christiane was able to get a job working in the Egyptian department of the Louvre classifying and cataloging Egyptian artifacts.

During the 1930s, she became the first woman to lead an expedition to Egypt to study antiquities. Her trip there was not easy. Men had dominated Egyptology ever since the study began. Many of the scholars who were part of the expedition belittled Christiane’s contributions because they did not believe a woman could handle the hard physical labor of digging up artifacts, but Christiane proved her worth. She worked well with the Egyptian field workers and became friendly with many of the Egyptian families in the camp. And her patient field work led her to discover important items that were taken to the Louvre and added to their collection.

Then came Hitler’s rise to power, which led to World War II. As the German army moved closer and closer to Paris and threatened to capture the city. Christiane realized that the precious Egyptian artifacts she had studied might be captured and taken to German museums or even destroyed. She and other museum employees mounted a campaign to move the treasures to unoccupied areas in France where they would be safe. They carefully packed up the artifacts they treasured and secretly moved them through the German lines to safety in the unoccupied areas of southern France. Despite being caught and questioned by Gestapo agents, Christiane managed to maintain her secrets and save many of the most important artworks owned by the Louvre.

Among the people she met during the war was Andre Noblecourt, who she married in 1942. Their marriage was never a traditional one, although it was long and happy. Christiana did not give up her maiden name but linked her married name to that of her husband, an unusual choice in France at that time. After the war her husband worked for the Louvre and eventually became a security adviser for the national museums of France. When the war ended, Christiane went back to her position as curator of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre. She wrote several popular books about Egyptology and taught at the Louvre school.

During the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt, many European countries worried that his efforts to make the lives of Egyptian people better would result in the loss of many of the monuments of ancient Egyptian civilization. Christiane Desroches- Noblecourt played an important role in persuading UNESCO to contribute money to preserve the monuments. The work became especially urgent after Nasser’s decision to build a second Aswan dam in 1954.

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt was tireless in visiting government leaders throughout Europe and persuading them to support the efforts of the Egyptologists. She even spoke personally to De Gaulle, who was reluctant to contribute French money to the effort at a time when France was still rebuilding from the devastation of World War II. Christiane also found an ally in Jacqueline Kennedy, who was keenly interested in French culture. Jacqueline in turn encouraged her husband President John Kennedy to find American support for the efforts.

The work of saving Egypt’s monuments continued for many years. Huge monuments were lifted out of the desert sands and moved to higher ground. Some of the artifacts found in Egypt were sent to countries that had contributed to the restoration efforts. (You can read the full story at International Campaign )   

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt did not rest on her laurels after these achievements. She lived a long and active life even after she had to give up her active field work. She continued teaching and writing until almost the end of her life. She died at the age of 97 in 2011. A vivid account of the work of Desroches-Noblecourt can be found in a recent book, Olson, Lynne (2023). Empress of the Nile: The Daredevil Archaeologist Who Saved Egypt’s Ancient Temples from Destruction.