Valley of the Kings
IT WAS NEW YEAR’S EVE as a somber, good-looking explorer named Howard Carter, speaking fluent Arabic, gave the order to begin digging.
Carter stood in a claustrophobic chamber more than three hundred feet underground. The air was dank, but he craved a cigarette. He was addicted to the damn things. Sweat rings stained the armpits of his white button-down, and dust coated his work boots. The sandal-clad Egyptian workers at his side began to shovel for all they were worth.
It had been almost two years since Carter had been thrown from his horse far out in the desert. That lucky fall had changed his life.
He had landed hard on the stony soil but was amazed to find himself peering at a deep cleft in the ground. It appeared to be the hidden entrance to an ancient burial chamber.
Working quickly and in secret, the twenty-six-year-old Egyptologist obtained the proper government permissions, then hired a crew to begin digging.
Now he expected to become famous at a very young age—and filthy rich.
Early Egyptian rulers had been buried inside elaborate stone pyramids, but centuries of ransacking by tomb robbers inspired later pharaohs to conceal their burial sites by carving them into the ground.
Once a pharaoh died, was mummified, and then sealed inside such a tomb with all his worldly possessions, great pains were taken to hide its location.
But that didn’t help. Tomb robbers seemed to find every one.
Carter, a square-shouldered man who favored bow ties, linen trousers, and homburg hats, thought this tomb might be the exception. The limestone chips that had been dumped into the tunnels and shaft by some long-ago builder—a simple yet ingenious method to keep out bandits—appeared untouched.
Carter and his workers had already spent months removing the shards. With each load that was hauled away, he became more and more certain that there was a great undisturbed burial chamber hidden deep within the ground. If he was right, the tomb would be filled with priceless treasures: gold and gems, as well as a pharaoh’s mummy.
Howard Carter would be rich beyond his wildest dreams, and his dreams were indeed spectacular.
“The men have now gone down ninety-seven meters vertical drop,” Carter had written to Lady Amherst, his longtime patron, “and still no end.” Indeed, when widened the narrow opening that he had stumbled upon revealed a network of tunnels leading farther underground.
At one point, a tunnel branched off into a chamber that contained a larger-than-life statue of an Egyptian pharaoh.
But that tunnel had dead-ended into a vertical shaft filled with rock and debris.
As the months passed, the workers forged on, digging ever deeper, so deep in fact that the men had to be lowered down by rope each day. Carter’s hopes soared. He even took the unusual step of contacting Britain’s consul general in Cairo to prepare him for the glorious moment when a “virgin” tomb would be opened.
Now he stood at the bottom of the shaft. Before him was a doorway sealed with plaster and stamped with the mark of a pharaoh—the entrance to a burial chamber.
Carter ordered his workers to knock it down.
The shaft was suddenly choked with noise and a storm of dust as the men used picks and crowbars to demolish the ancient door. Carter hacked into his handkerchief as he struggled to see through the haze.
His heart raced as he finally held his lantern into the burial chamber. The workers standing behind him peered excitedly over his shoulder.
There was nothing there.
The treasure, and the pharaoh’s mummy, had already been stolen.
By somebody else.