Excerpt: A Grave Celebration

November 10, 1869
Cairo, Egypt

The handwritten letter was quick, to the point, and left Auguste Mariette blustering in a rage he hadn’t known since he’d caught an employee snoring inside a fragile, 11th Dynasty limestone sarcophagus.  He scanned the note again, hoping he had misread it.

You are hereby notified that crates being shipped to Cairo along the Nile have been intercepted and are now en route to Port Said for my inspection.  This inspection will be conducted aboard El Mahrousa as it sails the Suez Canal toward the opening ceremonies in Port Ismailia.  From there, items in the shipment that I do not select will be forwarded on to you in Cairo via the Fresh Water Canal for inclusion in the museum’s collection.

Isma’il Pasha
Khedive of Egypt

Impossible, Mariette thought.  Damn the khedive and his arrogance.

The museum director crumpled the letter with both hands and threw it, grimacing when it barely cleared the other side of his desk and dropped to the floor with an unsatisfying tap.  He wondered if he should summon a servant just to have someone to yell at.  How dare the khedive once again intercept a precious shipment of antiquities, treating them not as if they were to be preserved for future Egyptian history, but as if they belonged in his personal curio cabinet?

Bile rose in Mariette’s throat and he hurled a ball of phlegm into a nearby spittoon of carved bronze.  A reproduction, of course.  He would never sully a genuine antique article.

After everything Mariette had done to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, including the writing of an opera, Aida, over which the khedive had professed great admiration, this was how Mariette was treated.

A decade ago this had all started, after Mariette had established the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in his role as Director of the Antiquities Department.  For the love of God, the Egyptian government had practically begged him to take the role of the director, given his success in conserving no less than thirty-five important dig sites around the country—including the necropolis at Memphis, no less—and they supposedly wanted all of these precious items brought together and kept out of the hands of other countries who were constantly attempting to spirit them out of the country and sell them into private hands.

Especially the British.  Bon sang, but they made an avocation out of stealing everything from everybody.  The Elgin marbles from the Greeks, imperial treasures from China’s Old Summer Palace, and they had been excavating Egypt’s pyramids and temples for decades.  The British Museum contained more precious artifacts than Mariette had been able to gather since the inception of Egypt’s national museum in 1858.

As if it weren’t enough to battle foreign governments, Mariette was forced to do battle with the Egyptians themselves.  What was he supposed to do to keep the khedive—or viceroy, a position formally endorsed by the Ottoman sultan that elevated Pasha above his previous position of governor—from perpetually stealing his own country’s valuables?  In 1859, the khedive had intercepted a boatload of antiquities from the tomb of Queen Ahhotep I, on its journey from Thebes to Cairo, forcing Mariette to race out and rescue the cargo.  Mariette had periodically saved treasures ever since.

Was this what it meant to be the Director of Antiquities?  To perpetually pluck valuables out of the grasping, thieving hands of the people who should most respect them?  It was scandaleux, an outrage.

Mariette spat again, but it wasn’t particularly satisfying, especially when he reached up and realized there was a bit of dribble in his beard.  Several epithets came to mind, and he pounded his fist on the desk as he uttered each one with as much venom as he could muster.  Spent from that, he sat down heavily in his tufted leather chair.  His nearly fifty years were catching up with both his patience and his girth.

Had he wasted his career in this back-stabbing, double-dealing country, despite all of his magnificent discoveries?  Of what use was it if the artifacts would all end up in private collections?  Should he have simply stayed in Boulogne and never come here?

Perhaps his wife wouldn’t have died if she hadn’t been brought here.  He laughed hollowly to remember how she routinely complained that he was becoming an Egyptian, with his dense, curling, chin curtain beard and his propensity for Egyptian-style dress.   He could have made no such claim of her, given that she received shipments of the latest French fashions, books, and outdated magazines, on nearly every boat docking in Cairo from their home country until she was carried away by a fever five years ago.

He sat with his elbow on the polished sycamore desk, specially made for him with locally harvested trees after he had become the Director of Antiquities, smoothing his mustache with a thumb and forefinger as he gazed around at the artifacts and wood crates lining the shelves and floor of his office.  Normally, this activity calmed him, as it reminded him of the importance of his life’s mission.  Today, however, there was more heat billowing from Mariette than could be seen emanating from the funnel of an Atlantic steamer ship.  He had to do something about this intolerable situation.  He might not be able to fight the British single-handedly, but surely there was a solution to the khedive’s endless plundering of Egypt’s treasures.  Mariette simply could not leave behind a legacy that wasn’t sterling.

The director continued smoothing his facial hair as he picked up a canopic jar from the corner of his desk and contemplated his options.  The stone jar would have been part of a set of four, each containing a different body organ for burial with the corpse, but the other three had not been discovered on that particular dig.  He ran his thumb over the smooth base of the jar as he looked into the blank, carved eyes of Duamutef, the jackal-headed god representing the east.  Inside the jar would be a stomach, but Mariette respected ancient Egypt’s burial practices enough not to open the jar to gawk at its contents, even if he did keep the jar sitting on his furniture as decoration.

He ignored several raps on his door over the next two hours, and barked at a servant who had arrived with his ritual afternoon coffee, sending the frightened man scurrying back into the hallway.  Finally, though, Mariette’s good humor returned, almost as if the canopic jar had transmitted some sort of knowledge to him.  He knew what he had to do.  The khedive might not believe Egypt’s precious antiquities rightfully belonged in a museum, but that didn’t mean the man couldn’t be…persuaded.