Empress of the Nile by Lynne Olson review – the unsung heroine of Eygptology unearthed

If a director or producer were ever tempted to make a female version of the Indiana Jones story, they would need look no further than the life of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt for inspiration. This was a daredevil whose real-life antics put Hollywood fiction to shame.

As a young curator at the Louvre, during the occupation of France, she fought to protect the museum’s greatest treasures from Nazi plunderers – while also working for the resistance and surviving interrogation by the Gestapo. Some of her colleagues did not.

Then, in later life, she became one of the world’s greatest Egyptologists. Apart from making major finds, she played a key role in saving the ancient Nubian temple of Abu Simbel. For good measure, she was involved in bringing the treasures of Tutankhamun for tours in the west thanks to her strong relations with the rulers of modern Egypt.

“Her behaviour resembled nothing so much as that of a female action hero come to life,” Olson tells us. “A woman who swaggered. A woman who talked and fought back.” Yet outside France, Desroches-Noblecourt remains relatively unknown. Olson’s biography is to be welcomed, if nothing else, for revealing the story of this remarkable academic.

Born in 1913, in Paris, Christiane Desroches was the daughter of Louis Desroches and Madeleine Girod. The couple were artistic, educated and left wing and encouraged Christiane to follow her true passions in life. As a child, she had been taken, on her grandfather’s shoulders, to see the Obelisk of Luxor in the Place de la Concorde and had become smitten with ancient Egypt.

Nothing else would do for Desroches but to study Egyptology. She qualified as a curator at the Louvre just as France was overrun by Nazi Germany. As troops poured across the border, the museum’s staff began a massive transit of its treasures to temporary sanctuary in the Loire valley.

The young Desroches was given the task of shepherding its Egyptian statues, stelae (inscribed stone slabs) and fresco fragments. At the same time, she acted as a courier for the resistance, as did other Louvre staff members. “It was as though the upper echelons of the British Museum had turned to new careers as urban guerrillas and saboteurs,” one historian remarked.

A belligerent refusal to back down would later define her career. Egyptology was an exclusive men’s club in France, Olson tells us

Desroches was eventually caught and interrogated by the Gestapo, who claimed she was a spy, an accusation that she vigorously denied, insisting she was only an archaeologist. “In reality, she was both,” says Olson. Desroches later recalled that she could not stop cursing at her interrogators. “They ended up sending me back to my cell.” The following day she was released. “You don’t get anywhere without a fight,” she said later. “If I became a brawler, it was out of necessity.”

A belligerent refusal to back down would later define her career. Egyptology was an exclusive men’s club in France, Olson tells us. “In Britain, it might have been acceptable – if considered eccentric – for a woman to launch a career in Egyptology on her own. In France, the idea was anathema.”

Desroches – who had married André Noblecourt in 1942 – had to fight ferociously to lead her own digs at a time when French and British influence in Egypt was declining sharply, culminating in the disaster of the Suez crisis. Former colonial powers were no longer welcome by the 1950s, though she nevertheless managed to continue working there, making some notable finds. These included the intact 4,200-year-old tomb of Lady Sechséchet, the wife of a chief government minister who was revered as a “living god”.

However, her greatest achievement began with the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960, which threatened to drown a host of great Nubian temples – including Abu Simbel, the monolith dedicated to Pharaoh Ramses II. Desroches-Noblecourt was appalled at the prospect and began campaigning – with others – to save them. Eight years later, the giant temple was raised to safety as the swelling waters of Lake Nasser swirled at rescue workers’ feet.

The saving of Abu Simbel is just one astonishing aspect of the story of Desroches-Noblecourt, though Olson’s depiction of her is not without flaws. We are presented with an almost perfect individual, an over-adulation that grates after a while. One colleague complained that she was “domineering”; another observed she had little time for her husband or her son, Alain.

This is two-dimensional stuff, though the book has other strengths. Desroches-Noblecourt drops out of sight for much of Olson’s narrative and we are instead treated to various deftly written backdrop stories: Suez, the Louvre’s history, ancient Egypt and the differing unpleasantries of French and British colonial rule in north Africa. Background becomes foreground for much of Empress of the Nile and the book is none the worse for it. This is a vivid reminder of a remarkable individual and an intriguing recreation of the strange times in which she lived.

  • Empress of the Nile by Lynne Olson is published by Scribe (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply