by Janis Patterson
It’s not often you get to live your dream, even if just for a short while.
Since I was a girl I have always been fascinated by Ancient Egypt. Even though I had read every book on Egyptology in our local library system by the time I was nine, formal study was not an option. I still studied on my own, though, and got involved with Egyptology whenever I could, though could never make my dream of being on a dig happen. In 1992 I made my first trip to Egypt; though the tour I took was far from stellar, the country and the people were unparalleled. Once back home I enlisted some like-minded friends and in my mother’s den we hammered out the parameters of the organization that became the North Texas Chapter of the American Research Center in Egypt. I had my own apartment then, but of all of us only my mother had a room big enough to hold those organizational meetings. She passed away years later, and now I live in the house.
When we started the chapter, I said we had to have a publication, so I started one. During the nine years of my reign (and I use that word advisedly) the Newsletter of the North Texas Chapter was the only monthly publication of ARCE in the world. After a while, it was recognized and archived as a scholarly journal by many museums and universities. Lately it has become just an electronic publication, but I don’t have anything to do with it now, though The Husband and I are still enthusiastic chapter members. One of the unexpected blessings of my ARCE involvement is the fact that I met my husband at our first official chapter meeting. He has always been as fascinated by Ancient Egypt as I and even proposed to me in the moonlight garden of the Mena Hotel across the road from the Pyramids.
As for living my dream, that happened one year ago this month. While I was writing THE EGYPTIAN FILE (done under my Janis Susan May brand) I needed information about the archaeological excavations at El Kab. Having been raised that if you need something, you go to the top, I contacted the Director of the El Kab excavations, Dr. Dirk Huyge. He was very kind and helpful and we became friends. A few months later he suggested that I do a book about the El Kab dig house, then mentioned it was haunted.
The dig house, properly styled Bayt Clarke, was built in 1906 as a retirement home by an English Egyptologist named Somers Clarke. He loved his home – loved it so much he was buried in the courtyard. It was a disappointment that his specter did not materialize for us, but every other thing about this trip was perfect. The crew was lovely, being both friendly and helpful, even to the point of brainstorming with me. The Husband and I had our own guest room, a large chamber with two enormous domes. One of the things that struck me about this room was that it had two mirrors hanging on the wall – both entirely in keeping with early 1900s style, with beveled edges and engraved flowers at the top. About 11 inches by 15, they probably hadn’t been moved since being hung when the house was first occupied. What was memorable about them, though, was that while one was slightly foxed with little circles of silver missing here and there (but still definitely a mirror) the other was nothing more than a pane of glass with no trace of silvering left at all. That was just too delicious not to put in the book!
The common room was enormous, with four great domes. It had been split in half with a short wall of latticework – one half was the office area, with desks and tables jammed together, the other half with a long table covered in red and white checked oilcloth where we all ate. Just outside a set of French doors there was a long terrace running the length of the house and overlooking the Nile. To be able to sit and eat and watch the Nile flow past… pure Heaven. Across the river was cultivation, that looked – as my sleuth put it – rather like the idea of Eden from one’s childhood.
Neither were we confined to the house. We were free to wander the grounds, and a couple of times we got to go visit the dig itself. The archaeological site of El Kab is enormous – 40 some odd soccer fields worth, and surrounded by a 2,500 year old wall that is some 12 yards high and 11 yards thick. There is a sacred lake – now choked with reeds – and the ruins of a Greco-Roman town, the remains of a temple, some houses that go back before the Old Kingdom. There is even evidence of some Badarian culture there – so old it does not compute in my small brain. If one counts the current town of El Kab, which has migrated some quarter of a mile away, the site has been in continuous occupation for over 3,000 years.
One day Dr. Huyge took off from work and drove us around the countryside. We saw places that tourists seldom if ever see. A huge temple cut into the side of a mountain with an enormous courtyard. Another temple scarcely bigger than an average room, but with paint so bright it could have been painted yesterday. The remains of an ancient Sacred Way, where pilgrims would come to the temples to honor their gods – while just a mile or so beyond it ran the smoothly paved modern highway, choked with cars and trucks. Two great rocks that were almost mountains in themselves – one called Vulture Rock both for its fanciful resemblance to a vulture and the fact that vultures used to nest there but don’t any more, and the other unnamed, but covered with ancient graffiti – the ‘folk art’ of the ancients.
Once at the dig Dr. Huyge took us for a walk along the Nile outside the wall. Here was Eden indeed. Great leafy trees closed in, some trailing their leaf-tips in the water, others reaching toward the sky. The river waters came right up to where we were standing, and visible beneath the surface were great cut stones. This was, Dr. Huyge told us, the quay where the pharaoh’s emissaries would land when they came to El Kab. History and one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. This is the magic of Egypt.
I couldn’t help it – I started writing the book while we were there. As soon as the table was cleared after a meal I dug out my computer and would type away. This seemed to fascinate the crew. To be honest, I was so impressed by them. They were so learned, so professional… and all so much younger than I. It never occurred to me that the feelings could be reversed, until one afternoon (when everyone worked in the house on the day’s finds) I heard one whisper to another in tones of awe, “She’s writing a novel while we watch!”
History, beauty and respect as an artist. It doesn’t get any sweeter than that!