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After a few more wrong turns we clambered out of the tomb. Catharine scraped mud from her clothes, wondering aloud about the tomb's original occupants. "Remember Elizabeth Thomas? She thought this might be a tomb for children of Ramses II. Thomas didn't have any proof, but she knew more about the Valley of the Kings than any other Egyptologist in this century. Her theory should be checked out."

I decided to become an Egyptologist when I was eight, my interest in an ancient civilization winning out over dreams of intergalactic travel. Although my parents never tried to dissuade me from so unlikely a career, one aunt regularly pointed out that an interest in ancient Egypt couldn't possibly lead to a decent job. My friends, on the other hand, agreed that cutting open mummies and searching gold-filled tombs were worthy goals.

Not long after I took my Ph.D. in Egyptology from Yale, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago made me director of its field headquarters in Luxor, the modern town built atop ancient Thebes. Surrounded by so many tombs and temples, I had a wonderful opportunity to delve into the archaeology of the New Kingdom—Egypt's golden imperial age.

The warrior pharaohs of the New Kingdom conquered Palestine and Syria with horse-drawn chariots and other advanced military techniques. For three centuries Egypt was the strongest nation in the world. At Thebes the pharaohs built larger and grander temples to proclaim the might and wealth that made their religious capital "the queen of cities … greater than any other city." The city proper stood on the east bank of the Nile; the necropolis, with its royal temples and rock-cut tombs, lay on the west.

On weekends I would take a ferry across the Nile, rent a bicycle or hire a taxi, and head off to the well-known sites. When I began looking for the more obscure monuments, I often couldn't find them.

"I'd like to see the tomb of so-and-so," I'd say to one of the antiquities inspectors.

"I've heard of it," he'd reply. "Do you know where it is?"

"Don't you know where it is?"

"No. The old guard Sheikh Taya, he probably knew, but he died."

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