email a friend iconprinter friendly iconValley of the Kings
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Of the tombs crowding the Theban necropolis, few had been mapped by the early 1970s. It was easy to see why: In a four-square-mile strip between the desert mountains and the Nile floodplain lie thousands of tombs, temples, shrines, palaces, and villages—more than in any other part of Egypt, probably more than anywhere else in the world. In some places the tombs are so close together you can crawl from one into another, moving hundreds of feet underground before returning to the surface. In the Valley of the Kings alone, more than half of the tombs are still largely unexcavated—and the burial places of several New Kingdom pharaohs have yet to be found.

The need for a comprehensive map of Thebes struck me as urgent, and I decided to do something about it.

Mapping the Theban necropolis entirely from the ground would take my team decades. Aerial photographs would save time.

In 1982 we made the first ever hot-air balloon flight over Thebes. Never before had I seen anything more beautiful than the necropolis at sunrise from a thousand feet in the air. The bright, early morning light slanted across the landscape, and we photographed Thebes from angles rarely seen before. Though our flight lasted only an hour, we shot more than 20 rolls of film.

We could hear every sound on the ground. Dogs barked incessantly as the noise of our burner disturbed their sleep. Villagers emerged from their homes as we floated overhead, looking up in amazement, saying over and over, "My God! God is great! My God!"

As we landed, a blue pickup sped toward the site. The local police chief got out and walked toward us. In our excitement we had failed to inform him of our flight.

"Why didn't you tell me what you were doing?" he demanded angrily. "Hussein, the schoolteacher, thought you came to invade Egypt. He wanted to shoot you down, and I had to confiscate his gun. This is very bad."

"We are very sorry, sir," I said. "I assure you we did not mean to ignore you. You are the most senior official in this village, and your cooperation is very important to our project. Would you like to come up in the balloon tomorrow? We could show you our work."

The police chief smiled. "That would be very nice. Yes, I will meet you at sunrise. And do not worry about the schoolteacher. I told him that you were not the enemies of Egypt."

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