Tom Holland is nowadays best known as a historian and translator of Herodotus, but he started his career, back in the 1990s, as a novelist, favouring eerie, rather supernatural historical themes. The Sleeper in the Sands ticks all those boxes with aplomb, as it tells the story of the ambitious archaeologist Howard Carter, who is on the brink of making the most fabulous discovery of his career. As he waits for the arrival of his patron Lord Carnarvon, Carter finds himself brooding on what he can expect to find behind the sealed doorway of this unprecedentedly undisturbed tomb. Great treasures, certainly, but also dark whispers of something else. For strange papers have come into Carter’s possession, warning him of a terrible curse and recording a story that has been lost to the sands for millennia: the tale of the heretic Pharaoh Akh-en-Aten…
I do like a bit of Gothic fiction and Holland’s novel definitely delivers on that score, with a taste for melodramatic horror. As the novel progresses, we find ourselves peeling back the layers of myth and history like the skins of an onion, through a series of interlinked stories that sit within each other like the dolls of a Matryoshka. Switching between third-person and first person, between conventional narrative, memoir and fragments of fable, Holland’s story is inspired by facts and (occasionally left-field) archaeological theories. I know next to nothing about Egyptology, so assumed that the ‘history’ was as much of a jolly made-up romp as the fantasy. However, I was surprised to find how much of the plot had some basis in fact. Not all, though. At least, let’s hope not.
Lacking the funds to launch himself effortlessly on a career as an Egyptologist, young Howard Carter claws his way up from the lowest of the low, as an archaeological draughtsman. He learns to love the art and artefacts of Egypt by copying them in watercolours for the official record; but he itches to do better. When the chance arises to work with the celebrated but irascible archaeologist Flinders Petrie, Carter can hardly believe his luck. Petrie is excavating somewhere new: not in the hotspots of the Valley of the Kings, but in a large desert-plain some distance down the Nile. Here he is uncovering something which has rewritten the understanding of Egyptian history: proof that one of the Pharaohs moved the entire Egyptian court away from the great temples at Luxor and out into the wilderness, where he turned his back on the traditional Egyptian pantheon and devoted his worship to one God alone: the sun. The Pharaoh’s name? Akh-en-Aten: a man who attempted something so cataclysmic, so unprecedented, so dangerous, that his new city was destroyed by his successors and buried beneath the sands; his family’s names and faces gouged out of sculptures and tomb frescoes; his entire line extinguished as if it had never existed.
As he develops his own skills, Carter remains intoxicated by the tale of Akh-en-Aten and his family – and increasingly puzzled by its mysteries. As he works on his own sites in the Valley of the Kings, he notices strange amulets being left in newly-opened tombs: scenes of two figures crouching beneath a sun. What do these mean? Why do similar scenes arise in medieval Arab graffiti on the rocks around the Valley, and on rings that his workers dig up from the sands? Soon his quest for knowledge will lead him deep into the labyrinthine streets of Cairo, where he realises that he isn’t the only one interested in the legacies of Akh-en-Aten. He has stumbled across an ancient secret of blood, death and immortality: a secret preserved by generations of ancient priests, and which brought an entire line of Pharaohs to their untimely end.
There was a lot to enjoy here, and it’s an unashamedly pulpy romp. Dark, beautiful, mysterious women; blood magic; mysterious figures in dark bazaars; guardians of the desert; it’s all here. Skip a few lines if you want to avoid spoilers: I was amused to see the way that Holland managed to mix up Egyptian curses, aliens and vampires in a way that actually worked fairly well, and I suppose that’s certainly one way of explaining the exaggerated art of the Amarna period. While this is obviously fiction, and its solutions are those of a storyteller rather than an archaeologist, it does a good job of conveying the fragmentary state of knowledge about this distant period. But it also conjures up the magic of Ancient Egypt: the glorious sense of adventure in that 1920s-30s archaeological milieu (shades of The Mummy with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz), and the weird myths and artistic conventions that have left us with such a puzzling and (metaphorically) alien culture to unpick.
I’ve been keen to read more about Egypt for a while, ever since I visited the Neues Museum in Berlin. The famous bust of Nefertiti stunned me, of course, but I was equally moved by the fragmentary portrait busts of her (and Akhenaten’s) daughters, as well as the astonishing tenderness and grace that you see in art of the Amarna period. The Sleeper in the Sands is doubtless one of the more fantastical books I’ll encounter, but it’s certainly whetted my appetite for more. By good fortune, I discovered three second-hand books on Egyptology yesterday, so I’m hoping to fill in some of the many gaps in my own knowledge very soon. In the meantime, has anyone read any good books about Akh-en-Aten (or Akhenaten) that they can recommend? Fact or fiction will do equally well.