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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Pharaoh by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

February 1, 2020

Translated from the Italian by Christine Feddersen-Manfredi
Pan Book:  London
2016 (PB)

In a dramatic prelude to the archaeology thriller Pharaoh, Italian classical archaeologist Valerio Massimo Manfredi chronicles the Biblical Kingdom of Judah on the verge of collapse in 586 BC.  Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar is poised to destroy the reign of King Zedekiah and to exile his people after destroying the Temple of Solomon.  But before Nebuchadnezzar’s can armies strike, the prophet Jeremiah removes the hallowed treasures of the temple, including the Ark of the Covenant, to their place of origin, the sacred mountain of God—Mount Sinai.

Twenty-five hundred years later, Egyptologist William Blake is at the nadir of his life and career.  His marriage has collapsed and his estranged wife seems indifferent to his very existence; he has been fired from his position at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute after being caught up in an antiquities sting operation by the Egyptian police—all within days of Christmas 1998.

Nearing the moment of complete physical and emotional collapse, his Oriental Institute colleague and Palestinian refugee, Omar al Husseini, literally plucks Blake from the frozen Chicago streets, fills him up with sweet tea, and urges him to recount the story of his fall from archaeological grace.  Blake recounts his discovery, when viewing microfilmed texts from Egypt’s New Kingdom—16th to 11th centuries BC.  The texts had been translated by famed Egyptologist and director of the Oriental Institute (then Museum) at the turn of the 20th Century.  Breasted’s hand-written margin notes hinted strongly of a connection between the texts and their historical connection to the Biblical Exodus.  Blake followed a trail of clues left by Breasted stretching across almost a century to hunt down the original manuscript that could provide the illusive non-Scriptural link to the Exodus.  Blake’s search for the ancient documents led him into the shady underworld of Egyptian tomb raiders and antiquities smugglers and into the arms of the Egyptian police.

Just as his career seems to be completely destroyed, two representatives of the Warren Mining Corporation appear at his door like two Christmas Visitors in a Dickens novel, and make him an offer he can hardly believe:  Their company, while hunting for cadmium in the Middle East, have unearthed the tomb of a pharaoh and they want to hire him to excavate the chamber discretely and immediately.

Blake does indeed excavate magnificent Egyptian treasures in the tomb, including a pharaoh’s sarcophagus partly buried in rubble, but also with anomalous objects from a variety of time periods.  While the mining company officials provide Blake with all the support he requires to complete the excavation, they insist in keeping him in the dark as to exactly where in Egypt he is.  Through subterfuge, Blake is able to puzzle out their location and is astounded to find he is excavating in the Negev Desert of Israel.  But why would an Egyptian pharaoh be buried so far outside the boundaries of ancient Egypt?  The opening of the sarcophagus yields a long-buried secret that could damage the Jewish, Moslem and Christian faiths forever.

As William Blake’s odyssey in the Israeli desert plays out, a deadly international terrorist plot unfolds.  Blake’s colleague back in Chicago, Omar al Husseini, is dragged back into his terrorist past by Abu Ahmid, a terrorist of legendary stature, who schemes to destroy Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, while the United States is checkmated by nuclear blackmail.   The story lines merge in a thrilling and satisfying denouement that includes two major plot twists in the last few pages that may catch even the most jaded reader of thrillers by surprise.  The action and drama may be over the top occasionally but perhaps the author can be forgiven when he is, after all, dealing with a nuclear Armageddon!

Three trowels for the imaginative and action-filled Pharaoh.