A hypnotic droning sound awoke me the following morning, the first day of excavating. My eyes almost perished from the fierce sunlight hitting my face as I ducked out of my tent. It was very early, and at first it appeared I was the only member of the team who had awoken.
I ventured around a large part of rocky hill jutting out beside our camp, where I arrived at a cove of sorts, secluded between two tall walls of jagged red rock. It was there that I happened upon the Egyptian workers. They had laid themselves out in rows and were kneeling on the floor, facing the rising sun.
One man positioned in front of the rest delivered their beautiful morning prayer, which I still find difficult to describe, as it was neither song nor speech. Every few sentences, the men would touch their heads to the floor in unison, before rising again and raising their arms to the heavens. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before and I was mesmerised. The drone somehow seemed to perfectly befit the surroundings; as if it were a sound that the desert had heard over the ages and had evolved itself to flatter.
A figure standing above the wall of rock to the right caught my eye. A man stood lonely and commanding, his hands in his pockets, gazing over the sweeping solitude of the infinite sands.
As I climbed the face of the rock, I felt inordinately appreciative of the trousers I was wearing. Being rather fashion-conscious, I had initially been dubious at Father's suggestion that I should wear them while out in the desert. He had said that my usual choice of garments would have been impractical and an irritation to me. I had worn light dresses thus far, but I had now relented, as getting in and out of such large trucks had proved an awkward task during the past few days. They were surprisingly comfortable, so too was my white linen shirt. White linen shirts, it seemed were standard issue desert-wear. One could easily spot a group of excavators in Cairo by the abundance of white linen. Sand-saturated hair and unshaven faces were sturdy clues also.
The view nearly took my breath away as I reached the summit and the lone gentleman stood upon it. The sun formed a silhouette from his figure and I noticed him turn in my direction as I shielded my eyes with my hand.
"Please do not chastise me, Mr Thurlow, I was simply coming to admire the view," I said mockingly.
He smirked and turned.
"How long have you been awake?" I asked.
"A while...I don't sleep much," he replied.
"That means you are letting too much occupy your mind, Sir."
"Perhaps. But I tend to see sleeping as a waste of time when so much can be done during that time."
I laughed. "You are a strange fellow, Thurlow."
He seemed to intend to respond, but I interjected once more before he had the opportunity.
"I haven't seen them praying like that before. They've always absented themselves to do so during the daytime."
"A quite captivating ritual. I don't think I could start the day anymore without hearing it."
We stood silently for a moment.
"Would you ever return to England? If you found this tomb tomorrow...would you go back?" I asked.
He tilted his head in thought. "No."
"No? Don't you even miss it slightly?"
"No...no, this is my home. The sand, the history...this is me. I'll die here."
I watched him, completely captivated for a moment. He fascinated me, I suddenly realised. I felt I did not understand him to any small degree and that intrigued me, as I usually made sense of people fairly quickly. Maybe I had been in the company of the same people for too long a time. Perhaps my reasonably sheltered upbringing had kept me from coming into contact with the true colour and vibrancy of the characters of the world. Perhaps this impulsive expedition of my father's was the most worthwhile experience he would give me, without him or myself even knowing it at that point.
"Look behind you," he said, breaking the brief spell that had bound my eyes to his.
I looked backwards and I gasped involuntarily. A mile-long mound of rock, which had been a sandy colour upon our arrival, was now alive with a fiery red radiance that undoubtedly resulted from the particular angle of the dawn sun upon it.
"It's on fire...the rock...this is the rock the man in Isna was talking about," I said, my voice animated with wonderment.
He smiled appealingly and admired it for himself briefly, before turning.
"Oh look, the others have awoken," he said.
He called down to Leonard, who called back and waved. Their voices echoed against the rocks before fading into the heavy air. It was already unbearably hot, despite the sun having only been above the horizon for a mere twenty minutes. Even at night in this sultry place, the air clung to one's face. A light breeze simply meant that the heat would brush over one's face instead of cling to it. There was no cooling effect to it whatsoever.
We spent the following several days marooned in the remoteness of our chosen desert spot. The days were spent gently carving away layer upon layer of rock and sand within marked grid squares, which had been immaculately mapped out by Percy during his sleepless nights in the tents. My father and I sat and watched for the best part. We felt we did not want to obstruct the operation by leaning over them and peering gallingly at their efforts. I assisted on a few occasions by going to fetch papers from the tents or offering drinks to the exhausted workers.
The smartly-attired gentlemen that I had met in Cairo had become sodden, haggard examples of desert toil and slog. Their pristine linen shirts stuck to their torsos and perspiration hung from them unappealingly. They strived through every hour of their day to find some trace of their mysterious Pharaoh's mistress; desperate for even the smallest fleck of an Ancient Egyptian artefact to offer them a clue as to where the elusive lady was buried. But every day, I felt their optimism dwindle as repeatedly they were disappointed by a lack of significant discovery.
The two who mostly looked emotionally drained from the experience were Leonard Morse and Percy. The others seemed irked, but were still in general high-spirits. Percy seemed to scowl at me upon merely glancing in my direction. He wore a severe frown which grew more and more austere with every uneventful day of digging that went by. I thought it best not to approach him while he seemed in such a foul disposition, which I think proved a wise decision. There were frequent disagreements between him and the other members of the team, even my father, who he had previously been very amenable with. His tent lamp was lit well into the night when others had been doused as he drafted and re-drafted maps and wrote various documents, including a diary, in which he documented every occurrence during every dig he coordinated.
I knew not to disturb him. It was something quite unearthly that had taken hold of him; something which I knew I could not grasp, no matter how much time I would spend in Egypt.