Giza plateau, Egypt, 16th May 2014
In case you thought quartz had only one role in time measurement, here's what happened last time I was here.
"Khaled, I have to see Dr Hawass. Look after my wife for a couple of hours. She can take your other horse. Show her the desert." He starts to reach for the spare saddle, but too late. She takes the horse. Bareback, and kicking up a gallop. In seconds she is a cloud of dust spinning into the Sahara. Khaled stares at her, then at me, wide eyed. His jaw begins to drop. "Go!" I shout.
The meeting with Zahi Hawass is to get samples of quartz from the granite in the three major - and most ancient - structures on the plateau. The pyramid tombs attributed to Kufu, Khafre, and Menkuare. I was working as a postdoc at Oxford, trying to use optically stimulated luminescence in a new area: Dating the age of buildings. I want quartz, Zahi. Gimme quartz.
"Plus de thé, monsieur?"
"Non, merci, shukran." Three hours of endless tea. What is she trying to do? Torture my bladder? Hawass swaggers in and out of his office, assiduously ignorant of my presence.
Eventually, he pokes his head out of the door and reads from my calling card, "Mr Wretched Hiptroff? Please come in."
I want quartz. Sleeping quartz, to be precise, and you know I like to be precise. Quartz that hasn't seen the light of day since the time of the first pharaohs. Yes, Zahi, I know it is not permitted, but you can make an exception. No, let me tell you why, Zahi. Quartz is funny stuff. Keep it in the dark, and the passing cosmic rays gradually pump the electrons up into higher energy levels, slowly charging them up like batteries over millennia. Then expose them to light and BANG! You kick the electrons out of their heavenly orbits and down to ground. Emitting light in the process, glowing back at you. With a brightness proportional to the amount of time they were in the dark. Measure the glow and you know when that baby last saw light. Yes, Zahi, I know it's a heritage site that must not be touched. But I need to take samples from between the stones, entombed there when it was built, that people never see anyway. Take them at night. Keep them in darkness. All the way back to Oxford. "...if I do, I can prove the age of the ancient buildings. When they were built. In what order. By whom. Once and for all. Insha'Allah."
"Insha'Allah," he says. "OK, you can do it." Meeting over, I step back out into glaring sunlight.
I have never seen a horse perspire like that poor beast. I hope it lived. My wife just looked disappointed. "Back so quickly?" Only four hours. Poor old Khaled, a silhouette on a limping horse, framed by the sunset.
* * *
Insha'Allah. I started by gathering some daylight samples of granite for initial tests, see photo. But then word reached me that my mother had died. That news knocked me sideways a bit, and I never did get round to completing the project. Who knows what I might have discovered. Certainly nothing's going to happen in the current political climate. I have had successes in this work elsewhere - I'll tell you about those some other day.
Why does this matter? To push quartz to her limits. To make her give up her secrets. To make her sing like a bird. One way or another, I've spent more than my fair share of life doing that.