Books to Love: Down the Nile to Ancient Egypt
Lately, I’ve had a yen for Egypt. Ordinarily this occurs when I yearn for the dry heat of the desert. In truth, I’m pretty certain that my Eastern European roots would not fair so well were I transported beneath the unmerciful glare of Ra which would follow me unrelentingly anywhere in Egypt. Not even my wide-brimmed straw hat would be much good in such circumstance, but a girl can dream, can’t she?
I can fritter away the hours as I imagine myself visiting Djoser’s pyramid constructed by the immortalized architect, Imhotep. I can climb the feet of the Sphinx and ponder on what lies beneath her paws. I can perambulate through the pylons and pillars at Karnak. Smell the sweet grass and listen to the wind through the reeds as I walk the shores of Lake Nasser and gaze at the ruins of Abu Simbel.
As the weather here has been temperamental at best- outrageously copious rain- the yen for Egypt has tugged rather tightly on my heart strings. Actually, while doing some of my re-writes on my first novel, I found myself quoting Shelley: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair. Just for the tally books, Ozymandias was the Greek name given to Ramesses II. Sir Percy Shelley wrote the poem Ozymandias when the fallen statue of Ramesses II was discovered on the West Bank in Luxor. Anyway… point being, my yen has even filtered into my allusions.
When this thirst for all things Egyptian happens, I usually quench it with movies. I greatly enjoy The Mummy series with Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser. I also throughly enjoyed Christopher McQuarrie’s latest offering, The Mummy, too, although it doesn’t fully satisfy the Egyptian yen as much of it takes place in England. Then, of course, as mentioned in this post, there is always the fabulous Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot (see post here). That one gives me Luxor, Karnak, the Great Pyramid, and so many other sights to enjoy.
However, when we’re inundated with rain as we’ve been so much recently, the yen demands something much more satisfying than a few hours of movie watching. It demands thorough immersion. And nothing immerses so thoroughly as a captivating read. So, today, I’m going to share with you several of the books that are my go-to novels when Egypt- particularly the ancient- calls.
Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge
This novel is the latest I’ve read about Ancient Egypt. Child of the Morning is the full chronicling of the Hatshepsut, Pharaoh of Egypt. It starts from her childhood and goes all the way to her death. As it has been many years since I studied her in school, I was unfamiliar with much of her reign. I only knew that she was one of the only female pharaohs to rule Egypt. While I was not completely thrilled with the manner in which Gedge chose to conclude the novel, there are many aspects of the read that I applaud.
Firstly, if you want to experience the heat of Egypt, the sands, the sun, the oppressive air of the summer, the sweet breezes of the winter that waft through the open palace and dance in the white kilts of the characters, than this is the book you want to read. If I closed my eyes during certain portions of the novel, I could clearly envisions the settings Gedge was describing.
Secondly, a great portion of the novel goes in depth into the psyche and impetus of why the pharaohs insisted on building such magnificent structures during their reigns. While it all made sense, and I’m pretty sure I learned this way back when in one of my art history courses, I enjoyed experiencing the justification and reasoning through the eyes of Thothmes I, Hatshepsut’s father, as well as Hatshepsut herself. In order to give myself context, I ended up looking up a great many wonders of Ancient Egypt as the characters visited them in the novel.
Finally, Child of the Morning was an excellent historical read. I was amazed at the amount of political intrigue, too. It was thrilling and suspenseful and tragic. And, it was epic. Definitely epic. I so enjoy a good epic. Again, I will say, the ending left me unsatisfied to a degree, but it is well worth the reading for Gedge’s perspective on Hatshepsut’s reign. Very interesting, to say the least, and quite a take on what it would be like to be the most powerful person in the world- and a woman, at that.
Now, if you’d like a different perspective on Hatshepsut and her reign, then my friend Katie recommends the young adult novel, Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. The book is geared for young adults around the age of 13 or so, but provides the perspective of Thothmes III and the righteousness of his challenge for the Double Crown of Egypt.
Nefertiti by Michelle Moran
It has been many years since I have read this novel, so I may not remember the nuances correctly, but I do recall how much I loved this book. Michelle Moran is one of my favorites where historical novels are concerned. It’s not uncommon for me to read her novels in one sitting.
Nefertiti chronicles the sisterhood of Nefertiti, wife of Amenhotep and Queen of Egypt, and her sister, Mutnodjmet (Mutny). While license is taken- as is only the way to construct a cohesive storyline with the threads antiquity has left us- this book is chock full of political upheaval, religious turmoil, and familial turbulence. Nefertiti is told from Mutny’s perspective, which is refreshing as it allows us to feel as she did- an outside viewer of the machinations within the court. Mutny is a simple character juxtaposed to her power hungry sister. While it’s clear that she loves Nefertiti, as a reader, I remember thinking that Nefertiti’s insatiable desire for power undermined my liking her. Most of the time, I was irritated by her selfishness. There were several times when I downright disliked her. And, a couple times when I deemed her insane. However, when paralleled with Mutny’s meekness, most personages would fair poorly.
As the novel follows the stories of these two sisters from their arrival in Thebes until the death of Nefertiti, it shows the multifaceted dynamic of the political structure of ancient Egypt and how the priests featured heavily in the running of the government. Yes, the pharaoh had the power, but if the priest of Amun felt that he was making erroneous decisions, as in the case of Akhenaton (nee Amenhotep) doing away with the other gods in favor of Aten and a new religion, they took the steps necessary to ensure that Egypt continued in the veins they saw fit.
As we don’t know how Nefertiti truly met her end- and conjecture abounds in the form of many, many theories, one of which is she guised herself as a man and took the throne of Egypt as a male pharaoh- Michelle Moran gives an excellent and plausible rendering of what could have happened to this beloved Queen fo Egypt.
Just in case you didn’t know, under Amenhotep’s reign, Egypt abandoned their polytheistic religion and dedicated herself to the monotheistic following of Aten. Amenhotep even changed his name to Akhenaton and built a new capital city for Egypt at Amarna. In the ruins at Amarna, in 1912, a German archeologist discovered a bust of rare and realistic beauty- now known as the bust of Nefertiti.
The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran
I wouldn’t ordinarily put up two books by the same author in a post, but as Michelle Moran is excellent with Ancient Egypt, I think the sequel to Nefertiti belongs on this list. The Heretic Queen is about Nefertari, the daughter of Neferitit’s sister, Mutny and her husband, Horemheb, who became pharaoh. Nefertari married Ramesses II- of Ozymandian fame. Again, it has been many years since I read this novel, but it stayed so within the vein of detailed accuracy in the Egyptian day to day, that I recall enjoying it. The only point I quibbled with was Moran’s interpretation of Ahmoses (or Moses, as the Hebrews call him). Moran stipulates that she chose to render the Exodus in the manner she did because their is no archeological proof of what the Bible and other ancient Hebraic texts records. While I am not saying you have to believe the Bible’s telling of the Exodus, I do think it is disingenuous to make such a statement when there have been numerous archeological finds that lend credence to the Hebraic beliefs regarding the Exodus. That being said, The Heretic Queen is a worthy read and presents a accurate telling of the rule of Ramesses II as recorded in Egyptian antiquity.
The Princess of Egypt Must Die by Stephanie Dray
I have a confession to make. When it comes to trying a new author, I get a little gun shy. It’s important to me how a novel ends- and while it might be a little Pollyanna of me- I like my novels to have happy endings. At the very least, hope filled endings. Therefore, when I approach a new author, it is done with trepidation. And, that’s why I love short stories and novellas so much. It’s a simple way of dipping one’s toe into the water without committing to the whole shebang right off the bat.
That’s what I did with this novella by Stephanie Dray. This is the first thing I read by her and it wasn’t the last. I truly enjoyed this glimpse into the Ptolemaic Dynasty. You’re all familiar with one of the famous names of the Ptolemaic: Cleopatra.
This novella doesn’t deal with Cleopatra, though. In The Princess of Egypt Must Die, we meet Princess Arsinöe. The novella is about her coming of age. Arsinöe is daughter of Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter. Her mother is one of his wives, but not the favored First Wife. Machination abound behind closed doors. In fact, this novella is in keeping with all the other novels I’ve listed above. It’s full of court intrigues, betrayals, and political maneuverings that play the heart against the head.
If you have a yen for Ancient Egypt but would like to stay out of the feminine fray- since all the above books are glimpses into the power wielded by women, either in their own right as with Hatshepsut or through the influence over their husbands as with Nefertiti, Nefertari, and the wives of Ptolemy I Soter- then here are a couple of novels that might do:
The Imhotep Series by Jerry Dubs
Confession: I’m still reading through the first novel of this four book series. It’s a recounting of the life and times of one of the most renowned architects of Ancient Egypt: Imhotep. He designed and constructed Djoser’s Pyramid, which was one of the first pyramids of Egypt. The series involves time travel, which is not usually one of my favorites, but it is enjoyable thus far.
River God (The Egyptian Series #1) by Wilbur Smith
I start with this one in the series because it’s the first of Wilbur Smith’s Ancient Egypt series. I have another confession, though. I haven’t read a single one. That’s terrible, but I have heard only the highest praise of Smith and his books are on my TBR pile, too. So… I feel all right in recommending it. From what I’ve heard, it has the epic flare and political intrigue of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, but with the constraints of having an actual historical context. That sounds like fun to me, so I thought I’d pass the recommendation on.
And, as I’ve included the above from my TBR, here are a few others that are there as well:
The Empire of Darkness by Christian Jacq
This books is a fictionalized account of Teti the Small, the female pharaoh who waged war against the Hyksos, enemy of Egypt, when they threatened Thebes.
Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
I think this is a self-explanatory title. I’ve heard only great things about this book and am very excited to read it.
Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love, and Politics in the Ancient World by Diana Preston
This one also sounds excellent. I love when an author gives copious historical context to their writing, and this book looks like the author felt the same way as I do about historical fiction.
And, because I love mysteries, I find it impossible to conclude a post about Ancient Egypt and not include Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody series. Amelia Peabody and her husband are archeologists in the late 1800s who solve murders while excavating the great finds of Egypt. (In fact, I think The Mummy series with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz is loosely based on these books.) These books are great fun and I recommend them highly. The first is called Crocodile on the Sandbank.
I’m sure there are more that I missed. However, I’m going to stop there.
Now, it’s your turn, dear readers. Are there any books about Ancient Egypt- fiction or non-fiction- that I missed? Any favorites of yours that you didn’t see here? Please, share them. My TBR pile can always grow a little more.