6 Great Books Set in Egypt That We Love

6 Great Books Set in Egypt That We Love

Tuesday, 16 November, 2021

Choose a century, and Egypt will reveal historical facts that beg to be turned into a can’t-put-it-down story. There are ancient Egyptian gods (shout out to Amun-Ra and Osiris), mischief-making djinn, iconic rulers (Ptolemy, Cleopatra, and Tut, anyone?), 20th-century archaeologists, WWII spies, the Arab Spring…

And then there are the iconic landmarks. They’re the stuff of daydreams and settings for larger-than-life escapades: the green ribbon of the Nile, the pyramids and Sphinx rising out of the desert sands, breathtaking museums, and beautiful mosques.

Here are six books set in Egypt that took us there on the page: two fantasies about the djinn, a photo-rich guide to Egyptian antiquities, a modern novel about sisters navigating the Arab Spring, and two fictional approaches to history that cast a magical spell.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Egypt: Ancient Antiquities, Fiery Djinn, and the Lure of the Nile.

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The Visitors - Sally Beauman

The Visitors
> Sally Beauman

Drop a spunky Jane Eyre-esque heroine into 1922 Cairo with a traveling companion that’s straight out of A Room with a View, and you get this epic novel of the golden age of Egyptology.

Lucy Payne (11-years old, curious, forthright) has just lost her mother to typhoid and is now the sole responsibility of her ambitious Cambridge professor father, who’s distracted by his books and his curvaceous new secretary. So he foists her into the hands of American governess Miss Mack and packs them both off to Egypt for dry desert air and educational experiences.

In Cairo, ensconced at the luxurious Sheapherd’s Hotel, they find themselves among the posh society of other foreigners: Howard Carter, the real-life archaeologist who discovered King Tut’s tomb; Lord Carnarvon, the aristocrat who financed Carter’s work; and assorted wives, children, servants, and posh friends. It’s all very gossipy and British and gin-soaked.

The narrative deftly moves between past and present as the now 90-year-old Lucy tells the totally true and tall tales of her past. She reflects on lifelong friendships, the mysteries buried in the Egyptian desert, and the darker years, later, of London during WWII.

This is a sweeping epic with a large cast of idiosyncratic characters getting into all kinds of mischief and interpersonal struggles. {more}

We made our way through the green fertile zone that spread out along the bank of the Nile and, after half an hour or so, reached the crossroads where we turned inland. There, the lush fields of papyrus, rushes and palm trees abruptly ended and desert began. The rough track climbed, gently at first, then more steeply. Ahead of me, I saw the cliffs and crags that concealed the Valley of the Kings… There, the cobra goddess Meretseger had her abode; her name meant ‘She who loves silence.’ She was the deity protecting these hills and their tombs, spitting a deadly venom into the eyes of anyone who defiled them. — Sally Beauman

The City of Brass - S.A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass
> S.A. Chakraborty

In this rich fantasy world, the streets of 18th-century Cairo are populated by djinn — shape-shifting creatures made of fire and air — nobles of all stripes, and our heroine Nahri, an orphan rogue with a remarkable gift for healing. And oh, yeah, the fate of a magical Middle Eastern kingdom might rest in her tricky hands.

One day, while walking past the necropolis, a.k.a., the City of the Dead in Cairo, after performing a healing ritual, Nahri meets Dara. Or, more accurately, Dara — a djinn with green eyes and perfumed with smoke — suddenly appears in a flash of light. Then he bellows, ‘Suleiman’s eye! I will kill whoever called me here!’

And that’s when the ghouls attack.

From the ghoul attack, it’s nonstop action as Nahri navigates a world of enchantment, djinn tribes, and long, long history. There are shape-shifters, black and white magic, giant flying monsters, djinns who are sometimes loyal and sometimes not; flying carpets; and a magical city with brass walls, hidden from human eyes.

It’s an enthralling adventure with high stakes and surprisingly relevant political underpinnings. If you want to get lost in a fantastical world along with a charming, trouble-making heroine, this is the adventure for you. {more}

‘You’re some kind of thief, then?’

‘That’s a very narrow-minded way of looking at it. I prefer to think of myself as a merchant of delicate tasks.’ — S. A. Chakraborty

A Pure Heart - Rajia Hassib

A Pure Heart
> Rajia Hassib

This is a story about sisters. And if you know anything about sisters, that means it’s a story of deep love and discord, loyalty and letdowns. The stakes are even higher for these sisters — Rose and Gameela — because their story takes place in 2016 when the dust of Egypt’s revolution was still swirling in the air.

Rose is an Egyptologist, married to an American reporter and transplanted to New York City to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gameela, whose teenage rebellion involved embracing devout Muslim practices, stayed in Cairo. Angry at Rose. And, it turns out, living a secret life. When Gameela is killed in a suicide bombing, Rose makes it her mission to find out what her sister was keeping from the family.

In a detective novel, this would be the beginning of a suspenseful inquiry into Gameela’s death. But this is a family story, so her investigation feels more like atonement. And in Rose’s mind, she has good reason to make amends.

Although women are at the heart of this story, the men in their lives play a crucial role in their fates: Mark, the American reporter, and the 21-year-old suicide bomber, a boy who started out as just a regular boy and turned into something else.

Autor Rajia Hassib tackles the tough material with great care and no judgment, revealing the secrets Gameela felt she had to keep and helping us see how a tender young man can be moved to radicalism. {more}

A car honks, and Rose gets up and steps to the railing, looks at the cars crammed in the narrow, two-lane road below, at the Nile ahead with its traffic of sailing boats and floating restaurants, at the crowded bridge visible in the distance to her left, at the high-rises on the other bank. Once, when they first met, Mark took her on a boat ride down the Nile, and when she told him of the saying that claims those who drink from the Nile’s water are destined to return to Egypt, he reached out of the small sailboat and scooped a handful of water, gulping it down despite her protests that the saying referred to purified, not raw, Nile water, and that he will now certainly die of dysentery. — Rajia Hassib

The Illustrated Guide to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo - Allessandro Bongioanni

This 600+ book does a remarkable job of bringing the Egyptian Museum in Cairo into your home. There are photos of antiquities on nearly every page, along with illustrations, floor plans, and engaging text that are like a private tour of this show-stopping museum.

Among the artifacts in the museum are two statues of King Tutankhamun — made of cedarwood and covered with gold — funeral figurines that belonged to the Nubian kings, and sarcophagi as far as the eye can see. The collection also includes larger-than-life statues and tiny bits of everyday life: coins, a piece of cloth, miniature figurines, scraps of notes written in ancient Greek and Latin, colorful hieroglyphics from Arabic and Egyptian scribes, gold jewelry. Each item is photographed in full color and accompanied with text that’s charming and soothing.

Soon this book will be an artifact itself. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is about to close and will be replaced by The Grand Egyptian Museum, a $1 billion complex that’s just a short distance from the Pyramids of Giza.

Heads up: You can read this book in its entirety online in the Internet Archive. {more}

At mealtimes, the Egyptians for the most part ate bread and drank beer that were both made at home using water and the flour of spelt or barley. The bread was made in different forms that probably corresponded to different tastes. Left-over soured pastry was used as a yeast and sweetmeats were prepared using honey, dates, carobs, and currants. Beer was made by fermenting bread cooked only on the outside, crumbled, and probably mixed with date juice. These basic foodstuffs were accompanied by various types of vegetables, fruits, and, on occasion, meat or fish. Wine, cider, and cow or goat’s milk were also very popular. — Allessandro Bongioanni

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo - Michael David Lukas

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo
> Michael David Lukas

This enchanting novel has everything you could want in a sun-dappled story about Egypt: A mysterious legacy. Dusty archives. Family secrets. Forbidden love. Unlikely and enduring friendships. If that sounds like your kind of thing, read on.

The tale is woven of threads that represent three slices of the past: the 11th century, 1897, and now. The action kicks off when Joseph al-Raqb receives a package sent on behalf of his recently deceased father. His inheritance is a scrap of paper with indecipherable writing pressed between two panes of glass, accompanied by a letter from a Mr. Mosseri — he does not know a Mr. Mosseri — that reads, ‘Your father asked me to send you this. Please call if you ever find yourself in Cairo.’

He does the only reasonable thing: He takes himself off to Cairo to investigate why his father wanted him to have this ancient-looking fragment. Along the way, we learn more about Joseph’s family history — and the far past that’s now making ripples in the present.

This is the kind of book you’ll want to flip over and start again when you’ve read the last page. There are plenty of mysteries woven into the plot, but the characters are not amateur detectives: They’re curious, well-intentioned people trying valiantly to understand themselves and the people they love. There’s a touch of magical realism about the whole schlemiel and a deep passion for books and learning — with a bit of fairy-tale glitter sprinkled into a family saga. The clincher? It makes dusty documents very romantic. {more}

My father told stories about dragons and djinns, buried treasure, fishermen, and wayward princes. But his best stories were those drawn from our family history, stories about the long line of al-Raqb men who had, for nearly a thousand years, served as watchmen of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue. There was the story of Ahmed al-Raqb, my father’s namesake, who had faced down an angry crowd that believed the Jews were immune to the Great Plague. There was the one about Ibrahim al-Raqb, who convinced the ruthless Mamluk ruler Baybars to accept a fine in lieu of destroying the synagogue. And then, of course, there was the story of Ali al-Raqb, that first and most noble watchman, whose bravery helped to establish our family name. — Michael David Lukas

The Golem and the Jinni - Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni
> Helene Wecker

This fantastic and fantastical novel transports you to turn-of-the-century New York and ancient Egypt. It tells the tale of two unforgettable characters whose unlikely friendship is the beating heart of this unusual immigrant story.

Chava is a female golem, created in Poland to be the companion of a man who never makes it to the New World. Ahmad is a fiery Egyptian Jinni who’s been trapped in a copper flask he finds tricky to truly escape.

They should be opposites, enemies, unable to forgive or understand each other. But they surprise themselves and us by forging a bond that eventually demolishes the obstacles that divide them. Just as it seems they’ve found a friendship to endure the ages, fate intervenes, and everything they treasure is at risk.

Along the way, there’s adventure, romance, danger, friendship, and brutal tests of their bond, all deftly woven with Middle Eastern tradition, Yiddish lore, and American history. {more}

‘I trust you above all others,’ he told her. ‘Above myself.’ She shook her head, but then leaned into him, as though taking shelter. He drew her close, the crown of her head beneath his cheek. Beyond the hansom’s window, New York was an endless rhythm of walls and windows and doors, darkened alleys, flashes of sunlight. he thought, if he could pick a moment to be taken into the flask, a moment to live in endlessly, perhaps he would choose this one: the passing city, and the woman at his side. — Helene Wecker

Top image courtesy of Bogdan Nanescu/Unsplash.

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There's plenty to unearth when you get curious about Egypt: the pharaohs and their Great Pyramids, the majestic Nile river, secrets buried under the sands of time. In our show, we explore all of that and more.
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