Researching a novel is a treat for me, because it means burying my head in books! Since my novel Song of the Nile is set in Egypt, my homeland, I already had a good deal of knowledge to bring to bear in the writing, so I did not need to read extensively on the culture and customs of the country. I focussed instead on reading history books.
The novel is set in the 1940s, and so I read some books on modern history, but I found myself far more drawn to the ancient history of my country. Temples, tombs, monuments, pharaohs, gods – there is so much to capture a writer’s imagination. In truth, I only needed so much knowledge of the ancient past for Song of the Nile, but I simply could not stop devouring books on the Age of the Pharaohs. I entirely understood the attraction of Egyptology: the study of the language, history and culture of Ancient Egypt.
I read widely on the subject, and found some books more absorbing and enlightening than others. Here are some of the books that I recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about Ancient Egypt. Be warned: read one or two books here and you may well become hooked! It truly is a fascinating subject, and there is so much to learn about this mighty civilisation that endured for over 3,000 years.
The Story of Egypt by Joann Fletcher
This book accompanied a BBC TV series called Immortal Egypt – The World’s Greatest Civilisation, and it’s wonderfully readable; the author really brings history to life in a colourful and vivid way. It’s every bit as engaging as reading a novel.
The story of the world’s greatest civilisation spans more than 4000 years of history that has shaped the world. It is full of spectacular sites and epic stories, an evolving society rich in heroes and villains, inventors and intellectuals, artisans and pioneers. Now Professor Joann Fletcher pulls together the complete Story of Egypt – charting the rise and fall of the ancient Egyptians while putting their whole world into a context that we can all relate to.
Joann Fletcher uncovers some fascinating revelations, from Egypt’s oldest art to the beginnings of mummification almost two thousand years earlier than previously believed. She also looks at the women who became pharaohs on at least 10 occasions, and the evidence that the Egyptians built the first Suez Canal, circumnavigated Africa and won victories at the original Olympic games. From Ramses II’s penchant for dying his greying hair to how we know Montuhotep’s wife bit her nails and the farmer Baki liked eating in bed, Joann Fletcher brings alive the history and people of ancient Egypt as nobody else can.
The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson
My second pick for a broad, sweeping account of the full history of Ancient Egypt. There is a strong focus on kingship, including politics and battles; this isn’t a book to read if you’re looking for an understanding of daily life in Egypt.
This is a story studded with extraordinary achievements and historic moments, from the building of the pyramids and the conquest of Nubia, through Akhenaten’s religious revolution, the power and beauty of Nefertiti, the glory of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, and the ruthlessness of Ramesses, to Alexander the Great’s invasion, and Cleopatra’s fatal entanglement with Rome.
As the world’s first nation-state, the history of Ancient Egypt is above all the story of the attempt to unite a disparate realm and defend it against hostile forces from within and without. Combining grand narrative sweep with detailed knowledge of hieroglyphs and the iconography of power, Toby Wilkinson reveals Ancient Egypt in all its complexity.
The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw
An excellent ‘go-to’ reference book for dipping into once you already have a foundation of knowledge; it is somewhat academic, so is excellent if you really want some detail.
Ranging from 700,000 BC to 311 AD, this volume portrays the emergence and development of Egypt from its prehistoric roots to its conquest by the Roman Empire. The contributors – all leading scholars working at the cutting edge of Egyptology – incorporate the latest findings in archaeological research as they chart the principal political events of Egyptian history, from the rise of the Pharaohs and the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, to the ascension of the Ptolemies and the coming of Roman legions. The book also includes the first detailed examinations of three periods which were previously regarded as dark ages. Against the backdrop of the birth and death of ruling dynasties, the writers also examine cultural and social patterns, including stylistic developments in art and literature, monumental architecture, funerary beliefs, and much more. The contributors illuminate the underlying patterns of social and political change and describe the changing face of ancient Egypt, from the biographical details of individuals to the social and economic factors that shaped the lives of the people as a whole.
The only up-to-date, single-volume history of ancient Egypt available in English, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt is a must read for everyone interested in one of the great civilizations of antiquity.
The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley
This is much more than a collection of myths; the author provides insightful analysis of what these stories meant to people at the time.
From Herodotus to The Mummy, Western civilization has long been fascinated with the exotic myths and legends of Ancient Egypt but they have often been misunderstood. Here acclaimed Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley guides us through 3000 years of changing stories and, in retelling them, shows us what they mean. Gathered from pyramid friezes, archaological finds and contemporary documents, these vivid and strange stories explain everything from why the Nile flooded every year to their beliefs about what exactly happened after death and shed fascinating light on what life was like for both rich and poor.
Lavishly illustrated with colour pictures, maps and family trees, helpful glossaries explaining all the major gods and timelines of the Pharoahs and most importantly packed with unforgettable stories, this book offers the perfect introduction to Egyptian history and civilization.
The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H Wilkinson
A good reference guide to the deities in the Egyptian pantheon, very thorough in its coverage.
A comprehensive and authoritative illustrated guide to the deities that lay at the heart of Ancient Egyptian religion and society. It examines the evolution, worship and eventual decline of a huge pantheon, from minor figures such as Bas, Babi, Ba-Pef and Taweret to the all-powerful Osiris, Amun, Hathor, Isis and Re.
The author considers the differing manifestations, iconography and cult centres of the deities and their fluctuating popularity. He also examines levels of worship, from the king’s formal rituals and festivals to popular access and personal piety. The accompanying photographs and drawings depict tomb paintings, temple reliefs, statues and other iconography.
Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Artefacts, Tombs & Temples from the Land of the Pharaohs by Nigel Fletcher-Jones
The pictures in this book are just superb, and they tell a story all of their own.
Very few cultures have left behind as many familiar objects and buildings as Ancient Egypt. The Great Pyramid and Sphinx, the Valley of the Kings, the Colossi of Memnon, the plaster bust of Nefertiti, the gold mask of Tutankhamun, the rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel, and the Rosetta Stone all are immediately recognizable. The exceptional beauty of Ancient Egypt’s temples, tombs and objects draw millions of people each year to Egypt and to museums around the world. Treasures of Ancient Egypt tells the tale of many of these familiar places and riches alongside many which are less familiar, but just as spectacular framed by a lively and highly readable account of Egypt’s history from around 3000 BC to the death of Queen Cleopatra in 30 BC. Over 150 colour photographs, including never-before-published images, complete this fascinating exploration of Ancient Egypt’s unique culture and its contribution to world history and art.
Egyptian Art by Rainer & Rose-Marie Hagen
Another beautifully illustrated book; this features many important artefacts from Ancient Egypt and reminds us to see these as objects of art.
The art of ancient Egypt that has been handed down to us bears no names of its creators, and yet we value the creations of these unknown masters no less than the works of later centuries, such as statues by Michelangelo or the paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. This book introduces some of the most important masterpieces, ranging from the Old Kingdom during the Third millennium BC to the Roman Period.
The works encompass sculptures, reliefs, sarcophagi, murals, masks, and decorative items, most of them now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but some occupying places of honor as part of the World Cultural Heritage in museums such as the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt by Steven Snape
This book provides a valuable understanding of how regular people lived in ancient times, with clear mapping of settlements.
Ancient Egyptian cities and towns have until recently been one of the least- studied and least-published aspects of this great ancient civilization. Now new research and excavation are transforming our knowledge. The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt is the first book to bring these latest discoveries to a wide general and scholarly audience, and to provide a comprehensive overview of what we know about ancient settlement during the dynastic period. Divided in two halves, the book opens with an account of the development of urban settlement in Egypt, describing the pattern of urban life, from food production, government, crime and health to schooling, leisure, ancient tourism, and the interaction of the living community with the dead. The second half of the book takes the reader on a trip down the Nile from Aswan to the Delta, giving a comprehensive account of all cities and towns with details for each of their discovery, excavation and important finds, supported by maps and plans as well as recent photographs. This book is sure to appeal to all those concerned with urban design and history, as well as tourists, students and Egyptophiles.
The Treasures of the Valley of the Kings by Kent Weeks
Written by the director of the Theban Mapping Project and conveying a wealth of information about this archaeological goldmine.
Here is a thorough, easy-to-use guide to the vast and stunning collection of art and antiquities found in Egypt’s archaeological paradise, the Valley of the Kings. The Tomb of Tutankhamun and its contents are featured prominently, as are the temples of Luxor and Karnak, the dromos, the Luxor Museum, the Chapel of Achoris, the Valley of Asasif, the Ramesseum, the Valley of the Queens, and the Colossi of Memnon. Dendera, Esna, Abydos Edfu, and Korn Ombo – all peripheral locations to the major sites – are included because their state of preservation makes them especially interesting for visitors and scholars. Kent Weeks has spent his career documenting the regions and infuses this guide with a level of clarity and detail not previously achieved in a handbook.
The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt by Richard H Wilkinson
A little dated now, but still an excellent reference guide to all of the temples in Egypt.
The temples of ancient Egypt include the largest and some of the most impressive religious monuments the world has ever known. Mansions of the gods, models of Egypt and of the universe, focal points for worship, great treasure houses and islands of order in a cosmic ocean of chaos – the temples were all these things and more.
Richard Wilkinson traces their development from the earliest times, looking at every aspect of their construction, decoration, symbolism and function. From the Delta to Nubia, all of Egypt’s surviving temples – ranging from the gargantuan temple of Amun at Karnak, to minuscule shrines such as the oasis Oracle of Siwa, where Alexander went to hear himself proclaimed god – are discussed and illustrated here.
Five sections explore the temples: Houses of Eternity looks at their historical origin, evolution and modern rediscovery; Buildings Fit for Gods traces the process of building and decorating a temple; Worlds Within Worlds examines each part of the sacred structures in detail; Between Heaven and Earth discusses the relationship between the temples, the pharaohs and priests and the gods; and Temples of Gods and Kings is the most extensive catalogue of Egyptian temples yet published.
Other interesting reads:
- Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy by Ronald H. Fritze: Worth a read if you are fascinated by the fascination with Ancient Egypt!
- The Complete Tutankhamun by Nicholas Reeves: About to be released in a new, updated edition; a detailed account of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of our time.
- Writings from Ancient Egypt translated by Toby Wilkinson: Translations of a diverse range of ancient Egyptian writings, giving a feel for culture and life.
- Hieroglyphs: A Very Short Introduction by Penelope Wilson: a concise look at the significance of this early writing.
And finally, you may enjoy my ebook The Island of Philae.
The isle of Philae, known as the ‘Pearl of the Nile’, was a beautiful, soulful place – a place of reverence. The ancient Egyptians believed Philae was right by the burial place of the god Osiris and they built a temple there to honour his wife, Isis. For thousands of years pilgrims made the journey to worship Isis there, and to this day visitors from all over the world come to travel back in time, walking among stones of the iconic temples first laid 2,000 years ago.
In this little book, I hope to show you what makes Philae so special. I’ll take you on a tour of the island and explain how the Temple of Isis was rescued from the watery depths through a painstaking recovery project. I’ll explore the cult of Isis and her temple on the island. And I’ll share a few excerpts of my novel Song of the Nile, in which the hero and heroine visit Philae together.
I hope this book can give you a feel for Philae, as it is today and as it was in ancient times. Perhaps someday you’ll be inspired to visit this amazing place for yourself.