Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt - Barbara Mertz

I've been a fan of MPM, aka Barbara Mertz, aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Barbara Michaels, for years. Although I've read almost every book under almost all of her names, I still love the Amelia Peabody series the best. In these books, the indefatigable Amelia Peabody, parasol in hand, defies Victorian mores to indulge her passions for Egyptology. The books are adorable Gothic spoofs, but they also manage to pack in a rather impressive amount of information about both Victorian Egyptology and the ancient Egyptians themselves.

My expectations for Red Land, Black Land, one of MPM's few nonfiction books, were definitely high. In fact, I don't think I took the book's own history into account. Red Land, Black Landwas originally published in the 1960s, long before Amelia Peabody was a glimmer in MPM's eye. At the time when it was written, I think the book's style and premise were probably novel. The book presents life in ancient Egypt in a breezy, conversational narrative, focusing particularly on the experience of the middle classes and women. It reminded me rather a lot ofThe Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval Englandand other such "everyday life" books, but at the time when she wrote it, I think the idea was far more original. I tend to enjoy conversational, irreverent styles in such books, as long as the narration doesn't get in the way of the narrative. Unfortunately, I think that happened a bit here; devices such as the imaginary cruise down the Nile were just too cutesy and distracting for me. Her narrative voice here feels like something of a caricature, and she is unabashed about her opinionated and occasionally dismissive delivery. (She really, really doesn't like Akhenaten.)

My major complaint against the book was, at the same time, one of its major features: the informality. MPM talks about life in ancient Egypt as though it were pretty much constant throughout the thousands of years and hundreds of kings. I would have preferred a more rigorous approach that distinguished between different eras. I also think that MPM went a bit too far in painting her glowing portrait of the Egyptians; they may have been sophisticated and religiously tolerant, but they also kept slaves, raided their neighbors, and constructed an empire. I would have loved to learn more about those areas of Egyptian history. The other somewhat disappointing aspect actually is simply a ringing endorsement of the Amelia Peabody series: I don't think I actually learned much from this book because MPM managed to fit in so much into the series.

While it might not have been as informative as I could have wished, Red Land, Black Land was still a pleasant and amusing read. We get some great retellings of the more famous Egyptian fairy tales, and an exploration of the role of women in the ancient Egyptian world. As MPM points out in her introduction, while the market is now flooded with these types of books, at the time, examining the role of women and the common people was an original and fresh approach. As always, MPM has an eye for the most entertaining tidbits. I loved her discussion of the sculptures, particularly the lovely little wooden Sheikh el Beled. There is also an amusing discussion of cats.




MPM also goes into a fascinating discussion of the contrasts between the clear indications of religious morality and the prescription-style charms of the Book of the Dead, then compares those against the medical texts of the time. One of my favourite moments was her discussion of courting and love poetry, where she quotes an enamoured young man proclaiming his passion:

'If I kiss her, and her lips are open, I am happy, even without beer."