Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Book Review: Red Land, Black Land by Barbara Mertz

          “This is not a book about ancient Egyptian culture; it is a book about ancient Egyptians.” Barbara Mertz starts out her book with this line, and it perfectly describes her work. “Red Land, Black Land” gives details of Egyptian life in different periods of history. She traces life from birth to death in all the myriad ways life can go.

     Mertz has a pleasant, conversational tone throughout the book that makes it feel more like you’re listening to her describe a personal experience over tea rather than reading a lecture on a time long past. I especially loved the chapter where she took the reader on a mental trip down the Nile. One thing I didn’t know was how popular touring the monuments was even at the time they were built. (It gives the hilarious image of an Egyptian dressed like a modern-day tourist, silly hat and all.) (Yes, I did try to find a wacky picture like this, but alas. All are of modern-day Egyptians, none of whom are wearing silly hats.)

     One of the best aspects of the book is her cautious skepticism when it comes to “expert opinions”. The study of ancient civilizations is an evolving process. Each year, scholars learn a little more about the language and writing, or scientists develop better technology for examining artifacts, and something is discovered to be different than what was once considered fact. Mertz’ refusal to equate theories with facts and to emphasize the subjectivity humans are never entirely free from (and admitting when she prefers a theory for subjective reasons) may make it less popular with those who want “just the facts, ma’am” but is a more realistic touch to the subject. She also has a bit of fun at the expense of occultists and ancient alien enthusiasts alike, without sounding malicious or contemptuous.

     Inside are both photographs of artifacts and Mertz’ reproductions of some of her favorite Egyptian art. I especially liked the drawings of some of the delicate jewelry the Egyptians produced. The reasoning behind their peculiar art style is sound and free from that patronizing tone people usually take when referring to it.

     It was a fun, informative read, and I definitely enjoyed her style of writing. I was pleasantly surprised to find she is also one of my favorite authors: she writes the fabulous Amelia Peabody series under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters, which is one I recommend to anyone who enjoys learning more about ancient culture and mystery-solving couples. I’ll be getting her other nonfiction book, “Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs” while continuing on the Peabody series.

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