EGYPTIAN FICTION: Mummies, murder & the Hyksos Invasion!
During the August holidays when we tend to have more free time to read for pleasure (apparently!), novels can take on great importance. And what better setting for a novel than Egypt of course.
Jo in the Great Library of Alexandria (albeit not reading a novel…) (courtesy of Dr. Amr Aboulfath)
Now I must admit I’ve never really been a huge reader of fiction beyond gothic horror, the most celebrated example of which is obviously Bram Stoker’s masterpiece ‘Dracula’. Yet even this classic book led us back to Egypt via one of Stoker’s follow-up works, ‘The Jewel of Seven Stars’ (below), in which the mummified body of an Egyptian queen is brought to Britain and re-animated in a remote coastal location. And having since tracked down this location on the Yorkshire coast plus the mummified body which partly inspired Stoker’s tale, we made a tv film about this back in 2002 and now work with one of the world’s leading Stoker scholars, the wonderful Dr. Catherine Wynne, Reader in Victorian Literature and Visual Culture at the University of Hull.
Back in the 1990s I was also introduced to the work of Anne Rice, the late great Queen of Gothic horror who I was lucky enough to meet at a book signing back in 1992 when we chatted about our mutual love of ancient Egypt. For not only had she written her own tale of a resurrected Egyptian, ‘The Mummy or Ramses the Damned’ (above) - with two sequels co-written with her son Christopher Rice - she also brought the gods of Egypt into her celebrated ‘Vampire Chronicles’ series. These even trace the very origins of the vampire legend back to Egypt, which does seem most appropriate, given the nature of the bloodthirsty Egyptian goddess Sekhmet aka ‘Mistress of Dread’ and ‘Lady of Slaughter’.
But beyond stories of blood-drinking immortals, my only other dip into fiction came with Agatha Christie. Officially the best-selling writer of all time only outsold by Shakespeare and the Bible, her classic ‘Death on the Nile’ (below) was set on a cruise boat in the 1930s. And this was a particularly good read when travelling along the Nile myself back in 1989, when her descriptions of “Luxor, Karnak and the beauties of Egypt” felt especially vivid (not to mention similarities with a few of my fellow passengers!).
It also made sense that Agatha had wanted to be an archaeologist. First visiting Egypt in 1910 and again in 1922 some 10 months before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb (inspiring her ‘Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’), Agatha herself made world headlines in 1926 when she vanished for 11 days following the breakup of her marriage. Triggering a frenzy in the press until she was spotted coming out of a hotel in Harrogate, an ultimately happy ending can then be traced through her subsequent novels.
Her lifelong ambition of travelling on the Orient Express (as in ‘Murder on the….’) took her as far as Istanbul then on to Baghdad (‘They Came to Baghdad’) to visit the excavations at Ur (‘Murder in Mesopotamia’). And with the site’s dashing young deputy director Max Mallowan soon her second husband, they spent much of their marriage working at sites around the Middle East where she was her husband’s multi-tasking, multi-talented assistant. She even found time to continue with her writing, up to three books a year, very much inspired by the places and people she encountered, from ‘Appointment with Death’ set in Petra (above), and back to Egypt of course where she wrote ‘Death on the Nile’ in Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel, published in 1937, the same year she wrote the play ‘Akhnaton’ (below).
In her research for ‘Akhenaton’ Agatha was helped by her husband’s pal Egyptologist Stephen Glanville who’d excavated at Akhenaten’s city of Amarna with the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1920s Amarna: Capital of the heretic pharaoh | Egypt Exploration Society (ees.ac.uk). Glanville had also married the society’s secretary Mary Chubb, who’d dug at Amarna too and is best known for her memoir ‘Nefertiti Lived Here’. And it was also at Glanville’s suggestion that Agatha wrote ‘Death Comes as the End’ (above), her only novel set in the past, based on a real archive of ancient documents known as the ‘Heqanakht Letters’ c.2000 BC Heqanakht Letter I | Middle Kingdom | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org) embellished with numerous murders (8!), even more than Agatha’s usual body count.
Finally we have her memoir ‘Come, Tell Me How You Live’ (above), in which she vividly describes how “the lure of the past came up to grab me… The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself”. And while certainly interested in the royal tombs and temples being uncovered by the eminent men around her, Agatha much preferred the traces of “everyday life—the life of the potter, the farmer, the tool-maker, the expert cutter of animal seals and amulets—in fact, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker”, her genuine interest in the everyday giving her own novels so much colour and life.
Now of course just like Agatha, numerous other novelists have also written about Egypt too, one of the world’s most successful the late Wilbur Smith. For him, the Nile and its banks were “the most extraordinary example of living history in the world”, as reflected in his novels ‘River God’, ‘The Seventh Scroll’, ‘Desert God’ and ‘Pharaoh’ for example.
So when Wilbur’s co-writers Tom Harper and Diana Thomas recently invited me on to their weekly podcast ‘That Wilbur Smith Show’ to discuss his wide-ranging inspiration, I had to admit upfront that I’d never actually read his books nor even knew much about them. “Not a problem”, said their friendly producer, “it’s all about the historical background”, so we were away! Hoping I’d be able to contribute at least something to our scheduled one-hour chat, we were still rattling away a couple of hours later, discussing everything from the historical realities of the Hyksos invasion - the basis of Smith’s 1993 ‘River God’ - to the introduction of the horse into Egypt around the same time. We also talked about female pharaohs, the north-south divide, modern mummification, workmen in makeup, androgynous gods and redheads, not to mention the huge coincidence that the main character in ‘The Seventh Scroll’, published in 1995, is a female Egyptologist from York named Royan, not quite Joann but still…
We really did have a great time chatting all things Egypt, as you can hear at 9. Ancient Egypt 1 with Professor Joann Fletcher - That Wilbur Smith Show | Acast and part 2 at 10. Ancient Egypt 2 with Professor Joann Fletcher - That Wilbur Smith Show | Acast.
So very much hoping you enjoy listening!