The best books on deciphering ancient Egypt – fact and fiction

Who am I?

For as long as I can remember I have been intrigued by a family mystery. Names such as Howard Carter, Tutankhamun, and Didlington Hall permeated my childhood along with phrases such as ‘a mummy’s curse’ and ‘financial disaster’. Something had happened years before I was born, which no one would discuss. As an adult I decided to search for the truth, and on the way found inspiration to fulfil a long held ambition, which was to write. I discovered that my family had played a vital, but often forgotten, role in Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamun. Our story is of wealth lost, extraordinary characters, passion and tragedy, but through it all Egypt winds like a twist of golden thread.


I wrote...

Nile Cat

By Angela Cecil Reid,

Book cover of Nile Cat

What is my book about?

Nile Cat is my debut novel and I was thrilled to learn that it had been shortlisted for the prestigious 2021 International Rubery Book Award. The story was inspired by my great grandmother, May Tyssen-Amherst’s memoir concerning her childhood trips to Egypt in the 1870s.

The story opens with fourteen-year-old Rose and her twin sister, Lily travelling to Egypt in 1871. At Naples, Mr. John Baxter, an Egyptologist, joins their ship. From that moment, wherever Rose is, there he is too, watching her, like a fox watches a rabbit. Rose grows ever more afraid. When she is given a small stone cat, her dreams are haunted by the unfolding tale of Miut, an ancient Egyptian temple cat, and Hori, the boy who cares for her. Past and present merge in the streets of Cairo and the deserts beyond. Rose knows she has Mr. Baxter to defeat and an ancient mission to complete. She and Lily must work together. The penalty for failure is death.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Keys of Egypt

By Lesley Adkins, Roy Adkins,

Book cover of The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Why this book?

This was one of the first books I read when I began researching my family’s passion for Egypt, and it was one of the most interesting.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 his troops were astonished to find countless ruins, covered with hieroglyphs – but what did they mean? Being able to read the ancient texts would be the key to unravelling many of the mysteries of ancient Egypt. Determined to be the first to do so was 16-year-old Jean-Francois Champollion, the brilliant son of an impoverished bookseller. This book is a true story of adventure, obsession, and triumph over extreme adversity, and is well worth reading.


A Thousand Miles Up the Nile

By Amelia B. Edwards,

Book cover of A Thousand Miles Up the Nile

Why this book?

I read this book just before I visited Egypt for the first time. I found Amelia’s description of travelling up the Nile during the winter of 1873/4 fascinating. In a few ways, Egypt has changed little since. There are still donkeys pulling heavy carts through the streets of Cairo, though now they are passed by speeding traffic. Small villages of flat-roofed houses still punctuate the banks of the Nile, but now many of those houses sprout satellite dishes like metal mushrooms.

Amelia vividly describes ancient sites, some of which are now badly damaged or destroyed, and is a keen observer of 19th century Egyptian society and culture. The pages are full of witty stories, detailed illustrations, and a deep love for the country. She devoted much of the rest of her life to Egyptology and the preservation of Egypt’s ancient monuments. Amelia was instrumental in setting up the Egypt Exploration Fund which in 1891, with financial support from the Tyssen-Amhersts, sent Howard Carter to Egypt to assist with the recording of the architecture, reliefs, and inscriptions before they were lost.


Crocodile on the Sandbank

By Elizabeth Peters,

Book cover of Crocodile on the Sandbank

Why this book?

Over the years I have had great pleasure from the series. The main character, Amelia Peabody is a wonderful invention. She is brave, witty, loyal, independent – a sort of Victorian female Indiana Jones. There are romantic entanglements, along with a delicious mixture of murder, mystery, and suspense, involving every sort of skulduggery you can imagine.

Mostly set in Egypt, real characters such as Flinders Petrie, Howard Carter, and Gaston Maspero appear. I was amused to discover a William Amherst in Hippopotamus Pool who is described as ‘a young Egyptologist who has very little to do with the story.’

Genuine characters and events are mixed shamelessly with the fictional, and many of the stories are told with a comic tone, verging occasionally on the parody of authors such as Rider Haggard. These books do not pretend to be anything but entertainment, yet beneath the froth, they are well-researched. They appear to give a very real flavour of what it would have been like to be excavating in Egypt in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Tales of Ancient Egypt

By Roger Lancelyn Green,

Book cover of Tales of Ancient Egypt

Why this book?

This was my introduction to ancient Egypt. I was twelve when I was given this book. I was immediately entranced by the beautifully told stories not only of the gods, but also of magic, shipwrecks, princesses, and thieves.

Egypt is an extraordinary country entirely reliant for thousands of years on the annual inundation of the river Nile. If the water levels were too low there was starvation, and too high there were devastating floods. In some places, the fertile area is a little wider than the flight of an arrow. With life so precarious, it is not surprising that the afterlife became so important to all Egyptians and that they spun so many myths to explain the inexplicable, and give structure to their world.

This book is a great introduction to understanding the ancient Egyptians for anyone, but particularly for younger readers of 10+.


The Tale of Sinuhe

By Richard Parkinson,

Book cover of The Tale of Sinuhe: And Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 B.C.

Why this book?

I was immediately attracted to this volume of poetry, particularly when I realised that fragments from the original Tale of Sinuhe papyrus, had at one time been in the collection at Didlington Hall.

Professor Richard Parkinson introduces each poem from the Middle Kingdom and sets it in the context of its time. The Tale of Sinuhe is one of the most famous poems and was written around 1875 BC. It is an illuminating tale of adventure in foreign lands, but one in which Sinuhe reflects on life in Egypt and his relationship with the king. While The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is an entertaining account of fantastic and exciting adventures with a universal moral. These, and the other eleven poems provide fascinating insights into the minds and culture of the ancient Egyptians.

For someone who enjoys poetry and wants to experience the literature of these ancient people ‘first hand’, the book is a must-read.


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