10 Best Novels in English about Modern and Ancient Egypt
Egypt has captured the imagination of many a writer in its 7,000 year existence -- and whether it be ancient Egypt, colonial Egypt or modern Egypt, can you really blame them? Few other countries in the world have the history, depth and complexity as Egypt, and we’ve compiled some of our favorite novels that take place here, by both Egyptian and non-Egyptian authors alike (this list is English-based, so we made sure that all Arabic and French novels listed below have an English translation available).
This list is just the tip of the iceberg (or pyramid?) when it comes to novels about Egypt, and be sure to let us know if we didn’t include one of your favorites.
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Takes place in: Cairo, 1917-1919
Summary: we of course had to include a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian legend and a Nobel Laureate in Literature. Palace Walk is the first novel in Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, all translated from Arabic (Palace Walk’s real title is Bein El Qasrein, which translates to ‘between the two palaces’).
Palace Walk is an inside look at a middle class Egyptian family during British-occupied Egypt in WWI, and the dynamics and cultural complexities between them.
In the Eye of the Sun
Author: Ahdaf Soueif
Takes place in: Egypt and the UK from 1967-1980
Summary: This novel is a beautiful mix of love story, politics both in the Middle East and in interpersonal relationships, and a vivid portrayal of Egypt spanning over 10 years, all told through the story of Asya, a young Egyptian woman and memorable heroine.
Egyptian author and journalist Ahdaf Soueif is also known for her novel The Map of Love, another personal favorite of ours.
Ramses: The Son of Light
Author: Christian Jacq
Takes place in: Ancient Egypt during the New Kingdom
Summary: This historical fiction novel is actually the first in a 5 book series about the life, love and reign of Ramses II, perhaps the most famous and powerful pharaoh to date. The books are quick reads, and even though they’re translated originally from French, the English translations do the books justice. Expect entertaining portrayals of Ancient Egypt and famous names such as Seti I, Nefertari and Moses. We definitely recommend reading all 5 books.
Author: Alaa El Aswany
Takes place in: Cairo, 1990
Summary: Originally an Arabic novel, Yacoubian Building was a smash hit and not only quickly translated into other languages, but made into a movie. The story revolves around the different residents of the old Yacoubian Building in Downtown Cairo, and is described as a “scathing portrayal of modern Egyptian society”. Its incorporation of homosexuality in the story also got a lot of people hot and bothered (and not in a good way) when the book first came out.
Death on the Nile
Author: Agatha Christie
Takes place: mainly on a steamer on the Nile in 1937
Summary: Yup, the world-famous detective novels of Agatha Christie starring Hercule Poirot have their own nod to Egypt in Death on the Nile. Agatha Christie herself stayed at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan while writing the novel, which is a mystery aboard a period steamer on the Nile.
A Woman of Cairo
Author: Noel Barber
Takes place in: Cairo before and throughout WWII up through the 1952 revolution
Summary: Set during the final days of the British occupation in Egypt is a love story between childhood friends and neighbors in Cairo’s aristocratic Garden City; the son of a British diplomat and the daughter of an Egyptian pasha. Their world of midnight picnics at the Pyramids and Nile-side luxury is brought to an abrupt halt when World War II erupts, followed by the uprising of Egyptians against the British occupation.
Author: Wilbur Smith
Takes place in: Ancient Egypt, end of the Middle Kingdom
Summary: Set right before and during the invasion of the Hyksos into Ancient Egypt, River God is an adventure novel with a love triangle between the Pharaoh, a lord’s daughter and the soldier she’s in love with -- but the main character is Taita, a eunuch and slave who has to navigate his way not only through the perils of the love triangle but an ancient empire on the brink of falling to foreign invaders.
The Alexandria Quartet
Author: Lawrence Durrell
Takes place in: Alexandria, before and during World War II
Summary: The Alexandria Quartet is actually not just one book, but four -- you can either read them separately or all in one go as one really long book. The four books are Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea; the first 3 books depict the same set of events, but through different perspectives. The fourth novel takes place 6 years later. The novels are all about ‘modern’ love and the melting pot of East and West in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. The writing tends to lean towards being more ‘literary-heavy’ if that makes sense, so if you’re looking for a light read, this might not be for you.
City of Love and Ashes
Author: Yusuf Idris
Takes place in: Cairo, 1952
Summary: Translated from Arabic, the writing is a bit dry and doesn’t do the novel as much justice as the original Arabic did, but most definitely worth a read anyway. City of Love and Ashes is about Hamza, a young Egyptian revolutionary secretly working with the resistance to revolt against the British occupation and the corrupt monarchy. He meets and falls in love with Fawziya through the cause, and they struggle with their feelings for each other in the midst of a much bigger battle -- the battle for their country. But which is more important?
The Golden Goblet
Author: Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Takes place in: Ancient Egypt, the New Kingdom
Summary: This book is touted as a children’s or young adult book, but trust us when we say it’s just as enjoyable for adults. The story revolves around Ranofer, a young orphan boy who tries to rise above his unfortunate circumstances to pursue his simple dream of becoming a goldsmith’s apprentice and leaving his abusive half-brother forever. He accidentally stumbles across one of the worst crimes one can commit in Ancient Egypt, and it’s up to him to do the right thing even if it costs him everything.