The Amelia Peabody Series by Elizabeth Peters takes place in late 19th and early 20th century Egypt and England. They are my favorite books of all time and have inspired many of my travel fantasies. I could attempt to review the first book, Crocodile on the Sandbank (and the subsequent 18 books in the series plus compendium!) but in reality they are the most formative and perfect books I have ever read, and any attempt at literary analysis would devolve into the written equivalent of incoherent sobbing. Instead, I’ll link to Orson Scott Card’s review, which does a great job of explaining why the story is wonderful in actual words and using complete sentences.
Instead, I’ll try to focus on the descriptions of Egypt, and why these books in particular were able to inspire a wanderlust I’ve never shaken.
A brief synopsis: The first book follows Amelia Peabody, a spinster who inherits the entirety of her father’s small fortune and uses it to set off on a world tour which is sidetracked in Egypt. Subsequent books in the series follow the adventures of Amelia and her family and friends excavating in Egypt and solving crimes. Amelia is a very biased narrator, and Peter’s excels at maintaining a first person perspective while giving the reader insights Amelia hasn’t drawn.
Without resorting to superfluous text, Elizabeth Peters does a wonderful job painting vivid pictures of period England and Egypt. Peters (a pen name for Barbara Mertz) was a trained Egyptologist, and her knowledge of and passion for the subject of archeology contribute to the quality of the text. “Modern” 19th Century Egypt is presented in contrast to the ancient monuments being excavated by the protagonists, who pose their own theories as to the identities and motivations of the Ancient Egyptians. While these books are mystery novels, the unsolved mysteries of the monuments themselves could justify a trip to Egypt all on their own.
Shepheard’s Hotel is a frequent starting point for Amelia’s trips to Egypt, and the grand balls hosted within its walls complete with illicit trips to the Moorish Hall present a romantic picture of women in sweeping gowns relaxing in heavily curtained rooms with gentleman in military uniforms and formal dress. Of course, this relaxing can only occur after the dancing is done. A main character of the series becomes particularly fond of the waltz. While the Shepherd’s Amelia loved so much no longer exists, many other luxury hotels still exist within Cairo, near the museums and city streets where many adventures take place.
Amelia’s preferred method of travel through Egypt is the Dahabeya, a houseboat which drifts on the Nile within easy view of the monuments and the ability to dock at a multitude of sites without having to find individual accommodations in each city. If I ever make it to Egypt, this will be my preferred method of travel. Who knows, if I get enough people together, it might not be that expensive?
While I know that if I make the trip to Egypt, I won’t be able to recreate the adventures of a fictional character, the Amelia Peabody Series made me curious about both the ancient civilization and the “modern” country. One of the characters in the series is very passionate about illegally exported and foraged antiquities. The Louvre has a large number of Egyptian relics, and walking around, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them were obtained through legitimate channels, and how many were there because of conquest and deception.
The characters and their adventures may not be replicable, but I have learned from them and researched the history of this fabulous country beyond the realm of fiction because of these books. One day, I will be able to compare the very detailed mental catalog I have of Egypt to the real thing. I can’t wait.