There is no shortage of books on Egypt’s history, culture, and people, both by outsiders and by Egyptians themselves, so consider the following a partial list of recommended titles to read ahead of (and during) your visit. Egypt has a vibrant modern literature, and the works of many of its best writers are now available in English.
Alexander’s Tomb: The Two-Thousand Year Obsession to Find the Lost Conqueror, by Nicholas Saunders
An investigation into the disappearance of one of the biggest tourist attractions in the ancient world: the body of Alexander the Great.
Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide, by Janice Kamrin
With this full-color handbook, you’ll be able to decipher ancient inscriptions wherever you go, and perhaps write them yourself.
Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt, by Geraldine Pinch
A who’s who of every figure you’ll encounter on temple walls and in museums.
Mountains of the Pharaohs, by Zahi Hawass.
Hawass, Egypt’s top archaeologist, writes a narrative history of the 3rd- through 5th-Dynasty pharaohs who built the iconic Pyramids of Giza and Saqqara.
Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, by Barbara Mertz
An Egyptologist’s highly readable account of the everyday existence of both pharaohs and commoners.
A History of Egypt: From Earliest Times to the Present, by Jason Thompson
Historian Thompson manages to pack seven millennia of Egyptian history into one concise, very readable volume.
Cairo, The City Victorious, by Max Rodenbeck
A popular history of “the Mother of the World,” from its founding as the Fatimid capital to its current status as a global megacity.
Egypt’s Belle Epoque: Cairo and the Age of the Hedonists, by Trevor Mostyn
The heady years of Khedive Ismail and the building of the Suez Canal.
Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, by Otto F. A. Meinardus
A comprehensive account of Egypt’s Coptic heritage, its traditions, and its evolution over the centuries.
Traveler’s Tales and Memoirs
Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, by Rosemary Mahoney
Peppered with historical and cultural details, Mahoney’s account of rowing her way down the Nile is a fascinating narrative of a woman traveling solo in Upper Egypt.
Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour, by Gustave Flaubert
Translated by Francis Steegmuller. Flaubert’s sometimes racy account of his 1849 sojourn in Egypt—from desert treks to his encounters with prostitutes—reconstructed from diaries and letters.
The Lost Oases, by Ahmed Hassanein Bey
A wonderful 1924 memoir by an Oxford-educated Egyptian diplomat, whose treks in the Sahara confirmed the existence of the “lost oases” of the Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat—later made famous by the “English Patient” Laszlo Almasy.
The Names of Things, by Susan Brind Morrow
A lyrical memoir by an American woman about language and Egypt’s natural world, including her travels to the Red Sea desert and to Sudan.
Traveling Through Egypt, by Deborah Manley and Sahar Abdel Hakim
A collection of narratives by wanderers, pilgrims, explorers, and others, across 2000 years of Egypt’s history.
Out of Egypt, by Andre Aciman
Though it reveals little of life in Alexandria, the story of Aciman's Alexandrian Jewish family and their exodus from Egypt is exquisitely written.
The Cairo Trilogy, Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dogs, Adrift on the Nile, Karnak Café, by Naguib Mahfouz
The Nobel-winning Mahfouz is the towering figure of modern Egyptian literature, a chronicler of Cairo’s back alleys and Egypt’s encounter with modernity in the last century. Published in the 1950s, The Cairo Trilogy is a family saga that parallels the story of Egypt in the 20th century. Midaq Alley, another early work, offers a slice of life in a Cairo neighborhood. Three later novels—The Thief and the Dogs, Adrift on the Nile, and Karnak Café—all offer a critical look at Egypt after the 1952 Revolution.
The Map of Love, by Ahdaf Soueif
The tale of an American woman whose discovery of her great-grandmother’s love letters leads her to modern Egypt, and to encounter her family’s secret history.
In the Eye of the Sun, by Ahdaf Soueif
The first half of this lengthy novel gives an excellent feel for Nasser's Cairo.
The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al-Aswany
A phenomenal bestseller in the Arab, Al-Aswany’s novel offers a cross-section of modern Egyptian life through the lives of various characters who all live in one Downtown Cairo building.
Zayni Barakat, by Gamal Al-Ghitani
Set in Mamluk Cairo just before the Ottoman invasion, this is a classic novel of political intrigue, official hypocrisy and betrayal
The Open Door, by Latifa Al-Zayyat
Originally published in 1960, this autobiographical novel about a young woman’s education marks an early example of Arabic feminist fiction.
Being Abbas el Abd, by Ahmed Alaidy
A funny, mordant, Fight Club–inspired novel—and a snapshot of Cairo’s cell-phone-addicted, distracted younger generation.
Beer in the Snooker Club, by Waguih Ghali
This quirky, hard-to-find, semi-autobiographical novel subtly mocks all the sacred cows of the revolution.
The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell
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