It’s on many a bucket list and, for some, the grandest stop along the Grand Tour: land of pharaohs, pyramids, Cleopatra and cruises along the River Nile, reclining in a traditional felucca with those big, billowing sails. Can’t hop on a plane just now? No worries. Be transported from your lounger to the legendary cradle of civilization with these classic novels.
1. THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET by Lawrence Durrell (Penguin)
You’ll want to set aside time to devour every single book in this rich and sensuous series – and preferably one right after another. Set in the port city of Alexandra, the books – Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960) – are told from varied viewpoints and take place in the years just before and during the Second World War. Settle into the rhythms of this ancient city, its aromatic marketplaces, old-world cafes, sandy beaches and soft breezes carrying the salt taste of the sea.
2. IN THE EYE OF THE SUN by Ahdaf Soueif (Anchor)
Set against the backdrop of ever-turbulent Middle Eastern politics, Ahdaf Soueif, who has been compared to the likes of Tolstoy, Flaubert and George Eliot, tells the story of a modern, headstrong woman, Asya, whose family is among the Egyptian cultural elite during the 1960s and ’70s. Locked in a patriarchal society, she is still determined to find sexual fulfillment and romantic love. She marries her Westernized childhood sweetheart but, after moving to Britain for graduate study, becomes involved in a devastating affair with an Englishman. A love story you won’t soon forget but also a glimpse of the cosmopolitan, decadent but always elegant Cairo of the time. (Fans of Soueif may also want to check out her novel The Map of Love, which was a finalist for the Booker prize.)
3. THE CAIRO TRILOGY: Palace Walk/Palace of Desire/Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz (Everyman’s Library)
Nobel-prize winning Naguib Mahfouz’s brilliant trilogy of colonial Egypt traces the country’s political and domestic turmoil during the years spanning two world wars. The story is told through three generations of the family of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a formidable patriarch who rules his wife and five children with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence.
4. THE MEMOIRS OF CLEOPATRA by Margaret George (St. Martin’s Griffin)
Enter the glittering kingdom of the Queen of the Nile. This lush and sweeping saga is told in Cleopatra’s own voice, which begins when the queen, at 20 years of age, makes an alliance with the most powerful man in the world, Julius Caesar. Known for her painstaking research, George gives a sense of richness and authenticity to a historical tale you’ll love to get lost in.
5. ANCIENT EVENINGS by Norman Mailer (Random House)
Crossing three millennia to Pharaonic Egypt and the fascinating figures of a long-lost era, Norman Mailer’s epic and unconventional tale (one of the protagonists is reincarnated, for instance) takes readers back to the country’s essence with the story of the 18th-dynasty Pharaoh Rameses and his wife, Queen Nefertiti, as well as the gods, magic and mortals that infuse their lives.
6. DEATH ON THE NILE by Agatha Christie (William Morrow)
Agatha Christie penned her famous murder mystery in Aswan along Egypt’s old border with Nubia, at the storied grand hotel, Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan (where, incidentally, Winston Churchill marked the inauguration of the Aswan Dam in 1902). The story, originally published in 1937, is set on a high-society riverboat on the Nile. During the luxurious cruise, a wealthy heiress, Linnet Ridgeway, is found murdered. Cue fellow passenger and Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and his trusted sidekick, Col. Race, to investigate a motley group of would-be murderers.
Following the recent success of Murder on the Orient Express directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, Twentieth Century Fox has announced plans to adapt Death on the Nile for the big screen. It had been adapted previously, most notably, in the 1978 film starring Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, David Niven, Angela Lansbury and Maggie Smith.
7. THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING by Alaa Al Aswany (Harper)
A bestselling and controversial novel in the Arab world, Aswany’s story looks at corruption in modern Egypt, focusing on political pay-offs, sexual repression and religious extremism in Cairo during the 1990s. The Yacoubian apartment building, a decaying but once elegant display of Art Deco splendor, is the residence for an array of interlinking characters who, along with their hopes for the future, offer frank critiques of Egyptian society.