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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 August 2012
What do Egypt and India have in common? They are both predominantly rural, poor countries where ordinary people hanker after the trappings of modernity yet live immersed in the myths and practices of age-old traditions. But they also share a rich history of trade and migration, especially belonging to the Middle Ages. Such are the two strands from which Amitav Ghosh has woven In an Antique Land.

Gosh, otherwise a novelist, spent a number of years in rural Egypt in the 1980s on a historical research trip. Since his training was in anthropology, he also made meticulous notes of his everyday environment. The result is a volume that is both travel and history writing, and both sociological and private testimony. Gosh gives us Egyptian village life in moving detail: its family clans, its festivals, its preoccupations with money, jobs, marriage. The writer was there, took the time to learn the dialect, befriended his hosts and took a genuine interest in their lives. And if he was a Hindu, this only made him an attraction among a friendly and curious public. His book shines with simple but quirky anecdotes, and with dialogues more telling than any long rendition. Meanwhile, in filigree, Gosh also unfolds the story of Abraham Ben Yiju, an eleventh-century Jewish merchant, and that of his slave and business associate from Mangalore. Ben Yiju's tale provides a certain symmetry to the author's, since, originally from North Africa, the medieval merchant lived for a long time on the Malabar coast. But it is also genuine, and Gosh takes his reader through the fascinating story of the Cairo Geniza, one of the largest troves of medieval manuscripts ever unearthed, once attached to a synagogue.

In an Antique Land is anything but opinionated. Its writing is full of reserve and gentle understanding, and nor does it condemn. Yet at the same time it is subtly subversive of certain historical commonplaces: about the contributions of Western discovery, trade, and modernity or about Jewish-Muslim antinomy, for example. The trade routes that freely joined the Mediterranean to India and beyond were destroyed by monopoly-seeking Europeans. Gosh shows us a lost world that peacefully spanned two civilizations across the Indian Ocean and, through his portrait of contemporary Egypt, he shows how it still resonates, or how its loss is still to be felt on either side. Perhaps this is not news for readers already versed into pre-modern world history. Yet even for the knowledgeable, this gem of a book is sure to be filled with discoveries.
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on 13 January 2010
To categorise this as a travel book is misleading. In fact it is anthropology and history with two main settings: rural Egypt in relatively modern times and a web of commercial and cultural interactions from the Mediterranean to the western coast of India uncovered by a medieval Jewish manuscript found amongst the detritus of an old synagogue in Cairo. It's an account of social change, of the loss of a cosmopolitan and even peaceful way of transacting things across seas and cultures to an alien brutality, the bellicose European way of doing things, and the resultant foreclosure of mutual understanding, as exhibited in small Egyptian communities whose interpretation of the world has thereby become so different. Greatly evocative, incredibly researched, a wonderful read.
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on 18 August 2007
Amitav Ghosh is an author par excellence...The Glass House and Hungry Tide (if one sees the BBC Documentary on Ganges, it would go hand in hand with Hungry Tide):his command and portrayal in English is simply superb. Whatever prompted him to go to Egypt and write this in depth historical portrayal alongwith an interesting account of Egyptian village life ..this would surely be interesting to know...This book needed time and one needed to be attentive..its certainly not the kind of absorbing reading as with Glass Palace or Hungry Tide....but was nevertheless interesting for me to take it on a long distance flight...this would appeal to anyone interested in the connections between Jewish History, India and Egypt...there was a thriving Jewish community in Kochi and Calcutta & I am sure there will be one once again as the face of Indian economy changes...but its certainly not a book for a short bus journey...
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on 24 October 2012
In the early 1980s Amitav Ghosh was living in rural Egypt, engaged in field world for his social anthropology doctorate. In this book Ghosh plaits together three different stories: that of his time living in two Egyptian villages, his return to the villages eight years later and the life of 12th century North African Jewish merchant Ben Yiju and his Indian `slave' (actually more of a business associate) Bomma. Ghosh discovered the Ben Yiju story by examining documents from the massive haul found in the Geniza (synagogue document repository) of the Palestinian synagogue in the Egyptian town of Fustat. The documents were acquired by Cambridge University, where Ghosh tracked them down.

Ghosh parallels his own sojourns in Egypt, the Malabar coast and return to Egypt, with those of Ben Yiju, who spent some twenty years in Mangalore, marrying a freed Indian slave, before returning to North Africa. Gradually pictures are built up of Egypt and India, ancient and modern. The fascinating revelations about Jewish life in medieval Egypt and the Maghreb , the close relationship between the Muslims and Jews, destroyed only in the last century, are intertwined with Ghosh's own story, a perception of Egyptian villagers through Indian eyes, and, even more interesting, their perception of the Indian catapulted into their midst. Some aspects of his culture were so alien to them that they sometimes seemed to view him as an ignorant refugee from a primitive country, rather than understanding the ignorance of their own unworldliness.

The documents Ghosh worked with provided the framework of Ben Yiju's existence. The meat was provided by Ghosh through painstaking research and logical supposition both in Egypt and in India. Most thought-provoking was his visit at the end of the book to the tomb of a Muslim saint, who, it transpired, was also a Jewish Rabbi. Certainly in the 1980s when Ghosh's visit took place, the tomb was attracting pilgrims from both the Muslim world and Israel, the latter contributing to a huge tourist industry built around the saint's annual festival. This, and the theme throughout the book of Jews and Muslims co-existing like brothers graphically demonstrated the tragedy of what has happened to this brotherhood in the last half century.

When I need inspiration, both as a reader and as a writer, I will dip into this book again and again.
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on 24 August 2015
A very interesting read which informs as well as entertains. However, on the main subject of the book the story is quite thin.
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on 6 September 2013
An excellent book with some interesting history woven into the narrative. The author is clearly an expert on the area.
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on 24 July 2013
Couldn't get into this at all . I hate not finishing a book , but this one beat me , I am afraid
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on 1 August 2015
not as gripping as other books he has written
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on 16 September 2008
What prompted Ghosh to write this? Well, very few people know that Amitav Ghosh is an anthropologist-- has a DPhil from Oxford University. he did fieldwork in Eqypt and wrote about Kinship....
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on 17 April 2015
Any book by Amitav Ghosh is a good read
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