Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

"Red Land, Black Land:
Daily Life in Ancient Egypt"
by Barbara Mertz
Peter Bedrick Books, 1966 original; revised/reprinted 1978 and 1990.
ISBN: 0-87226-222-7

One of my biggest disappointments getting into the Egyptological community (though, it can be safely said, there really may not be such a thing) was that a number of otherwise very good books went quickly out of date because of the pace at which we learn new things about Egypt; the second was the seeming lack of any females in the field. Barbara Mertz [2014 note: Dr. Mertz passed away in 2013] is one of the first female Egyptologists one comes across in the literature; some of you probably already know her without even having picked up a scholarly work through the Amelia Peabody mysteries she has written over the years under a pen-name. Mertz has two Egyptological books to her name, the abovementioned Red Land, Black Land and another called Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs. As I have yet to crack open the second, I will review the first.

Red Land, Black Land is engaging, thoughtful, and not a difficult read, even though it is as scholarly as the next Egyptological treatise. I believe Mertz went out of her way to make her subject, which was answering the question "how did the ancient Egyptians live?" engaging, and succeeded in doing so. She tells stories alongside her factual representations and fleshes out even the most enigmatic of topics as best known at the time of the writing.

I adore Mertz's matter-of-fact, sometimes tongue-in-cheek tone; to read a scholar commenting on the subject of the color of ancient Egyptian skin, for example, that "It doesn't really matter if Queen Ti was blond or black or spotted with purple polka dots" is refreshing, in a world where everyone trips over each other racing for the politically-correct position. Additionally, she is not afraid to admit to her own (and other Egyptologists') biases, and to remind the reader that "there is nothing more destructive of objective scholarship than a pet theory." While on the whole I find this book a wonderful addition to "beginner" or "mass market" audiences, I did find some trouble spots that a good editor and an updated version could easily remedy. The book was revised once in 1978, but the currently in print version is not updated from that point (so technically, the writing is nearly 20 years old). In addition to the new facts that could be gleaned from a re-edition, the book contains several easily-fixed factual errors, such as the reversed attributions of Heru (Horus) and Set to Upper and Lower Egypt; and a place in which Mertz refers to the Nubians as "Medjay" (correctly) on one page, yet two pages later states that the Medjay were of Libyan descent.

This is the sort of book that would really benefit from continuous update; and I think Mertz is well-established as a writer who could do it. The obvious answer to filling in the blanks left by this current outdated edition is to read more recent books in tandem with works like Red Land, Black Land, but people do not always look at the publication date on a book, or bother to read more than superficially, and this is a significant drawback. Read this book -- read books in its ample bibliography -- and add it to your knowledge along with books that are less than 20 years old. And then, you can sit back and hope, like I do, that further editions will be forthcoming.

- Rev. Tamara L. Siuda