River in the Desert

When Paul Roberts stood at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Cheops for the first time, he cried. The book he has written about his several visits to Egypt is encapsulated in that single encounter, for he makes uniquely personal what would ordinarily be the impersonal stuff of guidebooks. Roberts went on to climb Cheops’ pyramid that night, and bribed his guide to let him sleep in the inner chamber of another.

Roberts is a streetwise journalist who finds stories in every bazaar and cafe, many of them risque. But religion dominates everyday life in Egypt just as the pyramids and the Sphinx dominate its skyline, and it’s a theme Roberts doesn’t neglect. He manages to take part in a secret Sufi ceremony in Cairo (the Sufis are a mystical Islamic sect), and visits the ancient Christian monastery of St. Catherine’s in the wilderness of Sinai. (For what it’s worth, the Sufis earn his respect but the monks don’t.)

Roberts peppers his narrative with observations from other travelers, from Herodotus to Agatha Christie and Lawrence Durrell. The result is something like a palimpsest—a manuscript whose text has been partially scraped away to make room for a new one. Thus Egypt’s ancient past is constantly visible behind its teeming, lively present.

At almost four hundred pages, RIVER IN THE DESERT is longer than today’s average travel book, the result of Roberts’ including such generous dollops of history, geography, lore, and personal experience. He explains that he has tried to write the book he wishes he’d read before his first visit. Those of us coming after will profit from this worthy ambition.