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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 229

In An Antique Land is essentially an autobiographical account of Indian social anthropologist Amitav Ghosh's quest to discover scarce and exceptional pieces of Egyptian history, including letters, archives, artifacts, fossils and other remnants. The New York Times calls it "a hybrid of history, cultural investigation and travelogue."

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The impetus of Ghosh's journey comes from receipt of a cash endowment meant to help him pursue a doctorate degree. While at first he seems confounded on what area to study, happenstance brings him across the writings of a 12th century Hebrew businessman, which inspire him. It seems the businessman has not only knowledge of Egyptian society but also that of India, where he had spent a substantial amount of time.

As Ghosh delves into his research, he also provides details and anecdotes about life in an impoverished Egyptian village where he learns about Middle Eastern customs, deciphers ancient texts, and interacts with many locals—some of whom question his religious beliefs and others who grill him about India's cultures and practices.

Over time, Ghosh becomes quite the exceptional travel writer. He ends his book by returning to Egypt seven years after leaving to see how the people and places have changed, especially due to international events like the Iraq/Iran War. He makes social observations and connections linking his anthropological research to his eyewitness accounts of the area in modern times.

In an Antique Land

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

The past, as the English novelist L.P. Hartley once observed, “is another country. They do things differently there.” How much more different must the past appear when it is sited literally in another country, especially such a country as Egypt, where the past intrudes so insistently into the contemporary world, and where everyday life is a wondrous amalgam of successive civilizations and both their glories and discontents. Such is the underlying motif of IN AN ANTIQUE LAND, Amitav Ghosh’s fascinating study which blends a historical detective story with his own experiences as a young Indian graduate student in the small Egyptian village of Lataifa, a few miles (and several centuries) outside the city of Alexandria.

In the 1980’s, while enrolled as a graduate student in cultural anthropology at the University of Alexandria, Ghosh learned of the discovery in a Cairo synagogue of a cache of ancient manuscripts, some of them dating from the 12th century AD. The collection included letters from a Jewish trader who owned an Indian slave—a fact both intriguing and unsettling. Ghosh became first interested, then obsessed, with this minor historical mystery, and in his search for answers found himself drawn into the daily lives of two other outsiders, the Jewish merchant and his Indian slave in medieval Muslim Egypt. At the same time, and with equal mixture of mystery and fascination, Ghosh attempts to understand, and be understood by, the residents of Lataifa, who remain, in many ways, inhabitants of that other country, the past.

Ghosh, author of two respected novels, CIRCLE OF REASON and THE SHADOW LINES, writes with grace, lucidity, and clear-eyed perception. His Lataifa is a real place, whose residents are all individuals and who are portrayed, regardless of their status or character, not with condescension but with a high degree of respect and even affection. His growing acceptance into village life is marked by unexpected bursts of humor, much of it provided by the misunderstandings that occurs at the edges of cultural...

(The entire section contains 882 words.)

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