In an Antique Land

by Amitav Ghosh
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Last Updated 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.

Summary

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 185

In an Antique Land is about the author’s journey to Egypt, which is inspired by finding the details of an Indian slave from the 12th century. The book details the people Ghosh met and the discussions he had with them. He holds various talks about the differences in religion and culture, stereotypes, and prejudice. For instance, Ghosh explains to a group of Muslim men about the Indian culture. During the discussion, one of the men tells him that Indians are perceived to be clever because they practice cremation to avoid judgment from Allah when the time comes. Moreover, the men are surprised that circumcision is not a Hindu practice.

The book has three different plots: that of Ghosh's stay in Egypt, the author's return back home, and the Indian slave and his master. Based on Ghosh’s research, the reader comes to know that the master of the slave was a merchant. He sent the slave to other countries and gave him money to trade. The author discovered these findings by analyzing manuscripts that were found in Fustat, Egypt and owned by Cambridge University.

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 interaction, and by sobering reality, as when young men leave the only home they have ever known for the dangers of life in Iraq, then trembling on the brink of war with the West.

Ghosh accomplishes his interweaving of past and present with remarkable skill and agility, and his account should please the general reader as well as those interested in Middle Eastern and Jewish history, or contemporary village life in one of the region’s most important nations. In the end, Ghosh realizes more than a passing resemblance to his 12th century countryman, and comes to appreciate and understand, to a greater degree, the lives of Lataifa and its people. The reader who follows Ghosh through the pages of IN AN ANTIQUE LAND takes the same journey, and it is a rewarding one indeed.

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