Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, Second Edition

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Internationally renowned Egyptologist Barbara Mertz transports us back thousands of years and immerses us in the sights and sounds of day-to-day life in a vanished desert culture.

Their civilization has inspired myriad films, books, pieces of art, myths, and dreams, and they built grand monuments that still stagger the imagination five thousand years later. But who were these people? Mertz ushers us into their homes, workplaces, temples, and ...

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Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

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Internationally renowned Egyptologist Barbara Mertz transports us back thousands of years and immerses us in the sights and sounds of day-to-day life in a vanished desert culture.

Their civilization has inspired myriad films, books, pieces of art, myths, and dreams, and they built grand monuments that still stagger the imagination five thousand years later. But who were these people? Mertz ushers us into their homes, workplaces, temples, and palaces to give us an intimate view of the everyday worlds of royals and commoners alike.

Displaying the unparalleled descriptive power, unerring eye for detail, keen insight, and trenchant wit that have made the novels she writes (as Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels) perennial New York Times best-sellers, Barbara Mertz brings a buried civilization to vivid life, taking us closer than ever before to the people of a great lost culture so different from—yet so surprisingly similar to—our own.

"One can only highly recommend the book." -- Natural History

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Editorial Reviews

Originally published in 1966 (Dell Pub.). This is a reprint of the 1978 revised edition. An engaging, scholarly description of Egyptian life. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061252754
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/24/2009
  • Edition description: Second
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 386,046
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Mertz is a New York Times bestselling author who writes the popular Amelia Peabody mystery series under the pen name Elizabeth Peters and romantic suspense novels as Barbara Michaels. She was born and brought up in Illinois and earned her Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago's famed Oriental Institute. Named Grand Master at the inaugural Anthony Awards in 1986 and Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America at the Edgar Awards in 1998, she lives in a historic farmhouse in western Maryland.

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Read an Excerpt

Red Land, Black Land
Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

Chapter One

People of the Two Lands

May she flow away—she who comes in the darkness,
Who enters in furtively
With her nose behind her, her face turned backward—
Failing in that for which she came!
Have you come to kiss this child?
I will not let you kiss him!
Have you come to harm him?
I will not let you harm him!
Have you come to take him away?
I will not let you take him away from me!

Kneeling on the bare earthen floor, the woman chants softly, lest she wake the child asleep in her arms. The little one-room hut is dark except for the dim red glow from the brazier, where the cooking fire still smolders. A last expiring flame leaps up and shows the crouching form more clearly: a slender brown girl with long black hair and darkeyes—eyes that dart glances half-defiant, half-apprehensive toward the door. It is closed and barred, but she can feel the dark pressing in—the dark from which "she with her face turned backward" may enter furtively, to steal the breath of the sleeping child.

I see this picture whenever I read the lines quoted above. They are singularly moving lines, even in translation; the original text was written several thousand years ago, in the ancient Egyptian language. Surely the night-demon is one of the most dreadful specters in the folklore of any people, with her head twisted about on her neck, and with the suggestion of melting shapelessness in the words "flow away." Like the old Scottish prayer against "ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night,"this Egyptian spell carries a hint of diabolic danger which is all the more terrifying for never being made explicit.

There is another point of similarity between the Scottish poem and the Egyptian one. We quote the first as a joke nowadays, laughing and pretending to look nervously over our shoulders; but like its Egyptian counterpart, it was neither a joke nor an exercise in literature for its own sake. It was a charm—a prayer, if you will—against the powers of evil. In both examples we have first a description of the threatening forces. Then the counterspell is recited. In the Egyptian example, defensive measures take the form of powerful denials, made more potent by mountingrepetition—"I will not let you kiss him! I will not let you harm him!"—and also by a recipe of magic herbs, which I have not quoted. In the Scottish prayer the invocation of defensive powers is simple—"Good Lord, deliver us."

Well, we mustn't press the comparison too far; it has no significance, except to show that many people, in many times and places, have been afraid of the dark and of that which may come out of the dark. What touches me most about this Egyptian prayer is that it is designed for the protection of children. There is no sphere of life in which man feels his vulnerability to the caprice of Fate more poignantly than in that which threatens his children; and at no time in his life is he more helpless than when he comes into it, naked and squalling. This book concerns itself with the daily life of the ancient Egyptians, so it is fitting that we should begin when the Egyptian began—at birth. Having pronounced the proper protective incantation, we may proceed to bring our fictitious baby into the world.


Once upon a time there was an Egyptian lady who attracted the interest of no less a personage than the great sun-god, Re. Perhaps the god's attentions were motivated not so much by the lady's charms as by his desire to produce three offspring who would eventually rule the land of Egypt. Yet the lady was only the wife of a humble priest of Re; his name was Rauser, and hers was Reddjetet, and . . . 

One day it happened that Reddjetet felt the pains of labor; and her labor was hard. So the majesty of Re said to Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Hekat, and Khnum, "Go on and deliver Reddjetet of the three children who are in her womb, and who will exercise the kingship in the entire land.

The informed reader will recognize in Isis and Nephthys two of the great goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon; they were the wife and sister of Osiris. Meskhenet was another goddess—a patroness of childbirth, appropriately enough. Khnum, the only male in the party, also had a role in creation. He was the potter who fashioned the bodies of newborn children, in clay, on his divine wheel. Heket assisted at the birth of the sun-god each morning, so she was a logical person to supervise the birth of his children.

The goddesses disguised themselves as dancing girls, with the lordly Khnum as their porter, and all five of them set out for the priest's house. They found the purported father- to-be in a pitiable state, which is described with concise eloquence by the Egyptian author: he was "sitting motionless, his clothing in disarray." To me, the priest is a most sympathetic character. Although he was desperately worried about his wife, he took the trouble to speak courteously to the itinerant entertainers: "You see, ladies, the mistress of the house is in labor; and her labor is hard." The dancing girls took up their cue. "Let us see her. We know how to facilitate a birth."

The father could not refuse the offer; Re, looking down from his golden boat, would see to that. Still, we have a feeling that it was a natural suggestion. The function of midwife was not a medical specialty. As in most pre-industrial societies, including that of medieval Europe, a woman in labor was probably attended by the other women in the house or the village, with a local "wise woman" on call in case the situation became complicated. Even a dancing girl might claim special skill in obstetrics, and the distracted husband's response is perfectly understandable. At that point he would have been willing to try anything and anybody. He gave the five divinities his permission, and they locked themselves up with the lady.

Red Land, Black Land
Daily Life in Ancient Egypt
. Copyright © by Barbara Mertz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Foreword to the First Edition     xi
Foreword to the Second Edition     xiii
Ancient Egyptian Chronology     xv
List of Black-and-White Illustrations     xix
The World of the Living
People of the Two Lands     3
Childbirth     6
The People in Art     9
The Problem of Queen Tiye     12
The People in Actuality     17
The Red and Black Lands     21
The Two Lands     21
Nubia and the Deserts     31
"Beloved of His Father and Mother"     39
Children     39
Household Pets     42
Growing Up     49
Lady of the House     58
The Egyptian Woman     58
The Queen     67
"Clothe Her Back"     76
Clothing     76
Coiffures     84
Jewelry and Cosmetics     88
"Come, Tell Me How You Live"     94
Towns and Houses     94
Furniture and Household Equipment     101
Food and Entertainment     107
"Be a Scribe, Put It in Thy Heart"     124
Education     124
Birds, Bees, and Flowers     128
The Hekanakhte Letters     140
The Scribe and the Bureaucracy     145
"I Fought Incredibly"     151
The Army     151
Forts and Fortifications     165
"I Know the Movement of a Figure, the Stride of a Woman"     168
Painting and Sculpture     168
Amarna Art     178
The Artist     188
The Architects     194
Sorcerer, Scientist, and Priest     202
Magic, Science, and Religion     202
Egyptian Magic     214
"The Useful Things That Are Established Forever"     220
Mathematics     220
Astronomy     224
How to Build a Pyramid     226
Boats     240
Medicine     245
"The God Is Satisfied with His Offerings"     259
The Official Religion     259
Temples and Rituals     278
The Contendings of Horus and Set     288
The Religion of the People     291
So Who Wants to Be an Ancient Egyptian?     294
The World of the Dead
"An Excellent, Equipped Spirit"     305
Attitudes Toward the Dead     305
Heaven and the Soul     312
"My Body Shall Be Enduring"     321
Mummification-General     321
Mummification-Egyptian     328
"A Goodly Burial in the Necropolis"     347
Tombs and Mortuary Temples     347
Sarcophagi, Coffins, and Other Bare Necessities     362
All the Comforts of Home     366
Funerary Ritual     370
"On That Day of Judging the Deficient"     377
Books of the Dead     377
The Last Judgment     383
Reading List     391
Sources of Quotations     395
Index     397
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2012


    At my school we learnd alot about Egypt. It was pretty fun. We did some projects to it. But we didn't get to do all of the projects. Our teacher was kind of angry beacause we did not learn much well. But it was not me. Our teacher meant everyone though.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2012

    Amelia Peabody

    If this type book is too studious for you read the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters, who is actually Barbara Mertz. You will find her fiction well written and you will have the benefit of all her knowledge of ancient Egypt. She is an Egyptoloogist and a scholar and you will fall in love with Amelia.

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    Posted February 11, 2012

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