Sunday, 7 June 2015

Luxor: Book of Past Lives by Julie Bettendorf – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up: 

‘Set against the rich tapestry of ancient Egypt, Luxor: Book of Past Lives is the story of Nebamun and Iramen, two brothers who are embalmers in Egypt during the era of the boy king, Tutankhamun. It is their duty to prepare the many bodies of the dead who land on their embalming table a journey into the afterlife. Paralleling this ancient tale is the story of two different brothers, Abdul and Karim, who make their living by robbing the ancient tombs of Egypt in the late 1800’s, when the theft and sale of artifacts was at its peak. Woven throughout the novel are the mysterious intersections of the brothers’ lives, though separated by thousands of years.’

Luxor: Book of Past Lives is a story that moves across two timelines – one covering a group of priests embalming dead bodies in ancient Egypt and the other being two brothers, Karim and Abdul robbing the tombs in the 19th century embalmed by these priests centuries ago.

The story constantly fluctuates between the two timelines, in one chapter; it’d start with the high priest Nebamun carrying out an embalming with his renegade brother Iramen and junior priest, Padi. The highlight of this timeline is that, it is the only book that I’ve read till date on ancient Egypt which covers the life of an Egyptian commoner rather than the royalty. Moreover, we all knew about the fact that the ancient Egyptians used the process of ‘mummification’ to preserve their dead but this book brought out the process very well and also brought out the life in the Egyptian society way back in their glory days, be it the domination of the royals or the authority of the bureaucracy in the rural areas.

The next chapter would immediately move to the 19th century, where the brothers are busy robbing tombs, Karim being the aggressive one whereas Abdul is scared of authority and is always worried about curses that’d affect them owing to their trade. They sell their loot to an enterprising antique seller named Rahmad who has reasonable knowledge on ancient Egypt and makes a lot of money by overcharging British tourists. Yet again, akin to the earlier timeline, here also, the lives of the poor in the Egyptian society of the 19th century and how over time, nobody in the society is really bothered about their history except for making monetary gains out of it.

On the whole, this was quite an enjoyable read, for a history enthusiast such as myself; with the process of embalming and the politics of ancient Egypt covered in such depth. The 19th century Egypt was equally enjoyable, bringing out the interests of foreign tourists in Egypt and the life that grave robbers led during those times (not as luxurious as what has been perceived, for sure). The writing was also quite simple, making it easy for anybody to read and not just linguistic enthusiasts. However, the only thing I’d say I was a little disappointed with, was that it being termed as ‘fiction’, the story during both the timelines didn’t have much role and it was in fact, a non-fiction book narrated through a story but then, I guess this is an effective way to reach out to all sorts of readers and I’m in no way suggesting that the story was boring.

To conclude, I’d say that I learnt a lot from this book and it was a good reading experience and I’m looking forward to more from the author on the subject, maybe on Hittites or the Sumerians or Babylonians. I’d give the book a rating of seven based on whatever I’ve stated so far. 

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,


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