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In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler's Tale

3.81  ·  Rating Details ·  2,087 Ratings  ·  174 Reviews
Once upon a time an Indian writer named Amitav Ghosh set out to find an Indian slave, name unknown, who some seven hundred years before had traveled to the Middle East. The journey took him to a small village in Egypt, where medieval customs coexist with twentieth-century desires and discontents. But even as Ghosh sought to re-create the life of his Indian predecessor, he ...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published March 29th 1994 by Vintage (first published 1992)
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Aug 05, 2007 Naeem rated it it was amazing
I would rate this book as perhaps the most important book I have read in my life. Top five or 10 at least.

Not least because it creates a new genre -- we have yet to give it a name. But most importantly it struggles to arrive at how "temporal displacement" is not merely some theoretical device invented by tenuring academics, but rather something that everyday people in the 3rd world actually feel and experience.

Not least because it demonstrates the power of the archive; the ability of the West
Jul 26, 2014 Greg rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I bought In An Antique Land from a small bookshop in Mussoorie, a lovely town in Northern India. I read it while travelling in Northern India Dec 2012-Jan 2013. I love this magical book. The story is like nothing I've read before. A mix of antiquity, the interaction of several faiths and contemporary travels and the author researching records of a 12th century slave. Amitav Ghosh is an extraordinarily gifted writer.
One gets to know the slave and his master, who is a merchant. The slave is entrus
Irene Black
Oct 24, 2012 Irene Black rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In the early 1980s Amitav Ghosh was living in rural Egypt, engaged in field world for his social anthropology doctorate. In this book Ghosh plaits together three different stories: that of his time living in two Egyptian villages, his return to the villages eight years later and the life of 12th century North African Jewish merchant Ben Yiju and his Indian `slave' (actually more of a business associate) Bomma. Ghosh discovered the Ben Yiju story by examining documents from the massive haul found ...more
Aug 26, 2016 Anny rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel
I actually didn't care much for the history part (the slaves and all), what I enjoy the most in this book was the part where the author recounted his stay in Egypt. It sure was terribly awkward (and amusing, to me) to be a Hindu Indian in a rural Muslim village.

Do you burn your dead in India? (villagers recoil from you with horror)

Do the Indians not circumcise themselves? (villagers looking at you strangely)

Do you really worship cows in India? (villagers laughing at you)

Imagine having to deal w
Anil Swarup
Jan 22, 2014 Anil Swarup rated it liked it
No where near the best from Amitav, yet eminently readable because the immaculate research and the prose so typical of him. He is one of the few who can come up with subtly remarkable criticism of the west: " Unable to compete in the Indian Ocean trade by purely commercial means, the Europeans were bent on taking control of it by aggression, pure and distilled, by unleashing violence on a scale unprecedented on those shores". He goes on to state further: " the determination of a small, united ba ...more
Sep 15, 2007 Jeanne rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: People interested in history and the politics of religion
A complex, layered novel steeped in etymology and irony. Based on the experiences of anthropologist Amitav Ghosh while he studied in a hamlet in Egypt. Woven into those modern experiences are stories of the medieval composition of the Holy Land. Really worth reading. Elegantly written.
To get the most of this book, don't be afraid to wiki references (Galen, Maimonides) for a historical context and also it's good to have a pretty decent working knowledge of Muslim and Hindi culture.
Nov 08, 2010 Jeff rated it really liked it
This turned out to be a really lovely book. I couldn't make up my mind about it for the first 100 pages or so, because although the narrator provides some interesting cultural anecdotes about the small towns in Egypt where he was living, he doesn't insert himself into the narrative in a way that becomes productive or reflective for the reader.

That changes about half-way through the book, however, when he begins to push back from becoming a stereotyped expatriate, and describes an incredibly vivi
Jan 19, 2016 Alliyah rated it it was amazing
Beautiful. I fell in love with this novel, it's soft narration, quaint characters, and rich intricate history <3
Abhinav Jaganathan
In an Antique land for me was a very different experience...It was the first time I read a journal/memoir kind of non fictional account of an author's travels. I started out expecting some really good medeival tales from Ben Yiju and the slave but it was Ghosh's own experiences in Egypt that proved more intriguing and better to me. This is my first Amitav Ghosh book and I really didn't know it was non fiction until I was 30 pages into it. By then I found it really informative and I thought what ...more
May 23, 2015 Marcy rated it it was ok
I found this book rather underwhelming. I was keen to really learn a great deal about the relationship among the countries that enjoyed centuries of trade across the Indian ocean, especially modern-day India, Yemen, and Egypt. The movement back and forth between Ghosh's travels in Egypt and the historical material he found from the Cairo Geniza was quite intriguing and I was willing to overlook the fact that these two parts of his story were quite disjointed. I kept expecting them to be tied tog ...more
Dec 15, 2013 Ahmed rated it it was amazing
Shelves: got-from-library
Amitav Ghosh is essayist and blogger as well as novelist, and it was the sheer pleasure from some of his essays and blog posts that induced me to take on one of his novels.

Of his work this book appealed to me most, due to half-remembered reviews describing it as a melange of genres, of nationalities, of languages, cultures, professions, and eras. And because Ghosh in "Confessions of a Xenophile" says his time in Egypt was "my equivalent of writing school. While living in [the governorate of] Beh
I think and talk about this book a lot. I listened to it on CD, and think it would have been better for me to have read it - there are numerous names that all mushed together for me (like in a Russian novel) that would have been easier if I had visual clues.

There are several stories. First, the story of the author, an Indian(actually a Bengali) and a Hindu, living in a very small, rural Egyptian village. I never quite figured out what exactly he was doing there other than that he was an anthro
Mai Tarraf
Oct 06, 2015 Mai Tarraf rated it really liked it
Firstly when I start in reading I was so feared because this is the first time to read in English so I fear to misunderstand or don't get the main idea for this novel ,so I began it in slowly steps but suddenly I felt in love with this novel I really appreciate this kind of travelers novel I think it have a lot of information , knowledge ,experience, history ,tradition and excitement.
Amitav have the ability to draw exact images by words ,while you read you can hear the voices of speaker and watc
Aug 12, 2010 Gabrielle rated it really liked it
Shelves: moorish-spain
Ghosh has a fantastically open and honest voice. A wonderful interweaving of past and present. This is how I like my history written. Medieval Islamic culture, India and Her trade with Egypt and Arabia, the Jewish diaspora and a discovery of medieval documents in a synagogue in the Old Town in Cairo and our modern fracture lines... the The common thread here, and common, I may add to most contemporary Indian writers with good reason, is the shifting and surprisingly amorphous boundaries between ...more
Feb 10, 2014 Joel rated it it was ok
An interesting weave of non-fiction and fiction. I liked the Egyptian history and hearing stories about their fellaheen customs. Many of the Ben Yiju and his slave sub-stories were long winded accounts of trivial interactions that, most of the time, didn't really add anything to the more interesting central story of "ya Doktor" traveling about the small villages of Egypt as an outsider. Overall, the Ben Yiju sub-plot added to the past-meets-present theme of the book, but it almost had a Biblical ...more
Feb 15, 2009 James rated it liked it
This had a lot of promise, but didn't really live up to it. It's a parallel history of a Middle Eastern Jew and his slave from the 12th century, alongside Ghosh's own experience in 1970s/80s Egypt. The point was to provide a kind of contrapuntal narrative, but I never felt like they cohered very well. I also thought it degenerated into a pretty traditional tale of "The Middle East was a place of wonder and cultural dialogue and peace before the West came and ruined everything." His own narrative ...more
Aug 17, 2015 Humza rated it it was ok
Intensely boring. The novelty of mixing historical writing with personal narrative was not enough to save this book from being just plain uninteresting. A better example of this unique genre would be Maria Rosa Menocal's "Ornament of the World" where she deftly combines historical vignettes with research. Unfortunately, Ghosh's memoirs were largely unrelated to his own work. Truly a shame because his research on the Indian slave of a Jewish Egyptian merchant held great promise initially but even ...more
Roshni Kanchan
Mar 27, 2015 Roshni Kanchan rated it it was ok
Read this author for the first time. Most probably last time too.

The book has 3 streams:

1) The authors diary - the people of the village where he is staying, their customs, beliefs, his conversations, etc. This is the most enjoyable part.

2) The story of a slave and his master which the author is researching. Till the end I was not quite sure why it is even there.

3) Background info of places, rituals etc. I realized at the end that this is simply an fyi to the reader from the author. Only for add
Feb 13, 2011 Audra rated it really liked it
4 star? 5 star? It's a book I'm happy, happy reading and want to keep for years. Ghosh uses his notes from a year (1980) doing research in Egypt and living in a small village to create a vivid story of people, place, connections/disconnections between Egypt and India, in both the late 20th and mid-12th centuries. Plus, in these days of hopeful unrest in Egypt, it gives a glimpse of some changes going on 30 years ago that make the present seem almost inevitable. (The more Ghosh I read, the more a ...more
Dec 09, 2015 Emmeviene rated it really liked it
This book makes you long for a time when the world had no definite demarcations as it is today - when people and cultures seem to merge and flow and where links between past and future seem to blur. Loved every minute of reading it despite taking me months to finally finish it. (Life took over, what can I say...)
Dec 05, 2007 Malini rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Rebekka Istrail
This is a book about the fragments in the present that link back to a rich interwoven world of so many years ago. A great book that goes far beyond the stereotypes about Judaism, Islam, and India.
Sushil Subramanian
I came across this book when it was mentioned by Prof. Vinay Lal of UCLA in his “History of British India” podcast (, at the point when he was briefly discussing early attempts of the Portuguese to control the Arabian Sea trade network and subsequently colonize Malabar. Prof. Lal has himself written a wonderful review of the book, which is accessible on his website here:

The book, in essence, consists of two narra
Hassan Saleh
Dec 31, 2016 Hassan Saleh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
تيه، فترقب، فاستمتاع.
كانت تلك مراحل قرائتى لرواية الكاتب الهندى آميتاف جوش "فى البلاد العتيقة".
كان الأمر غريبًا بالنسبة لي فى البداية، المخطوطة اتش 6 وقصة العبد اليهودى المصاحب لأحد التجار اليهود والذى عاش فى القرن الثانى من الالفية الثانية، فى البداية لم أدر ما إذا كانت تلك قصة خيالية أم حقيقية، خاصة بعدما حاولت البحث عن قصة العبد اليهودى تلك والمخطوطة المذكورة ولم أجد شيئا يذكر، وهنا تمثل التيه.
مع الوقت بدأت تتضح معالم الرواية والمزج التاريخى بين حضارتين متشابهتين كان التاجر إبراهام بن ييجو ه
Maggie Ferguson
Nov 10, 2016 Maggie Ferguson rated it it was amazing
"...the footage of the epic exodus: thousands and thousands of men, some in trousers, some in jallabeyyas, some carrying ....stretching all the way from the horizon to the Rd Sea, standing on the beach as though waiting for the water to part." (353)
"shamefully anachronistic, a warp upon time; I understood . . . those houses and ploughs, were insubstantial things, ghosts displaced in time, waiting to be exorcized and laid to rest." (201)
"You have brought the light." "The light is yours." 191
Vinay Kumar
Nov 03, 2016 Vinay Kumar rated it it was amazing
amongst 5 star books some are good, some better and rest best, this lies in best category. the intertwined stories of 1990 and 1130 about India and Egypt are simply amazing.
Jan 06, 2017 Nancy rated it it was amazing
for making the real and anthropological feel almost surreal.
Jim Leffert
Feb 08, 2015 Jim Leffert rated it it was amazing
I’m impressed! In 1981, Ghosh was a bright young man from India who studied at Oxford. For his dissertation in anthropology he moved to a backwater village in northern Egypt and spent hours hanging out with and befriending a variety of people, including simple fellahin, young students, and village elders, immersing himself in the village culture and sympathetically connecting with the peoples’ struggles.

As related here, Ghosh also engaged in an esoteric research project that required him to lea
Sairam Krishnan
Friends have been constantly telling me to read Amitav Ghosh, as his tales about lands and people and the great journeys of South Asian history are the very stories I've always been interested in. And so here I'm.

In an Antique Land has a premise that will hook any reader interested in the spirit of place. Ghosh relates to us his experiences as a young anthropologist in rural Egypt, and sets it against the life of a Jew merchant from Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia) and his Tulu slave, about whom we onl
Oct 24, 2010 Mustafa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In In an Antique Land, Amitav Ghosh intertwines the story of the life of medieval Jewish trader, Abraham Ben Yiju, with an account of his own journeyings as an anthropology student in a rural Egyptian community in the early 1980s.

The tale of Ben Yiju’s life is painstakingly pieced together by Ghosh from fragments of letters ‘discovered’ by Western scholars in a Cairo synagogue in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the stories of the agricultural communities of Lataifa and Nashawy, where
Irene Black
Oct 24, 2012 Irene Black rated it it was amazing
In the early 1980s Amitav Ghosh was living in rural Egypt, engaged in field world for his social anthropology doctorate. In this book Ghosh plaits together three different stories: that of his time living in two Egyptian villages, his return to the villages eight years later and the life of 12th century North African Jewish merchant Ben Yiju and his Indian `slave' (actually more of a business associate) Bomma. Ghosh discovered the Ben Yiju story by examining documents from the massive haul found ...more
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Amitav Ghosh is one of India's best-known writers. His books include The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In An Antique Land, Dancing in Cambodia, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, Incendiary Circumstances, The Hungry Tide. His most recent novel, Sea of Poppies, is the first volume of the Ibis Trilogy.

Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta in 1956. He studied in Dehra Dun, New Delhi, Alexan
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“A bare two years after Vasco da Gama’s voyage a Portuguese fleet led by Pedro Alvarez Cabral arrived on the Malabar coast. Cabral delivered a letter from the king of Portugal to the Samudri (Samudra-raja or Sea-king), the Hindu ruler of the city-state of Calicut, demanding that he expel all Muslims from his kingdom as they were enemies of the ‘Holy Faith’. He met with a blank refusal; then afterwards the Samudra steadfastly maintained that Calicut had always been open to everyone who wished to trade there…

During those early years the people who had traditionally participated in the Indian Ocean trade were taken completely by surprise. In all the centuries in which it had flourished and grown, no state or kings or ruling power had ever before tried to gain control of the Indian Ocean trade by force of arms. The territorial and dynastic ambitions that were pursued with such determination on land were generally not allowed to spill over into the sea.

Within the Western historiographical record the unarmed character of the Indian Ocean trade is often represented as a lack, or failure, one that invited the intervention of Europe, with its increasing proficiency in war. When a defeat is as complete as was that of the trading cultures of the Indian Ocean, it is hard to allow the vanquished the dignity of nuances of choice and preference. Yet it is worth allowing for the possibility that the peaceful traditions of the oceanic trade may have been, in a quiet and inarticulate way, the product of a rare cultural choice — one that may have owed a great deal to the pacifist customs and beliefs of the Gujarati Jains and Vanias who played such an important part in it. At the time, at least one European was moved to bewilderment by the unfamiliar mores of the region; a response more honest perhaps than the trust in historical inevitability that has supplanted it since. ‘The heathen [of Gujarat]’, wrote Tomé Pires, early in the sixteenth century, ‘held that they must never kill anyone, nor must they have armed men in their company. If they were captured and [their captors] wanted to kill them all, they did not resist. This is the Gujarat law among the heathen.’

It was because of those singular traditions, perhaps, that the rulers of the Indian Ocean ports were utterly confounded by the demands and actions of the Portuguese. Having long been accustomed to the tradesmen’s rules of bargaining and compromise they tried time and time again to reach an understanding with the Europeans — only to discover, as one historian has put it, that the choice was ‘between resistance and submission; co-operation was not offered.’ Unable to compete in the Indian Ocean trade by purely commercial means, the Europeans were bent on taking control of it by aggression, pure and distilled, by unleashing violence on a scale unprecedented on those shores.”
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