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In an Antique Land

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  2,734 ratings  ·  249 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 1993)
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Marion McAllister I found this a difficult read. I was never quite sure whether it was fiction or biography. Maybe I need to read it again later. I only finished it as …moreI found this a difficult read. I was never quite sure whether it was fiction or biography. Maybe I need to read it again later. I only finished it as a matter of principle but I felt it was trying to teach me all the time and I struggled to get involved with the characters.(less)

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 ·  2,734 ratings  ·  249 reviews

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Jul 24, 2007 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
Mar 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
'In an Antique Land` is a remarkable book. I would say it is one of the best books by Ghosh. It is a story of Ghosh's research that takes him from England to various obscure places in Egypt. So what we see in the book is how he navigates these places, whom he meets, what sort of conversations he has and so forth. As a reader, I feel transplanted in the Egyptian countryside.

This part, which reads like a brilliant travelogue, is highly entertaining as well as informative especially in regard to c
Jan 15, 2013 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
Mar 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-club
I am personally giving it four stars because I am quite fond of books that give me insight into life in the Middle East or Asia, so I found it interesting. That being said, it was very difficult to follow. In addition, the thread involving Ben Yiju and his "slave" was not nearly as central to the book as the reviews led me to believe. It felt more like a book of loosely related short stories than a narrative. Nonetheless, I liked it, but I wouldn't really recommend it to most people.
Irene Black
Oct 24, 2012 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 17, 2016 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
A Man Called Ove
Jun 09, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, travelogue
While this is a good account of the author's stays in Egypt in the 1980s,
A) It is not exceptional as an account
B) The link with the medieval Jew and his slave seems a forced one.
I am a little wary when i pick a book by Amitav Ghosh. 50 shades of ratings, from the incomprehensible Circle of Reason to the mindblowing Sea of Poppies and everything in between, u dont know what u will get. But, may avoid reading his non-fiction.
Sep 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a very touching travelogue of the time that Ghosh spent living in a small Egyptian village on the cusp of modernity during the early 1980s, as well as his return there at the end of that decade. There is also a parallel narrative based on a historical Arab Jewish trader whose life he tries to piece together, but I found this less compelling. If it can be appropriate to describe a book as being warm and kind, those would be the most apt words to describe this one. The villagers that Ghosh ...more
Anil Swarup
Jan 20, 2014 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
Nov 01, 2010 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
Aug 23, 2007 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.
Jan 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Beautiful. I fell in love with this novel, it's soft narration, quaint characters, and rich intricate history <3 ...more
Fazackerly Toast
Jan 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, history
I suppose the reasons Ghosh is so much better than Katherine Boo at imparting reality to the people he portrays in this book is that first of all, he's a novelist, so he knows how to breathe life into characters, secondly, that he learned Arabic and lived with the people he speaks of over an extended period of time, and finally, that he really liked and cared for these people, as they evidently did for him. You get a sense of the warmth and engagement that he as a person must give out, which bri ...more
Nov 08, 2013 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
Nov 19, 2013 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
I feel very emotionally attached to the story of Bomma and Ben Yiju. Is that normal? But I can't help but adore how Ghosh thinks of them, in a way that feels very reminiscent of me imaging my own fictional character (and historical figures). This was very interesting, even though I am definitely not connecting it completely. But then again, I read this for my Indian Ocean history class. RTC.
May 11, 2007 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 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
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
Oct 06, 2015 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
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
Aug 06, 2010 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
May 04, 2014 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
Mar 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Sometimes you finish a book and your first thought is, “What else did this guy write? I want to put him on my reading list.” This is an unclassifiable book, part autobiography, part cultural study, part history, and it all fits together surprisingly well. While working on his doctorate in anthropology in the early 1980s, Amitav Ghosh moved to rural Egypt to learn the regional dialect of spoken Arabic. He lived in small villages and immersed himself in the language, culture, and history of the ar ...more
Part of my present work for my local library is weeding the collection. I am well prepared for this work – I helped weed my junior high library in the late 1960’s. Very few library staff members like weeding because there is always a favorite item that no one loves but us. My prime example is Hitty, her first hundred years by Rachel Field. I loved that book and when I saw it on the sale shelf many years ago, I was very sad. However, that book is 88 years old, there isn’t much to recommend it to ...more
Dec 10, 2012 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 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
Mar 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-i-own, mena
Interesting ethnographic research and description of life in an Egyptian village in the eighties. I've often wondered what it's like to be a Hindu/ none Abrahamic adherent traveling in smalltown Mideast. Yep, lots of awkward questions about cows and people gasping and reciting protective prayers when they heard about the "terrifying horrifying" things they do in al-Hind, like burning widows. But I find the Arab villages thrive on gossip and dramatic hearsay about the outside world rather endeari ...more
Feb 13, 2011 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
Roshni Kanchan
Mar 15, 2015 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
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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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47 likes · 12 comments
“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.”
“Ana (it is I)” 2 likes
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