By Ernest Dempsey
New York Times bestselling author Barbara Mertz is a world famous Egyptologist. She is the author of several novels and a few nonfiction publications. Her latest book Temples,Tombs, and Hieroglyphs (HarperCollins, New York, 2007) gives a popular history of ancient Egypt with a scholarly commentary on the evolution of its cultural and sociopolitical climate.
Ernest Dempsey: Barbara, would you please tell us a little about your academic and writing background in brief?
Barbara Mertz: I received my doctorate in Egyptology from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago when I was twenty three. I have written articles for encyclopedias and journals and written two non-fiction books on the subject. My principal writing career has focused on mystery novels, particularly (under the name of Elizabeth Peters) a series featuring Amelia Peabody, a Victorian lady archaeologist, and her family, in which I use my background in Egyptology. I have also written suspense novels as Barbara Michaels.
E.D.: When we speak of history as ancient as you describe in Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, what exactly is our interest in knowing about times as old as that?
B.M.: No history, however remote, should be without interest in these days. History is about people and how they behave.
E.D.: What is so unique about Egypt that its study has become a whole wide field of knowledge in itself?
B.M.: Every culture is unique. However, Egypt has a special appeal because so much has survived from ancient times–the great pyramids, the golden treasures of Tutankhamon and other kings and queens, mummies, tombs, temples.
E.D.: Given that you are also a fiction writer, where do you draw the dividing line between fiction and history when writing of ancient events as those included in Temples, Tombs,and Hieroglyphs?
B.M.: The dividing line between fact and fiction is pretty clear, isn’t it? I stick to the facts even when writing fiction, but since there are differences of opinion about some areas of ancient history, I select the opinion that suits my plot.
E.D.: There has been a rooted tendency to credit a single place, particularly Egypt, as the origin of human civilization. Do you consider this way of thinking as fair or justified?
B.M.: I think it’s wrong, period. Civilization, no matter how you define it, arose in different parts of the world at different times.
E.D.: Your book discards certain myths about Egyptian civilization, like that of the supernatural construction of the Giza pyramid. But, as I have heard about it, some documentaries and popular history books do suggest, no matter how subtly, the impossibility of their human origin. How do you intellectually respond to such presentations?
B.M.: I cannot respond intellectually to the far out theories of supernatural or extraterrestrial influences on Egypt because the theories are themselves irrational. I say so, in my book and everywhere else. There is no evidence whatsoever for such ideas.
E.D.: Drawing on your study of the Egyptian heritage, do you find any skeptic minds, living in those times, who challenged the conventional and the orthodox?
B.M.: There are always, thank heaven, skeptics who challenge orthodox ideas. They are the great thinkers of all times. Egypt has several such individuals–the best known, perhaps, is the pharaoh Akhenaten, who abandoned the old polytheistic religion in favor of the worship of one god.
E.D.: How do you correlate myths in ancient Egypt and those encircling us today? Is there any causal connection?
B.M.: I am at somewhat of a loss to understand what you mean by current myths. Some people consider various religious ideas mythological; others would use the same word to refer to UFOs and psychic phenomena. The only causal connection between these and ancient Egyptian beliefs is the need of human beings to believe in something beyond the material, in survival after death, and in such abstract concepts as justice and mercy. They are, in my opinion, basic human qualities.
E.D.: What do you enjoy better: writing history or writing fiction?
B.M.: I like both, depending on the mood I happen to be in. Fiction is a lot easier to write, though.
E.D.: What is going to be your next book?
B.M.: The next book is a mystery (under the Elizabeth Peters pseudonym) featuring my heroine Vicky Bliss, who has appeared in several earlier novels. It is set in modern Egypt; the title is The Laughter of Dead Kings.
Read a review of Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs athttp://bookreviewpot.blogspot.com/2008/01/temples-tombs-hieroglyphs.html. ______________________________________________________________
Ernest Dempsey is the author of four published books. He is a freelance writer, editor, and citizen journalist. He currently edits the print quarterly Recovering the Self ( http://www.recoveringself.com/) issued from Michigan, USA.