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Thursday, August 30, 2018

THE B-LIST: Mystery, mysticism and mummies — uncovering adventure in the deserts of Egypt | The Times

THE B-LIST: Mystery, mysticism and mummies — uncovering adventure in the deserts of Egypt

From Indiana Jones to Lara Croft, Nathan Drake to Captain Nemo, you've just got to love a good adventure built around a treasure hunter.

And while the lost Incan cities of Peruvian jungles, Mexico's fabled Fountain of Youth and mountainous Chinese ruins make for memorable settings, there's one place known for magic treasure that never fails to fire the imagination: Egypt.

With its awe-inspiring pyramids full of mummified royalty and golden funerary treasure, vast pantheon of animal-headed gods and evocative hieroglyphs carved across tomb walls, Egypt has long been a favorite haunt for relic hunters, historians and thrill-seekers.

The ancient culture there inspired its own unique branch of archaeology: Egyptology. And from the sci-fi spin of "Stargate" to the classic action of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Egypt has proved that a desert land can be rich with fictional opportunities. Here are just a few of the best stories set there:

6. "THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC" (2010). Intrepid writer and lady adventurer Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin) eagerly sets men on fire, rides a pterodactyl, dons disguises to infiltrate a prison and resurrects mummies to cure her injured sister. Fair warning: this gonzo French adventure set in 1912 is a bizarre film, based on the unusual comic series by Jacques Tardi, and isn't to everyone's tastes. But it's great fun watching Adèle discover — then order around — the polite mummy Patmosis.

5. "THE ILLUSION OF MURDER" by Carol McCleary. Reporter Nellie Bly is in the middle of her journey around the world, trying to best the record of 80 days set by Jules Verne's hero, Phileas Fogg, when she stumbles onto murder in Egypt. McCleary takes a real world, historical heroine, plenty of authentic, turn-of-the-century atmosphere, and a dash of mysticism and intrigue to craft a compelling yarn that'll keep you up all night.

4. "THE MUMMY" (1959). Archaeologist John Banning (Sir Peter Cushing) must face off against the mummy Kharis (Sir Christopher Lee) that was awoken by his ill-fated father; complicating matters further, it turns out Banning's wife, Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux), is also the reincarnation of the Princess Ananka, Kharis' long-lost love. The Boris Karloff original may be lauded, but this Cushing/Lee version is vastly more entertaining; as Cushing's biggest fangirl I may be biased, but I urge everyone to give this take a chance.

3. "PYRAMIDS" by Sir Terry Pratchett. On the mystical Discworld, the desert country of Djelibeybi (pronounced "jelly baby") is ruled by powerful pharaohs with god-like powers. Things get sticky when the latest pharaoh dies and his son, Pteppic, returns from studying abroad at the Assassin's Guild to take the throne and finds the immortal advisor, Dios, standing in his way. Pyramid power leads to the country falling through time as the gods descend and the dead rise with all of the humor and pointed commentary you expect from comedic literary genius Pratchett. It's a laugh-out-loud ride from start to finish.

2. THE AMELIA PEABODY SERIES by Elizabeth Peters. The wildly outspoken and irrepressible Englishwoman Amelia Peabody always does what she wants, whether that's travel the world, supervise archaeological excavations, solve mysteries or romance the bad-tempered Egyptologist Radcliffe Emerson. Beginning in the Victorian age and ending just prior to WWII, the Peabody series covers a vast gamut of historical adventure, romance and criminality amidst Egyptian ruins. Peters (the pen name of Barbara Mertz, an accredited Egyptologist as well as a best-selling novelist) does a masterful job of lampooning cliches of the genre, never hesitating to make Peabody as ridiculous as she is heroic for the sake of entertainment.

1. "THE MUMMY" (1999). ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES, FOLKS. This is the gold standard of Egyptian-based adventure. It's the 1920s. Librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her wastrel brother Jonathan (John Hannah) uncover the lost city of Hamunaptra with the help of ex-soldier Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser). Our heroes join the warrior Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) to fight the mummy Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) as he unleashes the plagues of Egypt and tries to resurrect his love, Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez). The cast is phenomenal, the plot rousing and the dialogue wonderfully quotable. This is one of those "lightning in a bottle" perfect movies that delights from start to finish and is, unquestionably, a modern classic. I've seen this movie over a hundred times (no exaggeration) and it still makes me happy every time — talk about a timeless treasure.

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at

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