remembering barbara mertz


Ancient Egypt

Happy Birthday Dear Barbara


Today would have been Barbara’s 88th birthday …. not quite the triple-digit 111th birthday that Bilbo reached, but a double-digit worth commemorating nonetheless.  In honor of the occasion, we’re posting some pictures from Barbara’s 80th birthday, which she celebrated at her beloved Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.  As you can see, she was enjoying herself immensely!

Her friends brought out copies of her MA and PhD theses …. and no one will be surprised to learn that her dissertation dealt with some of the notable women in ancient Egypt.  AND there was chocolate cake. (We won’t apologize for repeating the picture of the cake, as we share Barbara’s philosophy that one can never have too much of a good thing like chocolate….)

Happy birthday to someone we’re missing — but who would tell us to keep going in style!


Sir E A Wallis Budge’s cat Mike (thanks to the Joys)

Emerson: It may even be a perverse joke perpetrated by a modern tourist or by one of my professional enemies.  Some of those fellows — I name no names, Peabody, but you know to whom I refer– would like nothing better than to see me make a fool of myself over a bundle of sticks or a dead sheep.  Wallis Budge —

Amelia: “Yes, my dear,” I said soothingly.  When Emerson gets on the subject of his professional rivals, especially Wallis Budge, the keeper of Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum, it is necessary to cut him short.  SEEING A LARGE CAT


To round up our discussion of cats this month — courtesy of the fabulous Joy collection — we’re delighted to share with you the story of Mike.  William Joy wonders whether Amelia might have softened on Budge had she known of his abiding attachment to the British Museum cat?  In this pamphlet MPM-Joy-Mike the Cat (1) Budge details Mike’s mysterious arrival at the British Museum in the mouth of Black Jack, and his subsequent long career there — ending when Mike was almost 20 years old.  Apparently the British Museum house cats trained Mike to catch (but not kill) pigeons: The pigeons were taken into a little side room, and after they had eaten some maize and drunk water, they flew out of the window none the worse for their handling by the cats.

NOTE TO SALIMA IKRAM:  Mike attached himself to the Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities because of the care which that official bestowed on the mummies of Egyptian cats.

Mike also eventually developed the habit of chasing dogs out of the Courtyard of the Museum — The dogs that laughed at policemen and gatekeepers fled in terror before the attack of Mike, who, swelling himself to twice his normal size, hurled himself on them. 

As Mike aged, he received the royal treatment: He preferred sole to whiting, and whiting to haddock, and sardines to herrings; for cod he had no use whatever.

In what Budge describes as “the most excellent Memorial Poem on Mike,” F.C.W. Hiley, M.A., Assistant Keeper in the Department of Printed Books, details Mike’s disdain for pats or handling by most people: And if perchance some forward minx/ Dared to go up and stroke the Sphinx — / Her hand shot back, all marked with scores / From the offended Michael’s claws ….BUT he laid aside his anti-human grudge for Budge: Each morn Sir Ernest, without qualms / Would take up Michael in his arms.

Now the pamphlet does tell us that Mike especially disliked the pokings in his ribs which ladies bestowed upon him with their parasols — but then Amelia would totally know better than to treat a cat that way.

Great ending to the poem includes:  Old Mike! Farewell! We all regret you /  Although you would not let us pet you

So, would this have softened Amelia? (realizing that nothing would have softened Emerson!) ….  well, knowing how she felt about the smuggling of antiquities, and her dire suspicions of Budge — it’s hard to say!

12th Dynasty to 20th Century…did someone pounce on the birds…?

Just to follow up on the Gandalf post commentary on the scenes, here are the two side-by-side….  the panel to the left in Barbara’s tiles are indeed Amarna — ish, as some have pointed out…. but not a copy of anything particular.

MPM-Birds in the Acacia bush, tomb of Khnumhotep III, Beni Hassan, ca. 1878 BC IMG_8054

What’s on Your Bookshelf? “Amelia Edwards!”


In response to our post about bookshelves — and the challenge issued by Bookshelf Battles — we are getting some interesting messages from fans of MPM (aka Barbara).  From two faithful fans and readers comes this interesting entry:  a picture of Amelia B. Edwards (an early explorer in Egypt) resting on a bookshelf that has some of her books and letters.  Like Barbara, and her heroine Amelia Peabody, Amelia B. Edwards fell in love with the art and history of ancient Egypt, and became very involved in preservation efforts.  Less known about Edwards was her mystery-writer career, for as William Joy explains, in addition to her travel writings and Egyptological works, she was also a musician, artist, newspaper journalist, poet, short story writer (ghost stories and mysteries!), a novelist, and also a contributor to a children’s book recently discovered, which had been absent from her bibliographies.

The Edwards items on this shelf come from the Egyptology Library of Peggy Joy, a Michigan native and ardent amateur Egyptologist. According to her son William who has been assembling the library: “It’s a continual work in progress, but Amelia B. Edwards has always been a subject of very special interest, and is well represented.” Amelia’s first important travel book (and which served as a model for her later work on Egypt) was: Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys: A Midsummer Ramble in the Dolomites, first issued in 1873; it can be seen on the far right in the bookshelf picture, with a green binding. To its left are a pair of second editions with variant color bindings (typical for Amelia’s books in 1890, when these were issued). Amelia’s magnum opus: A Thousand Miles Up The Nile, which recounted her time in Egypt in 1873–74, was first issued in 1877 (a copy can be seen on the far left). When the second edition appeared (at the same time as the second issue of Untrodden Peaks…), the bindings for both titles were elaborately decorated using the author’s own illustrations; one such copy of A Thousand Miles… can be seen second from left in the picture. To the right of this is a slender volume entitled: The Queen of Egyptology, an early biography of Amelia by the American William Winslow, from 1892. In the foreground, an 1880 letter (hand-written by Amelia) describes her enthusiasm and happiness over the success of what would prove to be her final, but most successful novel: Lord Brackenbury . By the beginning of the next year (and for the remainder of her life), Amelia’s entire attention focused on nothing but ancient Egypt, thus ending her career as a fiction writer. In the winter of 1889–90, Amelia made a tour of American cities, where she lectured on ancient Egyptian subjects. These were subsequently reproduced in print form in Pharaohs, Fellahs and Explorers, a first edition of which can be seen in the middle of the picture.

The portrait of Amelia on the shelf also comes from the time of her American tour. It was taken as soon as she arrived in the United States, at the beginning of November, 1889 (– and notice that she’s wearing her fur-lined coat to ward off New York’s cold winter air!)  This portrait was made by the photographer Napoleon Sarony, one of New York City’s more notable eccentrics, and a great friend of the American author Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”), who subsequently became something of a “groupie” for Amelia, following her from town to town, and treating her to dinners. Clemens had a great interest in Egypt, and published his own travel book recounting his time in the Near East: Innocents Abroad, which proved to be the best selling of all his books, during his lifetime.   (Barbara was a huge fan of Twain, and was known to cite Innocents Abroad  especially when in the company of those of us she suspected had not read it despite her many hints that we should…..)

Below are pics of: (1) Barbara’s own Amelia B. Edwards display with photo and letter; (2) An Edwards “signatures photo” from the Joy collection; and (3) Peggy Joy enjoying her Egyptology library:


The Egyptology Library for his moMpm-Peggy-Joyther is the second William Joy has assembled — here’s an interview with him about  the first (a library of general history, literature and art). In this photo Mrs. Joy is examining one of the enormous pages from the famed French publication Description de l’Égypte (1809–29). Her copy once belonged to Egypt’s King Farouk; a circular purple ink stamp in the middle of the right margin reads (translated from Arabic): “From the library of the office of His Excellency the King.” Books on the shelves behind her include Gaston Maspero’s voluminous History of Egypt, atop which rests a first edition of Dr. Thomas Young’s An Account of Some Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphical Literature (1823). Also visible are the first two volumes of a vellum-bound set of Herodotus, as translated by George Rawlinson (with assistance from the Egyptologist Sir John Gardner Wilkinson). Other sets in the picture include Rollin’s The Ancient History of the Egyptians… and the first complete English translation of Bourrienne’s important, if controversial: The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The signatures photo shows examples of the characteristically flamboyant flourish Amelia enjoyed placing below her name. The earliest above (1855) is from a presentation copy of her very first novel My Brother’s Wife, inscribed: “To my dear Aunts Maria & Bessie, from their affectionate niece, Amelia B. Edwards.” The closing of a letter to the English theatrical impresario John Hollingshead, manager of the enormously popular “Gaiety Theatre,” in London’s West End (where Charles Dickens would watch plays; he was also an early and eager supporter of Amelia B. Edwards, and published many of her stories) is from 1877. (Mr. Hollingshead was actually the person who introduced Gilbert and Sullivan to each other…!) The latest of the signatures appears on the back of one of Amelia’s photographs, signed for a fan in Boston, at the end of her American tour, in 1890.

How many people really fit on a dahabeeyah?

…speaking of ON THE NILE, IN STYLE, readers may remember that Amelia’s  favorite way of traveling the Nile was … in a dahabeeyah (or, if you prefer, a dahabeah, dahabiah, dahabiya, dahabiyahdhahabiyya, dahabiyeh or dahabieh) ….

“On my first trip to Egypt I had traveled by dahabeeyah.  The elegance and charm of that mode of travel can only be dimly imagined by those who have not experienced it.”  Amelia, in The Curse of the Pharaohs

The attached pictures show Barbara enjoying a dahabeeyah trip in 2003 (thanks to Ray Johnson!) — along with an antique photograph of a dahabeeyah courtesy of William Joy and his mother, from their extensive collection.  William reports that the photo was made on the Nile, around 1875 — and that several Egyptologists looking at it have wondered whether a shadowy woman who appears in the picture might be Amelia Edwards (the daring woman after whom Amelia Peabody was named)…..   Could that be a parasol in her hand…..???

Looking at these pictures, some of us have wondered …. really, how many people could travel together on a dahabeeyah???  (And how friendly would they have to be with one another????)




A drink on the Nile is a drink in style!

Barbara's martini glass collection (No, they were never all in use at the same time!)
Barbara’s martini glass collection (No, they were never all in use at the same time!)                    photos of lotus/lily pond, garden, and home interior by Summer Kelley Photography

On food, cats, Amelia, books, gin, cats, gardens, oh, and gin….

Two years after Barbara’s death, we who loved her want to mark the occasion in an appropriate way.  The heading above just begins to list her many passions; as one friend noted, “Barbara was an enthusiast!”  She was enthusiastic about her many hobbies — some of which originated in research she did for her books.  She was enthusiastic about her family and friends, the state of the world, her beloved cats, chocolate — and oh, did we mention … gin? (surprisingly, not whiskey!)

“Confound it, Peabody,” Emerson shouted … “Drink your whiskey like a lady…” (from Seeing a Large Cat)

Since there isn’t much to Barbara’s  recipe for a martini (wave the vermouth over the gin, add two ice cubes) (actually, just skip the vermouth part altogether) ….  we thought we should honor the occasion with a different recipe, one that was passed down to Barbara by her mother, who got it from a beloved neighbor in Oak Park, Mrs. MacDonald.  The aim of the recipe was to get as close as possible to the fabulous chocolate cookies that were obtainable at that time only from Marshall Field’s.


Mrs. MacDonald’s Frosted Chocolate Drop Cookies (per Barbara)

1/2 c. Spry  (ok, the recipe’s a bit dated)*        1 egg           1 c. brown sugar        1.5 c. flour       1/2 c. sour milk (add a little vinegar to milk)     pinch salt     1/2 t. soda                  vanilla              2 sq. chocolate, melted (or 3/8 c. cocoa)


DUMP IT ALL IN A BOWL AND BEAT.  (Very typical Barbara rendition of a recipe)  DROP FROM tsp. ONTO GREASED BAKING SHEET, BAKE 7-10 MIN. IN MODERATE OVEN.

FROST WITH CHOCOLATE ICING (a couple of squares melted chocolate plus conf. sugar and water.  If you want to get fancy, add a little butter.)   (No wonder this was so popular.  Not much more work than a cake mix.)


This brings to mind one of Barbara’s favorite J.K. Rowling quotes:  “Professor Lupin was breaking an enormous slab of chocolate into pieces.  ‘Here,” he said to Harry, handing him a particularly large piece.  ‘Eat it.  It’ll help.'”

So, lift a cup of a genial beverage (your choice!) and have a bit of chocolate on Barbara.  She would tell you that there is no woe that cannot be cured by the application of appropriate food and drink …. (or perhaps other remedies of a similar sort — more on that soon!)

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