Most travel books will give you a basic primer in Egyptian history — enough to get a feel for the age of things, but certainly not enough to appreciate more than 50 centuries of history.
Given that there have been hundreds of scholars ( thousands, if you include the non-professional variety) trying to decipher the tantalizing hints of Egypt’s history, the fact that we have such a coherent picture is surprising. To be sure, there are a few crackpots out there;, but on the whole, the history of Egypt is pieced together by a group of people who have managed to discover a fascinating story.
There are about fifteen different chronologies, so you’ll find that nearly every book has a different set of dates, some quite at odds with one another. Sometimes, there is a difference of a hundred or more years in the timelines — but consider that they are basing their information on potsherds and inscriptions that are 5,000 years old, and you can see why the discrepancies exist. Add to that three periods of civil unrest and local warlords (politely called the “Intermediate periods”), and the fact that we know anything at all is even more amazing. But, the general storyline remains the same.
Here are a few of the books that I read in preparation for our trip. Some are a bit more fanciful than others. I’d recommend Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs for an easy to read general history. Complete Pyramids and Complete Temples are a must if you are seriously interested in the architecture and art of Egypt. The diagrams alone are worth the cost of the book, in my opinion (but then again, I’m easily swayed by nifty charts and graphs).