The book contains two narratives. The first, an anthropological narrative, revolves around two visits made by Ghosh to two villages in the Nile Delta, while he was writing his doctoral dissertation (1980–81) and again a few years later (1988). In the second narrative, presented parallel to the first one in the book, Ghosh constructs a fictionalized history of a 12th-century Jewish merchant, Abraham Ben Yiju, and his slaves Ashu and Bomma, using documents from the Cairo Geniza.
In an Antique Land is considered to be a stylistically curious book. Written after the success of Ghosh's first two books, Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines, and written more than a decade after the dissertation on which the book is based, In an Antique Land defies easy description and has been called "generically indefinable" and could be labeled as "narrative, travel book, autobiographical piece, historical account".