It’s 1914. Tensions are about to erupt in Europe. John Somerville, however, has problems of his own to worry about. He’s excavating what he believes to be a forgotten Assyrian palace in Mesopotamia, part of the gigantic Ottoman Empire. Unluckily for him, the Germans are coming with a railroad that will go right through Tell Erdek, his precious site, the excavation of which he has self-financed for three years in a desperate bid to make a name for himself. Along with him is his younger colleague, Palmer, who has a passion for ancient writing; his wife Christine, who thrives on Somerville’s enthusiasm and purity of passion; Patricia, a grad student who is at the forefront of the feminist movement and very outspoken; and Jehar, an Arab man who feeds Somerville information in exchange for the gold to win him the love of his life. Into this mess arrives Elliott, an American geologist masquerading as an archaeologist to gain information about oil. Every character’s loyalties are tested as tensions escalate not only between European powers but at the excavation site itself.
I’d heard, before starting this book, that others really struggled with it, abandoning it and giving it away. I thought it was going to be terrible. Once again, I put it off. When I finally did read it, I could see in some cases what those who disliked this book thought about it. For one thing, it’s quite political. A lot of time is spent discussing the importance of the oil and the conflicts between the countries who are racing to get it. Nor are all the characters likeable. Christine spends time feeling disdainful towards Patricia because she is too outspoken. The mere idea that women could vote shocks Christine, who desires nothing more than to spend her life supporting a powerful and influential man. Can you tell that Christine made me gag a little? Okay, a lot.
On the bright side, though, despite its faults I found myself loving the book. I have to say being an aspiring historian and secret fan of the exciting part of archaeology really helped me in that. If I didn’t feel as excited about Somerville’s discovery as he did, the book would have totally fallen flat for me. There is something fascinating about pulling history out of the ground and this is just what Somerville is doing and what he’s passionate about. How could I not love a guy like him? This is even if he is a bit uncertain about himself, especially given that it’s hard to blame him. As soon as he realized that there was something amazing down there, I was hooked.
I also found this book incredibly politically relevant. I’m often irritated that so many of the problems in the Middle East have to do with European powers stepping in and carving up arbitrary countries for their own benefit. Here we have a novel that is set just as this is happening; we have a character who is unearthing the enthralling past of these areas which are now war-torn from intervention and internal turmoil and conflict. And hardly for the last time, it is all about oil. While set firmly in the past, this book also sheds light on how we got to this point in history ourselves. I think it also shows how our disregard for history leads us to repeat the mistakes we have made over and over again.
In conclusion, this is definitely a book worth reading. I highly recommend it, especially to those who love history and/or secretly wish they could be on Time Team. While I wait for that day to come, I’ll be seeking out more of Barry Unsworth’s works.