(4.5 stars) Mesopotamia, once the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, boasted vibrant civilizations four thousand years before the Christian Era, and the ruins of these civilizations, many of them buried for six thousand years, dot the countryside. By 1914, when this novel opens, Mesopotamia (Iraq) is being ruled from Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire. Virtually every European country is in Iraq, however, waiting for the weakened Ottoman Empire to fall. The Germans are building a railroad from Basra through Baghdad to Constantinople, and they may excavate along the track, through vast oil fields. An American from Standard Oil is on site, the French are making noises, and the Russians and the Austro-Hungarian Empire hope to profit. With World War I looming, the need for oil and chrome ore (to make armor-piercing weapons) is pressing, and everyone sees Iraq as a source of materiel.
Trying to ignore this turmoil is John Somerville, a thirty-five-year-old archaeologist who has been working for three years at Tell Erdek, an ancient site near Baghdad that has so far yielded few artifacts. A broken piece of ivory, a carved flat stone, a reconstructed clay tablet with writing, and the beginning of a wall made of kiln-fired bricks are all that Somerville has to show for three years of work. Unfortunately, his excavations are in the path of the German-built railroad, and he is running out of money. As Somerville tries to protect "his" dig, he must deal with the Turks, and with deceitful British entrepreneurs and officials. The British believe that war is coming, and they are not going to interfere against the German railroad, even if it means the destruction of unique archaeological artifacts.
As Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth explores conflicts, deceits, and betrayals on all levels, he creates memorable characters, both on the dig at Tell Erdek and in the wider world. Love stories and affairs among those on the archaeological team reveal as much about deceit and betrayal on a small scale as does the duplicitous behavior of financiers and governments on a grand scale. No one can trust anyone else. Unsworth creates a vibrant picture of a tumultuous time and place, endowing what might have been an exotic tale of archaeological discovery with a broader thematic scope.
The action never flags as the points of view change from Somerville's excavation, to life at the team's headquarters, to the courtship of Jehan the informer, to government officials and financiers. As artifacts reveal the fate of the ancient "palace" and its inhabitants, Somerville is able to identify the seventh century BC ruler (or his double--another possible deceit). TMorality Play
hose familiar with ancient art history, archaeological procedures, and the culture of the Babylonians and Assyrians will be thrilled by the details of Somerville's discoveries. Those with little interest in these subjects may find the technical details challenging, if not tedious. n Mary WhippleThe Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel of Love and Intrigue in the 12th CenturyLosing NelsonAfter HannibalMorality PlayThe Rage of the VultureMooncranker's Gift