Empire building

In common with many small children I was completely obsessed by the Ancient Egyptians, and gradually I moved on to other ancient civilizations although they never quite had the allure of the exotic Egyptians. That is until I discovered the Assyrians. I remember walking into the first of the Assyrian rooms at the British Museum and being blown away by the size and vitality of their images. The animals especially seem to leap from the stonework - amazing. Now, don't get me wrong - I can't say I like the Assyrians, their level of cruelty was quite astounding even for an age that knew a fair amount about how unpleasant man can be to man, but they were great at art (even if it was often of a rather barbaric order), and were great writers. Their most famous literary work was The epic of Gilgamesh - from which Noah's ark is derived, and there are numerous writings on astrology, medicine and mathematics. All the sorts of topics that later generations from the Middle East would bring to Europe.

So I found Barry Unsworth's Land of marvels a fascinating read. Set in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) just before the First World War, the novel follows Somerville, an archaeologist, obsessed with the Tell he is currently excavating. The Germans are building a railway line that threatens to rip the Tell apart, and Somerville is determined to go to any lengths to preserve his excavation - a summer palace of the Assyrian kings. The novel contrasts the empire building ambitions of the Assyrians with those of the British, German, French, and to a lesser extent the Americans, who already have ambitions re the oil supplies of the Middle East, and as Somerville explores the rise and fall of the brutal Assyrian Empire, other empires begin their decline into the First World War.

The novel is patchy. There are moments of beautiful writing, but some of it did feel to me rather pastiched. There are bits of pure Agatha Christie (I would suspect that Unsworth was strongly influenced by Christie's novels set in the Middle East such as Murder in Mesopotamia), and at least a nod to Christie's own memoirs of archaeological digs in the area Come tell me how you live. While the villains (and there are plenty of double agents) are pure Buchan with a hint of Kipling's Kim.

Where Unsworth scores highly is in his description of the archaeological dig, and the unveiling of the Assyrian tomb - a suitably moving moment. In many senses I think to just see this novel as a thriller, or a reflection of a time long gone is to short change it. Inevitably there are many parallels to be drawn with the modern map of the Middle East. Written in 2009, I believe that the themes of empire building and greed are at least partly referring to modern day Iraq and the military situation there. Unsworth, I believe, is suggesting that modern day empire building designs makes modern man no better than the Assyrians - in fact we are perhaps more duplicitious - they were at least not dishonest in how they portrayed themselves. A fact that is paralleled in the novel's double-agent characters.

I can't say that this was a favourite read, or that it made a huge impression on me. But it's a multi-layered clever novel that I suspect will mean many things to different readers. Well worth a browse.


Aarti said…
This is a bit of a non sequitur, but isn't it strange how much elementary school education focuses on Egypt? Why is that such a huge part of the curriculum but not, say, Ancient Mesopotamia? At least in the US, I find it a little silly (though I enjoy Egypt as much as other people) that we learn zero about Native Americans but so much about Egyptians.
Book-hound said…
Yes, you're right Aarti, it is strange. I learned a bit about Sumeria via Religious Education lessons, and the Romans and Greeks via Classics, but at primary level the only ancient history I can remember learning was that of Ancient Egypt. It's extraordinary when you consider how influential the Babylonians were in science, astronomy and maths, and yet we learn virtually nothing about them - and in the UK there doesn't seem to be anything about the ancient civilizations of the Americas. V. odd.

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