Did you think this was a book about politics and war? Guess again. It’s a travel narrative of the author’s journey to Baghdad, via railway, as he recreates similar journeys taken by Agatha Christie beginning in 1928. She traveled via the Orient Express and her journeys through the Middle East provided fodder for several of her novels, including Murder on the Orient Express, Murder in Mesopotamia and Appointment with Death.
Eames was inspired to make this trip after learning of Christie’s fondness for a certain hotel in Aleppo, Turkey from the mother of the hotel’s current proprietor. Initially unaware of Christie’s long association with Turkey and Iraq (mostly through her husband, archeologist Max Mallowan), he researched her interest, and devised this trip as both homage to Christie, and also to satisfy his own curiosity about the history of rail travel through the Middle East.
Of course the trip wasn't as easy or as luxurious as it was in Christie's day, when upper class Britons traveled frequently through the area, which was ruled by British mandate. Eames's journey was more circuitous, and ran the gamut from posh to problematic. Though he began his journey on the now-restored Venice-Simplon Orient Express, he could only get as far as Venice by this method, and was forced to make due with far less opulent modes of transportation for the remainder of the trip. His train ride through Bulgaria, past polluted lakes and the remnants of Soviet industrialization efforts was the low point. And in truth it is no longer possible to go all the way to Baghdad via rail; once he reached Syria, the only possible way to get to Iraq was to join up with a bus filled with tourists on a guided (and heavily guarded) tour of Iraqi archeological sites.
With his tour group, Eames visited the Ziggurat at Ur, where Christie first met Mallowan. I liked this part of the book best because I've been interested in Near Eastern art and archeology ever since I took Archeology 101, taught by the redoubtable Machteld Mellink, an honor which I failed to appreciate at the age of 18 but which fills me with pride now. This book was for me a perfect combination of lots of things I'm interested in; in addition to archeology it's got British colonial history, train travel, and literary anecdotes.
Eames made his journey in 2002, before the American invasion, and reported that Iraqi citizens were wary, but still friendly, and that life in Iraq seemed fairly normal. It's depressing to think about the changes since then. Many of the sites that Eames visited have sustained great damage, and are now inaccessible to archeologists and historians. (The plight of the Iraqi citizens is of course an even greater tragedy.)
(Book 32, 2007)