In the centuries before Rome, the Assyrian Empire was an imperial juggernaut that at its peak covered territory "from Cilicia to Egypt, from the Taurus to the Persian Gulf." Powerful and arrogant, the ancient Assyrians were known for their cruelty so clearly evidenced by this boast of one king: "Many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears and their fingers...Their youths and maidens I burned in the fire...Their warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert sand..."
It is 1914. War looms. John Somerville is a dedicated English archeologist who is in charge of an ambitious excavation project in Mesopotamia. All funding has come from his own pockets. It is the first time he has been fully in charge of such an operation. Somerville wants desperately to make an impressive find, one that will add to knowledge of the ancient world and make him famous.
"In youth he had read everything he could lay his hands on, avidly and unsystematically; later he had studied more methodically, relating the empire of the Assyrians to the various others that had flourished and withered before and after it in the long course of Mesopotamian history. But it was the Assyrians who had made a conquest of his imagination, theirs the empire that had seemed to him the paradigm of all empires."
Again the sands of time and history are shifting. The Ottoman Empire is on the verge of disintegration. New states, new things, new orders of business will soon appear. But Somerville is consummately focused on unearthing what he hopes will be a treasure trove that has lain buried and undiscovered for centuries.
Somerville's obsession displaces even his beautiful wife Edith. She has accompanied him in his adventure. Edith has become ambivalent, doubtful about their marriage: "She shouldn't have married him; she had been taken in by that early boldness of his, that visionary quality, giving up everything to follow the dream. He had not lived up to it; it was as though he had cheated her, broken the contract."
The dig has proven frustrating. Compounding Somerville's concerns is a railway that is being constructed by Germans with the permission of Ottoman officials. There is a possibility it could ram right through his archeological mound. Yet fearing his whole endeavor may be a waste, Somerville has second thoughts about the railway: "Convenient, a salve to his pride, if he could lay the blame for his failure on the incursion of the line. If the failure were seen to be his, it would reduce his chances -- already not great -- of finding a sponsor, raising money for other digs. His own money was running out; there would not be enough for another season..." But gradually, important pieces of archeological evidence come to light that indicate Somerville's search may not be so futile after all. These developments only intensify his obsession and sense of urgency.
Other characters enliven this readable tale. Some of them have urgent interests that are economic and political. Subterfuge abounds. They look not into the distant past but into the future, summed up in one word: oil.
Lord Rampling is an influential man of refined talents, with multifarious business and political connections. A master intriguer who moves deftly on the international stage, he ruminates: "He who owns the oil will own the world, he will rule the sea and the land, he will rule his fellow men. The day will come when oil will be more desired, more sought after than gold."
An American geologist, Alex Elliot, arrives on the scene and is immediately struck by Edith's beauty. Elliot plays his own slippery game, posing as an archeologist while actually investigating the surrounding area for oil deposits. He provides his own paean to the future: "Oil...is the future of humanity, it will change the lives of millions...It will change the face of the planet. It will flow like the milk and honey we are told of in the Good Book, a blessing to the children of earth." Somerville takes a distinct dislike to Elliot.
And there is Jehar, a Bedouin, enlisted by Somerville for paid information that is not always exact: "He was a man of the Harb people; but he had traveled widely outside the tribal lands, and his travels had taught him that moderation, whether in truth or falsehood, was likely to be more profitable than excess."
Amidst all of the slick talk and sophisticated conniving, Somerville