In 1914, an English archaeologist called Somerville is fulfilling a lifelong dream: to direct an excavation in the desert of Mesopotamia.
Yet forces beyond his control threaten his work. The Great War is looming, and various interest groups - Turkish, German, English and American - are vying for control over the land and its strategic and economic prizes. The Germans are securing trade routes with a new railway; a major in the Royal Engineers is working undercover, secretly mapping for the British the areas rich in oil; the Bedouin Jehar takes what he can from his new paymasters. The greatest idealist is Somerville, whose intention is to discover and preserve the land's ancient treasures.
As he weaves these stories together in a powerful narrative, Unsworth provides a brilliant commentary on imperial ambition in the Middle East, and an acute historical perspective on the land that became modern Iraq.