Over a century ago, one of the world’s newest metropoles began rebuilding one of the oldest. From 1899 to 1917, an expedition led by Dr Robert Koldewey excavated the ruins of Babylon, sending back, among other finds, the 500 crates of glazed brick rubble which were used to reconstruct the ancient city’s Ishtar Gate and processional way in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.

It was the massive undertaking of one empire on the territory of another and a matter of prestige for Kaiser Wilhelm II, who personally supported the project. By the time the bricks arrived in Berlin, however, the houses of Osman and Hohenzollern had fallen, the Middle East was divided between Britain and France and a more unstable Berlin had gained its reputation as the new Babylon – with its own ruin on the horizon. Kenah Cusanit’s first novel, Babel, is set in Iraq just before this cataclysm, following Koldewey, architect and archaeologist, across the ruins for a few hours of one day in 1913.

It is an audacious debut, all the more impressive for its limited sphere of action. The book is divided into two parts in which very little actually happens: in the first, Koldewey lies motionless on his daybed, toying with the idea of having appendicitis, before experimentally drinking a bottle of castor oil and getting up to go and meet Gertrude Bell, who is to arrive on the site on her way back from Ha’il, in part II.

From this restricted viewpoint, that of an exploratory mind in a refractory body amid the monumental ruins of the navel of an ancient world and in the opening years of a modern one, Cusanit’s observation expands.

Koldewey... had lain down on his daybed, which was built into the window seat, and was looking at the river that flowed past the ruins, sucking on his pipe and observing it like one who had never seen a river before, without thinking of anything else or anything beyond it: the boat, the voyage, the goal, the brick reliefs of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, [...], the several hundred chests piled high in the courtyard of the excavation office that were to be transported from Babylon down the Euphrates, across three continents to Hamburg, the Elbe, the Havel, up the Spree to the Kupfergraben, the landing stage by the Berlin Museums.

Broadly, the narrative follows this progress, from stasis to motion, from immediate conditions – Koldewey’s interactions with himself, colleagues, his useless assistant Buddensieg, his negotiations with local sheikhs and distant institutions – to global ones: the laying of the Berlin–Baghdad railway, the young German Empire’s colonial ambitions.

For all concerned, the Babylon excavations were fortuitous. Begun a year after the Kaiser himself had visited the archaeological sites in the Ottoman Empire – he left a plaque on the wall of the Bacchus Temple in Ba‘albek – they were supported within the Reich by the German Oriental Society, a new institution backed by bankers and industrialists, who were gambling on Babylon for prestige and influence and the advancement of German commercial and imperial designs. Fortunately for Koldewey, early successes and the institutional structures of the Prussian state allowed him to keep spending a lot of other people’s money on large-scale excavation and experimental techniques – finding out, for example, and possibly with the aid of local excavators, how to differentiate between mud-brick and surrounding mud and lay bare the building plan of whole urban areas. These discoveries marked a departure from previous approaches – which usually involved sending trenches at different levels through a tell to look for finds – and not only yielded excellent results, but set standards for the discipline for decades to come.

Cusanit selects the cream of these results as her material and has a very good eye for assyriological details and archaeological discoveries that resonate with the ideas she wants to explore – whether having a character trace the roots of the words “[legal] canon” and “cannon” to the Akkadian “qanu”, “reed”, or describing the genuinely exciting moment when excavating Esagila, the temple of Marduk, and

21 metres below the summit of the tell, having removed 22,000 cubic metres of earth... one of the pickaxes hit not once more against a vertical resistance but a horizontal one, a layer of large, square bricks, the floor of the temple with the inscription “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, patron of Esagila, son of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon, am I”.

The presentation of such a wealth of factual detail allows the sudden and unexpected creation of resonances between past and present. Though the narrative presents as a free flow of Koldewey’s thoughts, memories and ideas, observations and character studies, the reader is ever and again impressed by the symmetries on which it is structured. Nebuchadnezzar’s stamped bricks, for example, mirror a series of plaques left by successive rulers of Brandenburg on the Spree canal lock over centuries of constant renewal to keep pace with the country’s technological growth. Parallels between Berlin and Babylon become ever more apparent: as Koldewey walks over the site, with its imperial palace and processional way, he remembers a trip to Berlin in 1909, with its imperial palaces and processional way (Unter den Linden), as well as its hosts of new motor vehicles relying on the oil being dug from beneath the soil of Iraq. Indeed, the two cities are so cleverly overlapped – while not equated – that sometimes it takes a while to discover, when Koldewey thinks something like “No, this time he would not go through the main portal”, which of the two cities he means. Through such unexpected resonances, Cusanit manages to portray an intelligent character sensing the effect of historical forces around him but without the benefit of hindsight to show him what those forces actually are.

Koldewey himself was remembered as a warm and spirited individual – selections from his letters were published after his death as Light-hearted and serious letters from the life of a German archaeologist. Correspondence – often farcical in nature – forms large sections of Cusanit’s work, but she has also extended the humour outside it, in a sort of comedy of academic manners, a gentle but accurate skewering of an entire profession. Excavating cities thousands of miles from home is not without its absurdity, and archaeologists are not often the most normal of people. At one point, Koldewey, argumentative cuneiformist Friedrich Delitzsch and Bedri Bey, the Ottoman archaeological commissar, are travelling through the Iraq marshes, when the two Germans break into a heated argument.

Delitzsch folded his arms and shook his head as only a philologist can shake his head, accompanied by a long silence, which Bedri took advantage of to fall asleep, and which Delitzsch at last broke in order to ask Koldewey how his trigeminal neuralgia was.

And Koldewey nodded, as architects who have to do with philologists only nod. Yes, he had acquired a trigeminal neuralgia last summer, very probably as a cause of an experiment in which he lay at night on a mattress which, regularly moistened using a perforated tin can, had been intended to generate evaporative cooling. Perhaps also when he had systematically increased his tobacco consumption day after day in order to find out how much daily tobacco a person can actually bear.

Cusanit’s portrays Koldewey’s dispassionate, scientific mind as set against a series of contemporaries, counterparts or adversaries. There is Koldewey’s eternal nemesis, stupidity – represented here by his assistant Buddensieg, whose main job is to look after the expedition geese. Delitzsch himself is an orientalist-cum-politician, “well-versed in ancient cuneiform but incapable of modern Arabic”, whose lectures on the Babylonian origins of the Bible (the famous “Bibel-Babel” controversy), while advancing the idea of shared civilizational origins, eventually laid some of the foundations of scientific racism, and whose jingoistic speeches such as “Ex Oriente Lux” (which Cusanit quotes) filled the coffers of the German Oriental Society by linking scientific research in the Middle East to colonialist expansion.

Then there is Bell herself, whose travels through Arabia (with champagne, it is rumoured) form the background gossip of Koldewey’s world. He cannot know how instrumental she will be to the future of Iraq, but he does realise that she is vital to protecting his work. An archaeologist herself, colonial agent, spy, representative of a soon-to-be hostile state, Bell is a character whose complexity perhaps does not fit into the bounds of a novel about Koldewey (in the end she remains off stage throughout). But in casting her as an equal and opposite to the German archaeologist, Cusanit does deftly manage to fuse a modern take on a major yet overshadowed woman in history with conceptions of her character at the time – all while not being able to resist having a dig at Werner Herzog’s 2015 turkey, Queen of the Desert.

They already called her “Al-khatun” or “Umm al-mu’minin”, mother of the faithful, and as likely as not soon “Aisha”, after the favourite wife of the prophet. Bell would probably go down in history. They would write books about her. Novels. Or a film. Naturally they wouldn’t give her facial hair, she would look more womanly overall, and probably her story would be told by a man, and in order to tell it he would have to think and think about Bell’s unnatural love of the Orient until he could explain it naturally – through the love of a man. […]

Which would be why, Koldewey thought, she had travelled through central Arabia with champagne in her baggage.

It could be argued that this goes a little too far for a novel that in general refuses to make judgments informed by later events. One cannot deny the relish with which it is done, however. And it is possible to see this novel as part of a more general recent reappraisal of the German Empire on the eve of its collapse. While the Nazi period remains central to German attitudes to the past, the recent centenary of the First World War brought renewed interest in this previous national disaster, with Florian Illies’ 1913: The Summer of the Century topping best-seller lists for much of 2012. German Orientalism was also a neglected field until relatively recently – Said himself, with his focus on French and English sources, preferred to sidestep the reasons why a country with little colonial interest in the Middle East should have so extensively studied it. Of course, Cusanit’s principal interest here, and one of the novel’s successes, is in the clear and humorous elucidation of the discoveries and ideas that formed a discipline renowned for its arcaneness – Assyriology. But by drawing out and expanding on coincidences, correlations, poetic resonances, she is able to place these discoveries in the much wider context, and one of more general relevance: that of German, indeed, European, interest in the Middle East.

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