The Magazine

Out of Sunningdale

Solving the mysteries of Agatha Christie's Iraq.

Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By THOMAS SWICK
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The tension builds as he gets closer to Iraq. He hooks up with a tour group, on a lowly bus, at a time when U.N. weapons inspections are still going on. The vehicle holds, not surprisingly, an odd bunch, which includes four elderly women: two English, one German, one French. There is also a young American, Sean, traveling with a boom box. At the border, men under 60 and women under 50 are all required to submit to an AIDS test. (A few of the senior ladies complain, with mock indignation, of discrimination; Eames astutely travels with his own needle.)

It's your standard package tour: the Iraqi Museum (founded by Gertrude Bell, looted four months after the group's visit); Saddam City (actually, Eames has to see this on his own); the Minaret of Samarra (atop which Eames finds a group of Iraqi teenagers high-fiving Sean, who later tells the author that if Americans could see him showing friendship toward Iraqis they would label him "a national traitor." It is one of the few times when you wish Eames hadn't just let a statement stand).

The story of illustrious trains (Eames's fascination extends to the Taurus Express, which once traveled between Istanbul and Damascus) is replaced by that of ancient civilizations. And antagonistic sects. Though away from the ruins, Eames finds the people unfailingly friendly toward foreigners, while generally resigned to the inevitability of war.

His descriptions of contemporary anxiety contrast sharply with the recorded memories of halcyon days on a dig. His group visits Nimrud, where Max "excavated the palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II," a discovery that placed him in "the major league of British archaeologists." It was also here that Agatha wrote the introduction to her autobiography, and "spent some of the happiest years of her life."

The group is given a tour by Muzahim Mahmud Hussein, "the frustrated hero of Iraqi archaeology," who made a discovery (of gold-filled tombs) that had eluded Max. As a recently disinterred winged bull is brushed off, he requests that no one take a picture, then adds that they can "tell John"--"by whom he meant John Curtis, the Keeper of the Ancient Near East at the British Museum."

In this engaging book, Eames has now told John, and anyone else who cares to listen.

Thomas Swick, travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.