In autumn 1923 Hurst and Blackett published Ethel Stefana Stevens (Drower)’s By Tigris and Euphrates. I came across the book while researching post-WW1 guidebooks to Iraq; it was listed as recommended reading in Cook’s guide to Palestine and Syria (which in the 1920s also included a section on Iraq) and extensively quoted in the text relating to Baghdad. As I’d written a previous post on Stevens as a pre-war travel writer with an eye for archaeology, naturally my interest was piqued, and I wanted to have a look at the book. So, off I went to the British Library.
Stevens met her husband Edwin Drower in Sudan, but in 1919 they were living in Iraq – first in Basra and then in Baghdad, where they remained for twenty years. By Tigris and Euphrates is dedicated to Drower, “the best of comrades, with whom many happy hours and good times in ‘Iraq have been shared”.
Stevens charts her experiences in and observations of Iraq and Iraqis early on in the period in which Britain occupied and then administrated Iraq under a League of Nations Mandate – an occupation, it must be said, that she benefited from.* By Tigris and Euphrates offers an illuminating if imperial glimpse into this period; among the subjects she highlights is the increase in British tourism to the country. Stevens also reveals the nature of English expat society in Iraq, particularly for women – her chapter “The Englishwoman in ‘Iraq – Her House and Her Husband” is devoted entirely to their experience.
Stevens’ two chapters on archaeology form Part II of the work, taking readers on a highlights tour to “Some Buried Cities of Assyria” (including Nineveh, Nimrud and Asshur) and “Some Buried Cities of Babylonia” (including Babylon, Akerhuf and Ur). At Ur, Stevens explains, the Iraq railways had arranged for a twenty minute stop at Ur junction for passengers to eat a meal and gaze at “great ziggurat” visible from the station.
At the time of her visit to Ur in 1922, Leonard Woolley was just beginning his excavations at the site on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum. Stevens credits him for providing her with information on the discoveries made in the first season, and acts as excavation champion in the text of the Ur section by flagging up a lack of funds hampering the continuation of work.
While on site she went up to the top of the ziggurat in order to look down on the excavations. Seeing the site deconstructed (as it were) gave her a perspective on how the site must have looked to the community of builders who originally constructed it. She also examined some of the expedition's finds, carefully arranged on shelves in a “little room” awaiting conservation (a process she describes in some detail).
Stevens was writing at a time before the Museum in Baghdad was formally instigated. Gertrude Bell was acting as Honorary Director of Antiquities, but there was no building for accommodating and displaying collections. Bell’s letters, now text searchable thanks to Newcastle University, show that “Mrs Drower” helped Bell arrange a small exhibition of finds from Ur (those to be left in Iraq after the division, more specifically) in March 1923, constituting the start of a publicly accessible Museum. At the private view Bell arranged, Woolley and Bell conducted the notable visitors (including King Faisal and his ministers) round the display.
A new documentary film, Letters from Baghdad, offers another perspective of this immediate post-war period in Iraq. A visual smorgasbord of archive footage, Letters explores Gertrude Bell’s life and her work in archaeology and politics, complete with recreated interviews with key figures in Bell’s life – including several archaeologists. It’ll be in UK cinemas from 21 April, so get you to the movies!
Buckley, J. J. (Ed). 2012. Lady E. S. Drower's Scholarly Correspondence: An Intrepid English Autodidact in Iraq. Brill.
Desplat, J. 2016. The beginnings of the Iraq Museum. National Archives blog. [Online]. 16 Nov.
Newcastle University, 2016. The extraordinary Gertrude Bell. [Online resource].
Stevens, E. S. 1923. By Tigris and Euphrates. London: Hurst & Blackett Ltd.
*Edwin Drower was Judicial Advisor in Iraq; Gertrude Bell worked with him to draft Iraq’s Antiquities legislation in 1923.