Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City by Edmund Richardson - review by Bijan Omrani

Bijan Omrani

Our Man in Kabul

Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City


Bloomsbury 352pp £25

This book, despite its title, is not really about a quest for a lost city. It is rather a long-overdue biography of the pioneering 19th-century archaeologist and explorer Charles Masson.

Masson was an unwilling participant in the Great Game, the jockeying for influence in Afghanistan and central Asia between the British and Russian empires during the 19th century. Recent years have seen new biographies of many of the travellers, eccentrics and spies who acted as agents for the imperial powers in central Asia during this time. It is curious that Masson has been at the back of the queue, and indeed that he has been so neglected by historians generally. Although he eschewed the philandering, megalomania and ultra-violence in which many of the other Great Game players rejoiced, his life story is still replete with interest. It is a tale of intrigue, espionage, blackmail, disguise, rebellion, treasure and the discovery of lost civilisations. He should demand our attention far more than his self-centred and roguish contemporaries.

Masson’s career as an explorer started abruptly. A Londoner by birth, he was for a time an artilleryman in the East India Company’s army. However, one morning in 1827 he suddenly deserted his regiment at Agra and wandered off westwards towards the Punjab and the little-known Afghan borderlands. The reasons for his desertion are unknown. He had little in the way of money. His preparations had been scanty and his grasp of the region’s languages and customs was meagre. Early in his journey he was robbed, beaten and stripped naked, and came within an ace of being sold into

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