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THE BIBLE OF CLAY
by Julia Navarro and Andrew Hurley, trans.
Bantam, January 2009
704 pages
$7.50
ISBN: 0440243033


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Shortly before the start of the Iraq war in 2003 a conference of archaeologists is held in Italy. One of the speakers, Clara Tannenberg, purports to be there on behalf of her grandfather, who did not travel to the conference but whose name is known to some of the attendees. Clara states that 60 years previously Alfred Tannenberg discovered two clay tablets which he claimed represented the story of creation in the Bible as dictated to a scribe by none other than the prophet Abraham. The tablets are said to predate the Biblical scrolls by a thousand years. Clara has been obsessed with finding the remaining clay tablets ever since she first heard the story from Alfred when she was a child.

Alfred now lives in seclusion in Baghdad where Clara grew up as a privileged member of Saddam’s inner circle. Clara doesn’t seem to realize, or care, what the rest of the rest of the world knows – that the Americans are going to invade her country. Her only thought is for the clay tablets. Bombing by the Americans uncovered an ancient building, perhaps a library or government building in the desert, where many clay tablets were discovered. Clara is trying to get an excavation sanctioned but her talk falls on deaf ears. Her husband, also an archaeologist, and also in the "inner circle," chides her for her impetuousness.

This is a book that would have benefited from a cast of characters. There are two factions besides the Tannenbergs who want to find the Bible of Clay as Clara and her grandfather refer to it. When they do establish a small group of experts to dig at the desert location there are many tensions among the group. Unbeknownst to those around them, there are two spies in the group, each from the different factions. The Tannenberg family also has a spy in its midst. An Italian priest has attached himself to the dig. He is willing to work and has the advantage of reading Aramaic and other ancient languages. All he will say is he needs to keep Clara safe.

There are flashbacks to the time of Abraham and the scribe Shamas, to whom Abraham has singled out to receive the Biblical account. For reasons too complex to go into here, there are also chapters that take place during the Second World War, written both from the Nazi point of view and also from the viewpoint of inmates of one of the concentration camps. It is indeed a very complex book.

Despite the difficulty in keeping the characters straight, the story told is a compelling one. Iraq on the eve of the American invasion is very eerie and the details ring true. Some of the characters include the journalists present in Baghdad, and we have their insights into pre-invasion Iraq. Although she is very single-minded, Clara is a fascinating character with her obsession with the Bible and her complete reliance upon her grandfather, who can do no wrong in her eyes.

The author is a Madrid based journalist and political analyst. Her knowledge of the Middle East and the mechanics of an archaeological dig appears to be extremely sound. Obviously her research was extensive and it shows.

Reviewed by Lorraine Gelly, September 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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