Pathways: John le Carré to the Atlantis of the Sands


An expert villain classically trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Tom Hiddleston—or Loki, as you may know him—is starring in a TV miniseries adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Night Manager, beginning its run on AMC tonight. The 1993 book was le Carré’s first with a post–Cold War setting, and it features the master spy storyteller’s typically shaded look at right and wrong.

In this case, American and British agents play both sides in an effort to ensnare a powerful international arms dealer and “worst man in the world,” played by an utterly convincing Hugh Laurie. Hiddleston’s character, an ex-soldier who transitioned to a civilian life of working in hotels, agrees to participate in the intelligence operation for his own vengeful reasons. To do so, he must join the organization he wants to bring down and become someone he is not.

In this week’s Pathways post—the latest in a new series tracking the serendipitous discoveries our writers make using Mediander Topics—we trace the direct lineage between le Carré, real-life British double agent Kim Philby and the lost Arabian city of Iram, which still remains a mystery under the cover of sand.

1. John le Carré to Kim Philby

Mirrorpix/Everett Collection
John le Carré (Mirrorpix/Everett Collection)

The authenticity of le Carré’s espionage novels is famously rooted in his real-life work for British intelligence. In 1958 the writer (real name: David John Moore Cornwell) was hired by British domestic spy agency MI5; after transferring in 1960 to the international agency, MI6, he worked in Germany, sometimes posing as a civilian diplomat. Encouraged by his colleague Lord Clanmorris, who wrote under a pen name, le Carré published his first three novels during this time.

His spying was cut short in 1964, however, because of the most infamous double agent case in British history. Kim Philby was a U.K. citizen whose activities spying on Britain for the Soviet Union ended in his defection to the U.S.S.R. in 1963. Initially recruited by the Soviets in the 1930s, Philby worked as a journalist and then as a British agent with overseas postings in such cities as Istanbul and Washington, D.C. When the full extent of Philby’s traitorous double dealing became clear—he had, among other things, divulged many British agents’ covers—le Carré was forced to resign his post. He would later call Philby “my secret sharer who I never met.”

2. Kim Philby to St. John Philby

In a 1997 interview, le Carré identified Philby’s “monstrous” father, St. John Philby, as the reason the double agent was so willing to betray his own: “I think that the cumulative effect of having such a ferocious father…produced in him some kind of natural dissenting nature. Indeed he became a subvert.” Philby père was a noted explorer and advisor to important figures in the Arab world. Like T.E. Lawrence, he had campaigned during World War I to end Ottoman rule over the Arabian people. But unlike Lawrence, who fought as a Brit alongside Emir Faisal, a Hashemite, Philby favored their bitter enemy, the fundamentalist Sunni Islam chief Ibn Saud.

Eventually becoming an advisor to Ibn Saud, Philby continued to push Saudi family interests over those of his own country—for instance, helping the Saudis get the best possible deal when leasing the drilling rights to Persian Gulf oil fields to foreign companies. During the time of the Suez Crisis, in 1956, the Philbys were living in Beirut. Father and son may have fed the U.S.S.R. intelligence regarding the Israeli-British-French invasion of the Sinai Peninsula—a successful military operation that was politically disastrous, leading to a rupture in the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. that had existed since World War I.

3. St. John Philby to Iram of the Pillars

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 12.35.24 AMThe lost city of Iram of the Pillars, also known as Atlantis of the Sands, among other names, is associated with the ancient Arab tribe of ‘Ād, which, according to the Qur’an, was punished by Allah because of its corruption: “And the ‘Ād, they were destroyed by a furious Wind, exceedingly violent; He made it rage against them seven nights and eight days in succession: so that thou couldst see the (whole) people lying prostrate in its (path), as they had been roots of hollow palm-trees tumbled down! Then seest thou any of them left surviving?” Islamic historians over many centuries did not know where to find the city.

This was a prize too great for Philby senior to ignore. In 1932 he set off across the huge desert of the Arabian Peninsula. He had been told to look for shiny black pearl-like objects in the sand, allegedly parts of jewelry the wealthy had worn in Iram. He instead found various misshapen objects—white sandstone, black glass and chunks of iron—and thought he had come across a long-extinct volcano. But analysis ultimately determined the pieces he carried out of the desert were evidence of a dramatic meteorite impact. Philby had discovered what came to be known as the Wabar Craters, perhaps the “best-preserved and geographically simplest meteorite site in the world.”

In 1992 amateur archaeologist Nicholas Clapp—sometimes called the “real” Indiana Jones—announced that he had located Iram in Oman; he later made his case in the book The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands. But some scholars have since doubted Clapp’s claim. For one, the site he identified was apparently destroyed by a sinkhole, not a giant sandstorm. Others argue the lost city was simply a mythical place that can never be found. Much like one of le Carré’s famous undercover characters, its true identity may be far too deeply buried to ever really know.

The Night Manager debuts tonight on AMC at 10 p.m. eastern time.

Feature photo of Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki: © 2016 AMC Network Entertainment LLC