BISI Research Grant Report

Tourism in Iraq: Reading Modernity and Antiquity in the Thomas Cook Archives

In May of 2019, I had the opportunity to travel to Thomas Cook’s Peterborough headquarters just days before their archivist Paul Smith was made redundant. This decision precipitated what I was told would be a “temporary closure.” Little did I know that I would be the last researcher to use the company’s internal archive; months later, the Peterborough headquarters closed its doors for the last time. Without the generous assistance of the BISI, I would have not had this chance.

Tourism in Iraq: Reading Modernity and Antiquity in the Thomas Cook Archives, written with the use of Thomas Cook’s extensive archival collection, documents how the British travel firm used a network of materials—from guidebooks and travelogues to ephemeral written and visual sources, including pamphlets, magazine articles, maps, and colorful advertisements—to construct a specific image of Iraq as a tourist destination. This was of a land simultaneously “modern”—boasting the latest amenities in the interwar hospitality industry, accessible thanks to novel developments in transportation infrastructure—and “frozen in time,” where history could ostensibly be experienced simply by being there. Each genre of source produced by Thomas Cook played a role in framing Iraq in these terms, working in concert with one another as part of a cohesive marketing strategy bolstering this specific impression: both to encourage potential (primarily British and American) tourists to make the trip, as well orienting them once they had arrived in the country.


This research serves as a novel (yet still preliminary) contribution to multiple historiographies. Within the history of tourism generally, my project further refines our understanding of Thomas Cook’s worldwide presence while also explicating the nature of its multimedia network, thus contributing to a fuller portrait of interwar tourism’s mechanics more broadly. Within the extant scholarship on Thomas Cook’s history, the past two decades have witnessed an increased focus on the firm’s practices in the Middle East, culminating in a small but growing subfield. In the face of the broader historiography’s European- and American-centric tendencies, these contributions absolutely succeed in drawing attention to Thomas Cook’s operations in the Middle East, thus working towards filling a critical lacuna in the field. Despite broadening one geographic frame, however, much of the extant literature inadvertently restricts another: it focuses almost exclusively on Egypt and Palestine, often at the expense of other destinations in the region. While these destinations did represent major stops on a regional itinerary, they were not the only ones open to the fledgling industry. I hope that if nothing else, Tourism in Iraq succeeds in promoting the baseline recognition of Iraq’s place in early-twentieth century tourism; to my knowledge, it is the first research project devoted to doing so.

During my time in Peterborough, I poured through the archive for every mention of Iraq I could find and found a plethora of uncatalogued and neglected material. Threaded throughout these seemingly disparate texts is a consistent narrative: the twin portrayals of Iraq as simultaneously modern and ancient. Three articles published in the December 1923 issue Thomas Cook’s periodical The Traveller’s Gazette, for example, encapsulate this dual image. One article promises tourists speedy and luxurious modern transit—enabled through Thomas Cook’s monopoly partnership with the Nairn Eastern Transport Companyin the form of “comfortable, well-upholstered seven-seater Cadillac automobile,” bringing tourists from Damascus to Baghdad “in the space of fifty-five hours—an achievement which brings Baghdad within nine days of London.” A review of E.S. Stevens’ 1923 travelogue By Tigris and Euphrates, published in the same issue of The Traveller’s Gazette, effusively praises Stevens’ handling of “the infinite variety and complexity of Iraq,” with special attention to the nation’s archaeological sites. The reviewer ends the article by immediately connecting the nation’s omnipresent antiquity with the cutting edge of hospitality infrastructure, writing that “the places described by Mrs. Stevens are no longer difficult of access: it is now possible to go by automobile from Beyrout to Baghdad, and to all the chief sites of Mesopotamia by the Iraq railway system, which has given special attention to the needs of tourists.” The Traveller’s Gazette parallel recourses to modernity/antiquity simultaneously is but one example of the type found throughout Thomas Cook’s printed work, which Tourism in Iraq explicates in further detail.


Taken together, Thomas Cook’s printed materials form a cohesive narrative about what the firm wanted tourists to expect in Iraq: the most comfortable, modern amenities possible alongside what effectively amounted to a country-wide archaeological amusement park. This discourse formed concurrently with the solidification of Iraq’s modern borders. Thus, studying this corpus sheds light on a particular subsection of Western society’s attitudes towards the new nation, attitudes otherwise absent in a historiography primarily focused on political sources. In an era in which print media presented Iraq primarily as either a site of violent instability or arena for sanitized economic development, Thomas Cook’s literature offered a different set of projections onto the nation. These materials tapped into existing literary topoi, connecting to a broader sphere of popular cultural imaginations about Iraq and the Middle East more broadly: a land of history and magic, still to be found in a world otherwise sanitized by rational modernity. These impressions, the tourists they inspired to visit, and their role in structuring specific Western attitudes toward modern Iraq, warrant even further study; this source-based analysis serves as a first step.


In being a first step, gaps and omissions plague Tourism in Iraq. As with any primarily archival project, the present study has been constrained by what materials managed to survive, and of those, which have been deemed worthy of preservation within an official archive. The Thomas Cook company first made a concerted effort to form its own centralized archive in the 1950s, sending a call to each of its global offices for their records and documents.  This initial call, alongside subsequent, smaller-scale, acquisition efforts, have set the parameters for the archive’s current collection. When the firm’s Baghdad office shuttered a few decades later, their documents did not get sent back to England; their location remains a mystery to this day. Even within my primary source base, the very nature of “ephemera” speaks to the impossibility of archival completeness; the brochures, magazines, and scattered visual advertisements extant in the Thomas Cook archives are the items (luckily) preserved, not the complete sum of texts the company produced. Extensive digging in other (likely uncatalogued) collections, personal records, and even vintage ephemera markets will likely turn up more sources for future research. These realities and limitations undergird my study, presenting a necessarily incomplete image of Thomas Cook’s material on Iraq.


Guidebooks, magazines, and pamphlets led British and American customers to expect specific things from Iraq, but this exchange—at least, as told through the firm’s materials and archive—appeared entirely one sided. Within these texts, there is no room allotted for Iraqis to respond to the firm’s discursive strategies about their country, either in praise of its accuracies or to refute its falsehoods. These voices fall outside of the purview of the present study, but further research into the history of Iraqi tourism must grapple with, and ultimately rectify, this omission.

I am incredibly grateful for BISI’s generous contributions, without which this project would have been impossible. Since submitting Tourism in Iraq as my dissertation for a Master’s degree in History at SOAS, University of London last year, I have continued my research at the doctoral level. I just completed my first year in the joint Ph.D. program in History and Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, under the supervision of Dr. Sara Pursley and Dr. Zachary Lockman. At NYU, I am tackling many of the questions emerging from my Master’s dissertation, filling in the project’s lacunae while broadening my overall scope. Though still in the very early stages of my doctoral research, I intend to write a comprehensive history of archaeology and tourism in modern Iraq.


Image Captions

All images here provided courtesy of archivist Paul Smith and the Thomas Cook Group.

[The Overland Desert Mail]: “Front cover of a tourist’s brochure, advertising the Nairn Transport Company’s motor services, in partnership with Thomas Cook, to and from Baghdad.”

[How To See Baghdad]: “Front cover of 1928 Thomas Cook brochure, detailing Iraq’s touristic attractions.”

[Camping Tours in Palestine]: “The earliest itinerary for travelers in ‘Mesopotamia’ extant in the Thomas Cook collection, likely printed as early as 1903.”

[Baghdad to Basra ticket]: “A Thomas Cook tourist coupon for railway travel between Baghdad and Basra.”

[1956 Staff Magazine]: “A photo in the September-October 1956 issue of Cook’s Staff Magazine, advertising the company’s new Baghdad office on al-Saadoun Street.”