Julia embarks on a journey across the Levant (the Eastern Mediterranean) during the reign of the Ottoman empire and she becomes embroiled in the politics of the Turkish countries, falling in love with a radical young man and his ideals for a better empire. Julia Hamilton is a student at Miss Mumford's who is tired of school and wants to see the world for herself. Her father works at the Arab desk in England's Foreign Office and Julia begs to accompany her father on one of his scheduled expeditions to Syria. Her father doesn't think it is safe, however, Julia convinces him that she wants to see and understand the real world and not always have to be satisfied with reading about it from books. Her father finally agrees to let her accompany him and sketch the wondrous places that he visits – Istanbul, Damascus, Palmyra and Alexandretta. He warns Julia that the customs in the Levant (the region around the Mediterranean) are very strict in terms of women's behavior and dress. Julia also learns that the region may be full of unrest but she is prepared for the excitement.
Julia's father tells her that for the purposes of the trip, he is supposed to be a solicitor on vacation and that the Foreign Office is not to be mentioned. Julia thinks her father is embroiled in some secret mission on behalf of England. Her father refuses to reveal anymore but Julia is excited to finally go on a grand adventure.
Julia and her father take the Orient Express to Istanbul. On the train, they meet a Frenchman named Monsieur Louvois, who is also going to Syria to deal in antiquities. Julia's father disapproves of Monsieur Louvois as the trade of antiquities isn't strictly allowed in Syria. Monsieur Louvois is interested in what a solicitor might be doing all the way in the desert and Julia finds it hard to shake off his interest. The train finally pulls in at Istanbul where they immediately rush to take a boat to Beirut. The security in Turkey is high due to tensions from a group of rebels called the Young Turks whose goal is to incite revolution against the Turkish sultan. On the boat, Julia meets a young English Oxford student named Graham Geddes who claims to be travelling to Syria to study history for his research. When the Turkish soldiers inspect Graham's passport and learn that he's from Salonika, they are friendlier towards him. Later on, Julia learns that Salonika is known to be at the epicenter of the revolutionary Young Turks movement and that many Turkish soldiers are sympathetic to the cause.
Later on, in Beirut, Julia meets with Graham again. Graham reveals that he recognized her father because he once attended a lecture where her father spoke against the Young Turks movement. Graham seems to passionately support the Young Turks and he suspects her father is secretly working to buy more land for Britain, an accusation which distresses Julia, who doesn't know any better. He proves to be a cynical young man but Julia is intrigued by him and his vast knowledge. Graham finally reveals that he is actually working for the Young Turks, to help spread their cause across regions of the Ottoman empire. Julia promises she won't tell anyone what Graham has told her.
Julia and her father take a train to Damascus, and Graham also takes the same train. Julia's father recognizes Graham as a troublemaker he met while lecturing at Oxford and he doesn't like the youth. While on the train, Julia and her father meet a botanist named Edith Phillips, who is collecting specimens for the Kew Gardens. In Damascus, Julia, her father, Edith and Graham all stay in the same hotel. Much to Julia and her father's dismay, Monsieur Louvois is also staying there. It turns out that everyone is on the same tour together.
They tour Damascus, visiting mosques and bazaars. During the tour, Edith becomes confrontational towards their Turkish tour guide because she is pro-Arab independence from the Turkish empire. Meanwhile, Monsieur Lavois busies himself buying small artifacts that he plans on sneaking out of the country, much to Julia and Graham's disapproval. Graham acts very suspiciously, telling Julia that he must visit a bank and leaves Julia for a few moments by herself. Julia thinks that Graham is only pretending to like being her company because he finds it useful to have someone proper accompanying him around town, as if it will dissolve suspicions from authorities who might be wondering what he's up to.
The group prepare for their camel-back trek across the desert, a difficult trek that will be Julia's first experience camping. During their trip, they pass through many small villages, and at each of these villages, Turkish soldiers abound. The soldiers are hostile to foreigners and their guide explains that it is because some foreigners have been known to stir up dissent among the people. Edith disappears to forage for some rare plants but doesn't return, causing the whole village to go out to search for her. It turns out that some locals had taken her to extort ransom money from the foreigners. Edith is retrieved, looking suspiciously unruffled.
During the trip, Julia becomes increasingly suspicious that her travel companions all have their own secret agenda for going on this tour and that she might be the only one who genuinely just wanted to see Syria. When they arrive in Palmyra, Graham disappears on one of his mysterious missions. Julia feels a bit disconcerted while walking on the streets of Palmyra. Later on, she realizes that the people are wary of her because of the way she dresses and behaves. Her father visits the Sheikh and Julia is invited to visit the Sheikh's harem. She and the women of the harem exchange knowledge about their different cultures.
Before they leave Palmyra, they learn that the Sheikh's niece has committed infidelity and the punishment is death. Julia is horrified and demands that her father and the rest of the group do something to stop this travesty from happening. But everyone is powerless to do anything. Graham convinces Julia that she should not be simply an “onlooker” like her father, Monsieur Louvois and Edith, ignoring what is happening to the oppressed people in the Ottoman empire. Julia agrees with Graham. Her father, however, thinks that Julia is playing a dangerous game by being associated with Graham, as he thinks the sultan has spies that already know that Graham is supporting the Young Turks movement. By association, Julia may also be in danger.
Later on, Julia's father becomes ill and their party must separate as her father needs time to recuperate. They are accosted by some Turkish soldiers who are in search of Graham. They realize they were betrayed by one of their guides. Edith returns with a carriage to take Julia and her father to Homs. In the city of Homs, Julia's father recovers. They learn that he had been poisoned. Julia's father doesn't seem to be worried about being poisoned - he seems more worried that Julia is still associating with Graham, even though Graham is working against the British empire and therefore against him. They take a train to Aleppo then to Antioch where they visit another Sheikh. There, Monsieur Louvois is finally caught by the Turkish polish for sneaking artifacts out of the country. After spending a few hours in jail, the Frenchman is released and leaves Turkey in a hurry.
Soon after Monsieur Louvois leaves, Graham is also arrested for spying. It is revealed that Monsieur Louvois was the one who accused Graham in exchange for his own freedom. Later on, Julia finds Monseur Louvois and discovers that he is innocent of accusing Graham. Julia believes he is telling the truth but now she is more confused than ever. Julia, her father, Edith and a British friend in Antioch called Mr. Robinson decide to go to Alexandretta where the Turkish soldiers have sent Graham for further interrogation.
They concoct a plan to intercept Graham as he is being taken onto a boat destined to Mersina. Part of the plan involves Julia dressing up as an Arab woman and sneaking on board the ship. Before she leaves to rescue Graham, she receives a letter from Edith detailing how the botanist has been working against everyone in their group since the beginning. Apparently Edith believes that the Arabs should have independence from the Ottoman empire and that what Graham is doing will only empower the Turks even further. Julia is shocked by this betrayal. Soon after, much to Julia's surprise, Graham is released. She finds out it is all due to her father pulling some strings in the English Foreign Office. For the first time, she sees Graham not as a romantic revolutionary but as a cynical young man. She does not feel sad to let him go on his way.
The story ends with Julia and her father planning the next leg of their journey – Egypt.
Best part of story, including ending:
I enjoyed the detailed political perspectives represented in the story as it felt well-informed and authentic to the times. I like how the author represented each ethnic voice and their cause and discussed things like imperialism and the effects on the small groups of people who become oppressed.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was when Julia receives the letter from Edith that explains that she was behind why her travel companions had been encountering so many problems during their journey. I was glad that the culprit responsible for Graham's arrest was not Julia's father. I think it would have been unforgivable for Julia if she found out her father was so heartless as to risk a young man's life in order to fulfill his own schemes for the British Empire.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Julia was eager to see new things and experience drastically different cultures. I like that she wasn't afraid to camp out in the desert and be in the company of fierce looking people like the Bedouin.