Agatha Christie Dug for Clues for Real in Egypt

On long excavation trips, the Queen of Crime combined her passions for mystery and archaeology

Agatha Christie Dug for Clues for Real in Egypt
British mystery author Agatha Christie (1890-1976) autographing French editions of her books, circa 1950 / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

After much delay, Kenneth Branagh’s “Death on the Nile” will finally receive its theatrical release in February 2022. The murder mystery set on a Nile cruise is one of Agatha Christie’s most celebrated works and has proven to be a favorite for adaptation. The Queen of Crime’s fascination with the Middle East and its ancient past is apparent in many of her novels, but her connection with the region runs far deeper. Like other parts of the region, Egypt was fertile ground for her creative processes and brought about several turning points in Christie’s life and writing career.

Christie first visited Egypt at age 17, not long after she completed school in Paris. Her mother had been advised to spend winter in warmer climates following a bout of serious illness. She had also planned the trip as her daughter’s coming-out event.

The choice of Cairo for one’s debutante was far from unusual. Egypt was, at the time, largely under British administration, and tours to the region were regularly organized by Thomas Cook & Son. Financial uncertainty had been a constant in the family since her father’s death, and a social season in London was deemed unaffordable. The cost of living in Cairo was far more manageable — giving credence to the adage “to live like a colonial” — and the cost of travel was easily recouped by renting out their family house in Torquay as a winter resort.

Christie, who considered herself shy and socially inept at the time, described her three months in Egypt as a “dream of delight.” She went to five dances weekly (where her talent on the floor was often remarked upon) and enjoyed newfound attention from young men. Later in life, Christie would credit her time in Cairo as pivotal in overcoming her gaucherie.

The city left a distinct impression: Christie would base her first novel, the unpublished “Snow Upon the Desert,” on her experiences in the Gezirah Hotel in Cairo. Christie sent her manuscript to several publishers, and it was turned down, perhaps as she had expected given her inexperience at that time. She would later recount her time in Cairo in the semi-autobiographical “Unfinished Portrait.”

The teenage Christie, however, had yet to develop her affinity for antiquity. Apart from a short excursion to the Pyramids of Giza, she repeatedly declined her mother’s invitation to visit the ancient sites at Luxor, preferring to indulge herself in her newfound passion for polo. It would be some 20 years before she saw the temples and landscapes that were recounted in one of her most famous works:

“The wonders of antiquity were the last thing I cared to see, and I am very glad she did not take me. … How it would have spoilt them for me if I had seen them then with unappreciative eyes. There is no greater mistake in life than seeing things or hearing them at the wrong time.” (“Agatha Christie: An Autobiography”)

In 1922, shortly after the beginning of Christie’s writing career, the Tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in the Valley of the Kings. The event gave rise to a new wave of Egyptomania that was fanned by the advent of mass media. Most notably, The Times of London paid £5,000 for exclusive access to news about the excavation, providing daily updates as objects were slowly removed from the tomb. Never before had archaeology captivated the public to this degree.

The Times’ exclusive access meant that many other Western reporters who came to Egypt had to resort to speculation and fabrication. The Holmesian spinoff from this was the so-called Curse of the Pharaoh, which was popularized as a result of the death of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon several months after the tomb’s discovery. The earl was an amateur Egyptologist whose archaeological team had discovered the tomb just months before his demise. One of the contributors to the alleged curse was Arthur Conan Doyle, who suggested that an “evil elemental” might have led to Carnarvon’s death. The actual cause was far less exciting: The earl’s death was caused by an infection, most likely stemming from a mosquito bite.

The notion that mummies and Egyptian spirits can bring misfortune is an old one and has been part of popular culture since Napoleon’s famous expedition to Egypt. Doyle himself had penned several short stories that utilized the mystique associated with Egyptian artifacts as a plot device. In a similar vein, Christie included an entry named “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” in the short story collection “Poirot Investigates” in 1924. At this point, Christie’s portrayal of Egypt remained superficial, using the pharaoh’s curse merely as a foil to her deep knowledge of drugs and poisons (a result of her experience as a nurse and dispenser in World War I). The subsequent chapter of Christie’s career, however, would be profoundly influenced by her newfound interest in the ancient past.

In 1926, Archibald Christie, her husband of 11 years, asked for a divorce. The news was unexpected and devastating for the writer, who had lost her mother a few months prior. It led to her famous 10-day disappearance, which attracted widespread media coverage. Agatha Christie, at the time, was already a novelist with considerable fame after the highly successful “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.”

Christie referred to the divorce as the moment she changed from an amateur writer to a professional one, as writing became a necessity to provide for herself. Within two years, she became disenchanted by the constant pressure to produce more novels. Following a chance conversation with a naval commander, Christie was enamored of the idea of visiting Baghdad. She also had been reading about Leonard Woolley’s excavation at Ur, a dig that by 1928 had been surpassed in media attention only by the earlier discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

After a scramble for tickets and travel documents, Christie boarded the Orient Express. At Baghdad, the writer made an excursion to the ancient city of Ur, where she was given a site tour as a valued guest. Katharine Woolley, an important member of the dig and the wife of Leonard, had been a big fan of “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” The two would eventually become close friends, and a main character in “Murder in Mesopotamia” was based on Katharine. The novelist fell in love with Ur and would make a second visit within a year, upon the invitation of the Woolleys.

One of Leonard Woolley’s assistants was a promising 26-year-old archaeologist named Max Mallowan. Christie described him as a “thin, dark, young man, and very quiet — he seldom spoke, but was perceptive to everything that was required of him.” In Christie’s second visit to Ur, Mallowan was assigned by Katharine to accompany the novelist to historical sites around Iraq. The trip, however, was cut short when Christie received news from England that Rosalind, her 10-year-old daughter, was badly ill with pneumonia. Mallowan would accompany her in returning to Britain and proved a comforting presence during the anxiety-ridden journey. At the end of the year, when he visited Christie in Devon, the two became engaged.

“Many have been called to Oriental archaeology, but few have been able to leave so happy a record of it.” (Max Mallowan in “Come, Tell Me How You Live”)

After they married, Christie regularly accompanied Mallowan on his excavations in the Middle East. She immensely enjoyed the lifestyle in the field, typically spending the start of the excavation season writing, then dedicating herself fully to fieldwork when the excavation intensified.

Christie soon became highly knowledgeable, despite considering herself an outsider to the discipline — a “happily amused onlooker,” as friend and archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes described. If her work in the field had any bearing on her creativity, it was probably a constructive one: During this period, Christie regularly produced two or three books annually, many of which count among her best works.

In many ways, her writing process mirrors the deductive work required in an archaeological excavation. John Curran, author of “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks,” points out how she would typically set the plot in motion by producing long lists of possible outcomes. At the beginning of the process, the identity of the murderer was usually unknown to the author herself. Her famous shock endings often came to her while she was plotting, almost as if she were partaking in the unraveling of the mystery. Archaeological work, with its myriad fragmentary clues and red herrings, was symbiotic with her mystery writing process.

Christie recognized this, stating in her autobiography, “I think I was right to be constantly asking myself ‘Why?’ all the time, because to people like me, asking why is what makes life interesting.”

“It must run in one’s blood to enjoy funerals and funeral observances. Where indeed would archaeology be if it had not been for this trait in human nature?” (“An Autobiography”)

Camel tour in front of one of the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, c1920s-c1930s / The Print Collector / Print Collector / Getty Images

In Egypt, Christie and Mallowan became friends with Howard Carter, the excavator of the Tomb of Tutankhamun. The three would often play bridge at Luxor’s Winter Palace Hotel – Mallowan described Carter as a “sardonic and entertaining character.” Christie was captivated by Egypt’s ancient past, and winter visits became a regular occurrence following excavation seasons in Iraq and Syria. The land described by Kipling as “one big undertakers’ emporium” would prove inspirational for the Queen of Crime.

In 1933, the family boarded a Nile cruise ship (allegedly the SS Sudan), which ferried them to the temples of Luxor and Aswan and the cataracts of the Nile. During the journey, a domineering fellow passenger became the subject of conversations between Christie and daughter Rosalind. These ideas soon materialized as a character named Mrs. Boynton and a play called “Moon on the Nile.”

Christie eventually put aside both the play and the character in favor of a novel. Published in 1937, “Death on the Nile” would become one of the most beloved among the Christie corpus. Interestingly, Christie’s own notebook suggests that the novel was supposed to feature Miss Marple, the elderly spinster who is one of her best-known characters. Curran suggests that the exotic setting was perhaps deemed ill-fitting for Marple, and the well-traveled Poirot was ultimately chosen. Some of the minor characters in the book are reminiscent of Christie’s own experience as a teenager in Cairo, and there was a tongue-in-cheek inclusion of a novelist who wrote an erotic work titled “Snow on the Desert’s Face.”

The book also proved to be a favorite for adaptations. Christie turned the novel into a play that opened in Dundee in 1944. It was later performed in London and New York. A film adaptation in 1978 starred Peter Ustinov as Poirot and featured a star-studded supporting cast that included Jane Birkin, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury and David Niven.

Around the same time, Christie also wrote a historical play titled “Akhnaton.” It is based on the eponymous pharaoh who initiated a shift away from traditional Egyptian religion, only to be castigated following his death. The impetus for the play came from the Egyptologist Stephen Glanville, a longtime friend of Mallowan’s who had discreetly provided Christie with literature from Akhnaton’s era. The play conveys her deep knowledge on the subject, and much of its dialogues were adapted from the ancient texts themselves.

Christie’s interest in ancient Egypt is not limited to its funerary practices. She was fascinated by the way past societies often mirrored the present, as well as the perpetual struggle between tradition and change. Such themes were often a source of debate between her and Mallowan, and much of the play revolved around these questions. Mallowan dedicated many pages to “Akhnaton” in his own memoir, calling it Christie’s “most beautiful and profound play … the treatment comes as near to historical plausibility as any play about the past can be.”

“Akhnaton” was written without the expectation that it would ever be produced. Christie had always enjoyed writing plays, viewing it as a respite from the obligation to produce crime novels. “Plays are much easier to write than books,” she explained, “because you can see them in your mind’s eye; you are not hampered with all that description which clogs you so terribly in a book and stops you getting on with what’s happening.” The actor and theater director John Gielgud found the play interesting but sensed that it did not have enough humor and would be far too expensive to produce. In fact, “Akhnaton” remained unpublished for decades after its completion.

When war broke out in Europe, Christie returned to work as a dispenser at University College Hospital in London. Mallowan initially served at the Air Ministry, where he shared a room with Glanville. The former was eventually assigned to Egypt because of his mastery of Arabic.

The separation from Mallowan was emotionally taxing for Christie, but World War II was to coincide with some of the most prolific years of her career. Crime fiction too, was a popular genre during a period where distraction in the form of portable fiction was much in demand. As she seldom received news from Mallowan, Christie also wrote “Come, Tell Me How You Lived,” a memoir detailing their life on excavations.

During this period, Christie and Glanville would often share meals and food parcels. At one point, Glanville suggested she write a detective story taking place in ancient Egypt. Works of fiction set in Egypt had been popular since the Napoleon expedition, but crime fiction set in a past era was unheard of. Christie was hesitant at first, until she was (in her own words) “bullied into it” by the persuasive Egyptologist.

To begin, Glanville suggested a number of literary works from ancient Egypt to serve as inspiration for the novel. Not wanting to base a story on well-known incidents or figures (“because that is what so often makes novels set in historic periods seem so phoney”), Christie eventually settled on a series of letters written by an ancient Egyptian official to his family.

The 4,000-year-old Heqanakht papyri sketched the picture of a family with all the ingredients for a Christie mystery — an overbearing head of household, seemingly disobedient sons, a mistreated female member, and a number of dependents who appear to be a source of tension. A bit of imagination was all that was needed to breathe life into the names on the papyri.

“Death Comes as the End” was to prove more challenging than “Akhnaton” — Christie was, after all, having to paint in words the atmosphere and everyday life of an ancient society. She continually returned to Glanville with questions, and the latter would scour through archaeological sources for answers. Keen observers would notice that the scenes described in the novel evoke ancient Egyptian reliefs, while the prose imitated the known style and syntax of ancient literary texts.

Christie paid great attention to every detail in the novel, including the names of the characters. Yahmose, the dutiful eldest son, was likely inspired by a scribe named Ahmose of Peniati, whose letters Glanville studied during his time at the British Museum. The nurturing and protective grandmother is named Esa, the Coptic form of the name for the goddess Isis. Henet, the ill-natured servant, is named after the ancient Egyptian term for “greed.” An ancient cosmetic vessel that Glanville examined might have inspired the poisonous ointment used to murder one of the characters. The vessel, which is in the British Museum, is inscribed with the name of its ancient owner — the same name as the murderer in Christie’s novel.

Away in North Africa, Mallowan wrote back with anxiety about the novel’s execution. He was given reassurances by Glanville, who received the draft version exceedingly well: “No archaeological apparatus was to be imported that was not essential or at least perfectly natural in the telling of the tale. No showing off at all costs. At the same time there had to be enough implicit Egyptian feeling to make it impossible for the layman to feel that this particular story could have happened in Pimlico, and to make the Egyptologist feel that there was no reason why it shouldn’t have happened in Thebes. It was an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, and she’s pulled it off.”

There was to be one last mystery in the tale. Glanville managed to persuade Christie to alter the ending of the novel, the first and only occasion this happened in her writing career. Later, Mallowan noted that the original ending would have been more dramatic, and Christie too admitted that she would have reverted to her draft ending if given the choice. Her notebooks give little away regarding the original murderer, although some hints may be provided by changes made to the names of the characters during her writing process. For instance, the ill-tempered second son was originally named Seneb, a common Egyptian name that denotes good health. He was later renamed Sobek, referencing the crocodile deity known for having a vicious side. The murderer in the story also underwent a name change, although it is not certain whether the decision was motivated by the new ending.

Christie’s career was to cross paths with Tutankhamun again. In 1972, the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition arrived at the British Museum, setting off another deluge of Tutmania. Christie, now 81, was in the midst of putting some of her unpublished works in order.

“One might at any time leave this world rather suddenly,” she wrote. After making a few minor changes to reflect new archaeological discoveries, she decided to send “Akhnaton” to her publisher. Christie was hoping that it would at least be published, if not staged, for “there is such a furore over the Egyptian Tutankhamun.” The play made print a year later, more than three decades after it was written.

In 1973, Egypt took part in the debilitating Yom Kippur War. In the aftermath, the country drifted away from its alliance with the Soviet Union. With its allegiances shifting, Egyptian authorities, who had originally prohibited the exportation of the exhibit to the United States, lifted the embargo. The exhibition toured seven American cities, attracting over 8 million visitors. When the film version of “Death on the Nile” was completed in 1978, its release date was scheduled to coincide with the start of the exhibition’s ticket sale.

Christie’s association with Egypt lives on long after the golden ages of detective fiction and Egyptomania. The SS Sudan, which still cruises the Nile, has cabins named after Christie and Poirot. The proprietors of both the Old Cataract Hotel and the Winter Palace claim them to be the site where “Death on the Nile” was written. Tour guides from Luxor to Aswan know that references to the Queen of Crime are easy crowd-pleasers. Some follow that by recounting the harem conspiracy, in which Ramesses III was murdered in an attempt to usurp the throne.

What is it about Christie’s crime mysteries that captivates people in the same way as the ancient past? I discovered the most eloquent expression of their shared appeal in a passage from “Death on the Nile.”

As always, it is Poirot who provides the denouement: “Once I went professionally to an archaeological expedition — and I learnt something there. In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it. That is what I have been seeking to do — clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth — the naked shining truth.”

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