Death & Life on the Nile, Agatha Christie’s Egypt

by Veronica Hackethal

“Gosh, a funeral procession,” exclaims a fellow passenger, with typical English understatement.  He points dockside where a wedding procession had passed minutes before, filling the streets of Esna with hope for the future.  The air instantly grows heavy. A hundred men shuffle behind a rickety wooden bier.  Inside lies a body shrouded in white linen.

“Unusual,” says one of the ship’s employees, “Muslim burials usually don’t happen at night.  Islam requires burial before sundown on the first or second day after death.  For such a rushed burial, the person must have been important.  Or it must have been a tragic accident.”  I watch in stunned silence as the soft swish of the men’s feet and brown galabeyas kick up dust and scatter the lamplight into gritty shadows.  Within minutes the procession is gone, soon followed by another raucous wedding party.

My sister, mother, and I are traveling on a Nile cruise.  This is our first trip to Egypt.  We have an itinerary reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (1937).  We sail on Alexander the Great, a five star, boutique Nile cruise ship, host to celebrities like Jacques Chirac, Catherine de Neuve, Spanish couturier Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, and Peter Norton (of Norton Anti-Virus).  The ship prides itself on quiet English style.  Afternoon tea is served promptly at five.  Death on the Nile plays on TV.

Our fellow tourists include: two English couples celebrating their 25th wedding anniversaries together; a studiously quiet couple who live near the Welsh border; a blissfully unmarried younger couple; a group of Brazilians sunbathing on deck in g-strings to the delight of the all-male staff; and an American man who lives in New Jersey, owns a pet spa in Midtown, and who I spot on deck reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ancient Egypt.

We sale to Aswan, the frontier of the ancient Egyptian empire where the usual order of things seems disrupted.  Sand takes precedence over water.  The edges of the Sahara lap against the Nile.  I imagine Agatha Christie strolling amongst the gardens of the Old Cataract Hotel, where she stayed while in Egypt.  Did she stare at the dunes lit up in late afternoon sun and dream up the scenes in Death on the Nile?

The Old Cataract Hotel was opened in 1900.  It hosted Howard Carter after he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Winston Churchill, Francois Mitterrand, and the Aga Khan were also guests.  The 1978 film Death on the Nile was shot here.  In the novel, the cast of characters converges at the Old Cataract Hotel before boarding the Karnak.  Here we meet the heiress Linnet Doyle and her new husband Simon, the vengeful Jacqueline (who is stalking the newlyweds after her former fiance Simon was stolen by her former friend Linnet), the indomitable Hercule Poirot, the staid Mrs. Allerton, the sickly kleptomaniac Miss Van Schuyler and her cousin Cornelia Robson, and others.

Accustomed to traveling independently, I chafe under the ease and order of an organized cruise.  In the midday heat (106 degrees Fahrenheit), I dress conservatively and jump ship.  Men and boys immediately follow me. They offer carriage rides and felucca cruises.  Some taunt me (“why you walk alone lady?”).

I follow the dusty road along the dock toward the Old Cataract Hotel, hoping for peace of mind and a cool drink in the gardens.  Like much of modern Egypt, the hotel is under renovation.  Bulldozers block the entrance.  I hurriedly snap a lopsided photo before a scowling guard waves me away.  I recall Mrs. Allerton, “If there were only any peace in Egypt, I should like it better —  but you can never be alone anywhere.  Someone is always pestering you for money, or offering you donkeys, or beads, or expeditions to native villages, or duck shooting.” The men’s desperate harassment also wears on me, and yet I can see the poverty, can sense the anxiety born of political injustice.  There is a disconnect between our cruise and the homes to which these men return at night.

My family and I arrive in Shellal, the tourist village where boats to the Temple of Philae embark.  Near the dock, men sell dolls resembling Russian matryoshkas (nesting dolls).  During the Cold War, Russia sent engineers to build the Aswan Dam.  Some stayed, but all were eventually sent back to Russia.

The Temple of Philae no longer stands on the spot visited by characters in the novel.  Originally built on Philae Island in the sixth century B.C., the temple was moved when flood waters from the Aswan First Dam threatened it.  A mixture of Greek and Egyptian styles, the Classical Greek influence (wellspring for Western architecture) eases my eyes, so accustomed to this style.

We next head to Abu Simbel on the advice of the anniversary couples.  “When we first came to Egypt,” they said, “we didn’t have enough money to go to Abu Simbel.  You should see it while you’re here.  You don’t want to pay for a second trip.”

In Agatha Christie’s day, tourists reached Abu Simbel by sailing across Lake Aswan toward Nubia.  In the novel, the mood grows heavy when the Karnak passes through Nubiaâ??s desert scenery.  Sitting on the plane about to take off, I gaze at the arid, unending death of the desert and hear Linnet Doyle say, “I’m afraid — I’ve never felt like this before.  All these wild rocks and the awful grimness and starkness.”

The desert affects people in different ways.  On our cruise, the quiet couple takes dinner in their cabin.  The anniversary couples become insular.  For me, the desert’s endless vistas, devoid of water and life, oppress.  For others, the desert is life simplified.  What did the desert represent for Agatha Christie? Inspiration? Mystery? Drama?

When Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile, Abu Simbel occupied its original position closer to the shores of Lake Aswan.  In the 1960s this temple was also threatened by flood waters created by building the Aswan High Dam.  An international relief effort went into overdrive, moving the temple to higher ground and saving it in record time.

Four colossi of Ramses II are carved into the rock.  I hear echoes of Cornelia Robson, “[the statues are] so big and peaceful, and looking at them makes one feel that one’s so small and rather like an insect and that nothing matters very much really, does it?”  The temple wall paintings depict a well-endowed Ramses II spearing ancient Syrians and crushing Nubians under foot.  The savagery repeated throughout history renders meaningless my personal preoccupations.  I move away from the crowds and stand near a chain link fence bordering Lake Aswan.  I look through the wavy haze created by the extreme heat towards Sudan and ponder its wars and famines.  Despite its prominent place on the tourist map, the spot feels remote and other worldly.

In the novel, after visiting Abu Simbel, the tourists re-board the Karnak, which cruises past palm trees and cultivated fields.  The tourists feel their secret oppression lifting, the calm before the storm.  In short order, three passengers are murdered, a thief and a murderous political insurgent are revealed, and two couples are formed.

Poirot can only exclaim, “Quel pays sauvage!”

Fortunately no such tragedy befalls our group.  The banks of the Nile entrance me and I try to remember every detail: the water buffalo and camels grazing in the fields, the veiled women washing laundry, the call to prayer that lingers over the river at sunset. I have questions that a cruise, inherently voyeuristic, cannot answer.  On a cruise, life rolls by at a distance, occasionally breaking into the cinematic make believe of the ship.

Our cruise ends in Luxor.  Next we fly to Cairo, where we stay at the Mena House, at the foot of the pyramids.  Opened in the 1890s, the Mena House is so historic that it offers its own tours of the hotel.  Photographs of celebrity guests hang on the walls.  In Death on the Nile, Jacqueline appears unexpectedly at the Mena House, to Linnet’s dismay.

The Mena House is also under renovation. We stay in the glossy new wing.  We glimpse the pyramids through an obstacle course of palm trees.  The old pool (with a pyramids’ view) has been closed for over a year.  The new pool (without a pyramids’ view) lies beside a street from which traffic noise invades the pool space.  The soot of Giza filters down and floats on the water.  That evening as I sit on my balcony, the call to prayer comes in waves from all directions, the muezzins’ voices layering on top of each other, ebbing and flowing.  It lulls me to sleep, making up for other disappointments.

When Agatha Christie visited Cairo as a teenager with her mother, she cared little for museums and antiquities.  “Cairo, from the point of view of a young girl, was a dream of a delight, I was just seventeen. Cairo as Cairo meant nothing to me. My mother tried to broaden my mind by taking me occasionally to the Museum, and also suggested we should go up the Nile and see the glories of Luxor.  I protested passionately with tears in my eyes. The wonders of antiquity were the last thing I cared to see.”  Considering the crowds, the heat, the traffic, and the out of control garbage problem, I begin to understand this sentiment.  Christie would tour Egypt more extensively 20 years later, which would inspire Death on the Nile, as well as a play and a historical novel set in ancient Egypt.

Anyone slapped with the label “shy” will take solace in knowing that the most widely published author in the English language (after the Bible), also suffered from this label.  Agatha Christie’s mother brought her to Egypt for her “coming out” into society because she was too socially awkward for the London scene.  In her autobiography, she reveals the problem, “One of the older men brought me back to my mother after a dance one night and said, ‘Here’s your daughter.  She has learnt to dance.  In fact, she dances beautifully.  You had better teach her to talk now.'”  In Cairo, Christie made progress on the social front, “I remained shy in many ways,” she writes, “but I was passionately fond of dancing, and I danced well.  Also, I liked young men, and I soon found they liked me, so everything went well.”

My family and I catch our first glimpse of the pyramids’ shadowy nighttime outlines when we arrive at the Mena House.  The next day, we see them under the glorious sun.  Men hawking camel rides barrage us. One drapes turbans around the heads of my mother and sister, pushes my sister atop a camel, and shoves the reigns into my mother’s hand.  I cling to my camera while another tries to wrestle it from me.  I quickly snap a photo then fight for the release of my family.  A European tourist in six inch platforms, short shorts revealing both butt cheeks, and a cut-off tank top teeters past.

In Egypt, being a tourist is part of the scenery.  From Herodotus, to Agatha Christie, to Barack Obama, everyone’s been here.  And yet Egypt’s allure persists.  The mystery of death surrounds you:  from the funeral procession in Esna, to the cult of the Dead in the temples, to the stark death of the desert.  Yet life is ever present: from the verdant fields of the Nile delta, to the children playing on its banks, to the heavily veiled women with steady, alert eyes, to Cairo’s bustling Khan El Khalili bazaar.

Such a mixture can make a person ill at ease.  But not knowing, and wanting to know more, makes me feel most alive.  Agatha Christie was of a similar mind, “To be part of something one doesn’t in the least understand is, I think, one of the most intriguing things about life.”

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  1. A very nice article. I like it. It brings back my memories our Egypt trip in 2011. Iam fascinated by this mysterious country. Egypt intrigues me.