How Agatha Christie’s Love of Archaeology Influenced ‘Death on the Nile’
In the 1930s, the mystery writer accompanied her archaeologist husband on annual digs in the Middle East
Toward the end of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel Death on the Nile, detective Hercule Poirot likens his investigation to an archaeological excavation, declaring, “You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone. … That is what I have been seeking to do—clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth.”
Poirot’s comparison is an apt one that reflects his creator’s oft-overlooked interest in archaeology. As the wife of Max Mallowan, a British archaeologist who led digs in Syria and Iraq, Christie often accompanied her husband on his trips to the Middle East, all while she was at the peak of her powers as a best-selling author. She spent her mornings writing and her afternoons in the field, photographing excavations and conserving and cataloging finds. The methodical nature of the work greatly appealed to the mystery novelist, who “was of course fascinated by puzzles, by the little archaeological fragments,” as Charlotte Trümpler, who co-curated an early 2000s exhibition on Christie and archaeology, told CNN in 2011. “[S]he had a gift for piecing them together very patiently.”
In addition to fulfilling her “glorious, lifelong urge to learn,” expeditions offered Christie an escape from the pressures of fame, says Laura Thompson, author of Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life. “She didn’t have to be ‘Agatha Christie.’ … She could spend a big part of the year away from it all and just be Mrs. Mallowan.”
Christie’s fascination with ancient civilizations comes through in works such as Murder in Mesopotamia, a 1936 novel that centers on the killing of an archaeologist’s wife; Death Comes as the End, a 1945 whodunnit set in Egypt in 2000 B.C.E.; and, perhaps most famously, Death on the Nile. This Friday, a long-delayed film adaptation of the Poirot mystery, which follows the murder of a newlywed socialite traveling on a Nile cruise, will finally arrive in theaters. Featuring Kenneth Branagh as the Belgian detective, Gal Gadot as the murdered heiress, Emma Mackey as a spurned ex-fiancée, and a host of A-list celebrities (and one persona non grata) as Poirot’s suspects, the movie—much like its 1978 predecessor and source material—draws on both Christie’s travels and her experiences as an amateur archaeologist. Here’s what you need to know about Death on the Nile’s historical influences before seeing it.
A prolific writer who authored 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections and more than 20 plays over her five-decade career, Agatha Christie (neé Miller) first visited Egypt in 1910, when she was a young debutante. (Spending the social season in what was then a British colony was cheaper than making a society debut in England, and Christie’s family struggled financially at the time.) She dedicated her three months in Cairo to socializing with other European travelers, preferring dances, polo matches and shopping to touring Egypt’s archaeological wonders. As Christie later wrote in her autobiography, “I am very glad [my mother] did not take me. Luxor, Karnak, the beauties of Egypt, were to come upon me with wonderful impact about 20 years later. How it would have spoiled them for me if I had seen them with unappreciative eyes.”
Though Egypt’s ancient history failed to make much of an initial impression on the young Christie, her time abroad clearly shaped her early writing. She set her first novel, a romance titled Snow Upon the Desert, in Cairo but was unable to get it published. More than a decade later, in 1923, Christie—likely capitalizing on the “Egyptomania” sparked by Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb that same year—revisited the setting in a Poirot short story titled “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb.”
Christie’s next visit to the Middle East took place in the fall of 1928. Newly divorced from her first husband, Archibald Christie, the writer planned to recover from the split by “seek[ing] sunshine” in the Caribbean. Two days before she was scheduled to depart, however, her friends suggested an alternative destination: Baghdad. Traveling to the Iraqi capital via the Orient Express—a luxury train that inspired another famous Christie novel—she took in the sights before moving on to the Sumerian city of Ur, where British archaeologist Leonard Woolley was conducting a headline-making excavation on behalf of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Leonard’s wife, fellow archaeologist Katharine Woolley, was a fan of Christie’s, and the couple encouraged her to observe the ongoing dig.
“I fell in love with Ur,” Christie recalled in her autobiography. “... The lure of the past came up to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing, with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.”
Christie’s friendship with the Woolleys earned her an invitation to the tail end of the next season’s dig, in the winter of 1930. Arriving in Ur in the middle of a sandstorm, the writer reconnected with the archaeological team and introduced herself to Leonard’s assistant, 25-year-old Mallowan, who’d missed the previous season due to an illness. Katharine recruited Mallowan to take Christie, who was then a few months shy of her 40th birthday, on a tour of other ancient wonders across Iraq. When Christie received word that her daughter, Rosalind, had fallen ill, Mallowan accompanied her back to England. They wed later that year, embarking on a partnership that would endure for the rest of Christie’s life.
From 1931 onward, Christie and Mallowan followed largely the same routine, spending the fall and spring working in the Middle East, the summer in England with Rosalind, and the rest of the year either at home or traveling. “Archaeology became a way of sharing [Mallowan’s] life, which she was very keen to do, having lost her first husband—she thought—almost by her own negligence,” says Thompson.
During Mallowan’s expeditions, most of which were bankrolled by Christie, the writer took charge of camp operations, overseeing supplies and the management of local laborers. As she gained more experience in the field, she also took on projects like cataloging, illustrating and restoring artifacts. On one occasion, Christie even came up with an archaeological innovation of her own: using diluted face cream to clean ivories found in Nimrud. “There was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks!” she later wrote.
In 1933, the Mallowans stopped in Egypt on their way to an archaeological dig, boarding the S.S. Sudan for a Nile River cruise. Built in 1885 for Egypt’s royal family and converted into a cruise ship in 1921, the luxury vessel—still in operation today, complete with a suite where Christie allegedly stayed—took visitors to the Nile cataracts, Luxor and Aswan. Most passengers were members of the European elite who preferred Egypt’s “sunny skies and blue water,” as Christie later put it, to the doldrums of winter at home. The writer took careful note of both her traveling companions and the sites she saw on her journeys (she switched to another steamer to continue south to Sudan), including Karnak and Ramses II’s rock-cut Abu Simbel temples.
A few years later, Christie returned to Aswan, checking in at the Old Cataract Hotel for an extended stay. There, in a suite overlooking the riverscape, she wrote what would soon be hailed as one of her finest works: Death on the Nile.
“[This book] was written after coming back from a winter in Egypt,” Christie noted in the 1937 novel’s foreword. “When I read it now I feel myself back again on the steamer from [Aswan] to Wadi Haifa. There were quite a number of passengers on board, but the ones in the book traveled in my mind and became increasingly real to me.”
Death on the Nile borrows its setting directly from Christie’s travels. “Part II: Egypt” opens with a mother and son on vacation, sitting in a pair of “brightly painted scarlet basket chairs” outside the Cataract Hotel in Aswan. They spot Poirot, whom they recognize as a world-famous detective. Despite Poirot’s protestations that he is on holiday, he quickly finds himself investigating a love triangle among Linnet Doyle; her husband, Simon; and Jacqueline de Bellefort, the woman Simon left to wed Linnet. The action then moves to the S.S. Karnak, a steamer inspired by the Sudan.
On one of the Nile cruise’s first stops, at Abu Simbel, a boulder comes crashing down, narrowly missing Linnet. But her luck is running out, and she’s soon found dead, shot by an unknown assailant in a classic Christie whodunnit. Among the suspects are Guido Richetti, an Italian whom Poirot describes in tongue-and-cheek fashion as “almost too word-perfect in his role; … all archaeologist, not enough human being,” and Salome Otterbourne, a romance novelist whose book Snow on the Desert’s Face likely parodies Christie’s own unpublished, Egypt-set novel.
According to Thompson, Death on the Nile contains more physical description and detail than many of Christie’s other works. “It’s a book that feels unusually full of the place, the symbolism and resonance of the place, and that fits in with her profoundly developed sense of the miracle of and the survival of antiquity,” the biographer says.
Thompson theorizes that Christie’s research for the 1937 play Akhnaton, a dramatization of the life of 18th-Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten, spilled over into Death on the Nile, which she wrote around the same time. Authored at the suggestion of family friend and Egyptologist Stephen Glanville, the script “conveys [Christie’s] deep knowledge on the subject,” with much of its dialogue adapted from ancient texts, notes Egyptologist Jun Yi Wong for New Lines magazine. (The author also wrote Death Comes as the End, her only novel not set during the 20th century, at Glanville’s behest.) Immersed in Egyptian culture, Christie may have become “imaginatively lost in her setting in a way that is not always the case with her books,” says Thompson.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 put Christie and Mallowan’s annual sojourns to the Middle East on hold. Mallowan took a position with the Air Ministry in Cairo, using his knowledge of Arabic to support the war effort, while Christie remained in England, writing and volunteering at a hospital pharmacy. Separated from her husband with little news of him, the writer decided to “relive our life, to have the pleasure of remembering,” by writing a book about their time in the field. Titled Come, Tell Me How You Live, the memoir was published in November 1946 and offered a lighthearted recounting of the couple’s digs in Syria and Iraq.
Come, Tell Me How You Live, Death on the Nile and Christie’s other self-proclaimed “foreign travel” novels are undoubtedly products of their time. The writer’s descriptions of the Middle East reflect her colonialist conception of a “civilized” West and exotic “other”; early in Death on the Nile, a character tells Poirot that “[t]here’s something about this country that makes me feel—wicked. It brings to the surface all the things that are boiling inside one. Everything’s so unfair—so unjust.” At the same time, Christie’s Western characters, much like the author herself, often view the East as an escape from everyday life back home. “The question,” according to critic Grace Byron, “quickly becomes who is escaping whom and to where?”
Tinged by her Orientalist views, Christie’s writings also reflect a genuine interest in archaeology and the ancient past. As Thompson explains, she was skeptical of “clever men [who were] so assured of what they were saying”: for example, identifying a structure discovered during a dig based on limited evidence. “It all comes down to her fascination with the pursuit of truth.”
Christie, for her part, found traces of “everyday life—the life of the potter, the farmer, the tool-maker, the expert cutter of animal seals and amulets—in fact, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker” more intriguing than any royal burials or temples unearthed by her husband and his archaeologist peers. She had a “wonderful gift for [capturing] the ordinary in her novels,” says Thompson.
“The plot of Death on the Nile is clearly never going to happen in real life,” Thompson adds. “But the characters are very truthful—that poor young girl who doesn’t want people to know her mother drinks and the love triangle. [Christie is] rarely realistic but always truthful. And archaeology is the same thing. You’re trying to find the truth of the aspects of the past.”