Saturday, April 1, 2023

Life on the Nile by Mary Dutta

People make all kinds of pilgrimages, to places from Lourdes to Graceland. I made one of my own recently, to Agatha Christie’s Egypt.

Christie’s most famous connection to the country, of course, is her 1937 novel Death on the Nile. But it turns out that not only was the visit to Egypt that inspired that book not her first, but Death was not even her first Egypt-based novel.

The author first visited Egypt in 1908 or 1910 (records differ), when Egypt was under a form of British control. The desert country was a common destination for those, like Christie’s mother, seeking a better climate for various health conditions. It also afforded a social season for British expats at a much lower cost than could be had in London.

Christie and her mother spent three months in Cairo, where young Agatha had little interest in the ancient wonders around her. Instead, she enjoyed the continuous social whirl, so much so that it inspired her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert. Her efforts to publish that Cairo-set romance failed, and the book remains unpublished to this day. That early work does get a shout-out of sorts in Death on the Nile, when romance novelist Salome Otterbourne tells Hercule Poirot that she is at work on her latest romance--Snow On the Desert’s Face.

Marriage to her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, in 1930 meant more trips to Egypt for Christie as she accompanied him to various digs in Iraq and Syria. In 1933, they cruised the Nile aboard the SS Sudan, which appears as the thinly veiled SS Karnak in Death on the Nile. One afternoon as our sail-powered dahabiya cruised along, the steam-powered Sudan passed by heading in the other direction and transporting me straight into Christie’s novel.

Our cruise ended in Aswan, and I made it to the holy-of-holies for Christie fans in Egypt--the Old Cataract Hotel. Christie’s characters stay at what was then known as the Cataract Hotel before boarding their cruise, and Christie herself lived there for almost a year while she wrote the novel. The beautiful building’s public spaces evoke an earlier era, starting from the entry to the grounds.

Christie’s suite remains, though none of its original furnishings do.

And while I don’t know if Dame Agatha ever enjoyed afternoon tea on the terrace overlooking the Nile, I certainly did, raising a toast to the mystery maven who I felt was with me in spirit.

A pilgrimage is a journey of discovery, and along the way on mine I learned many things. For instance, another famed British mystery writer also visited Egypt and wrote a novel about an ill-fated Nile cruise. In 1896, Arthur Conan Doyle made the first of several trips to Egypt, in hopes that the climate would improve his first wife’s tuberculosis. His subsequent novel, The Tragedy of the Korosko (1898), involves a group of European and American travelers who embark on a cruise that goes terribly awry. The threat in that story, though, comes from local dervishes, not from murderous fellow passengers.

Needless to say, there was also much to learn from Egypt itself, such as the fact that there was a high-ranking priest to the Pharaoh whose title was “keeper of the secrets.” Is there a better term for a mystery writer? And I brought home a souvenir of the Egyptian god Thoth, represented as an Ibis.

He is the god of writing, a fitting reminder that as long as there have been people, they have had stories to tell.

Have you ever embarked on a literary pilgrimage? And did it inspire your own writing?


  1. Never did a literary pilgrimage per say, but I've enjoyed visiting the houses authors lived in when they were near my travels. I'm so happy for you that you were able to take this trip.

  2. We saw the Old Cataract Hotel and Agatha's writing balcony from a felucca on the Nile. Magic!

  3. Sooooooo cool, Mary. I'm completely jealous. I've visited a number of houses, where authors lived, museums dedicated to them, and their graves here and in Britain. Fun times, inspiring, and solemn.

  4. So jealous! It’s on my bucket list. Thanks for sharing your experience (and those awesome photos)!

  5. What great pictures!

    My last "pilgrimage" was a visit to Green Gables, of Anne of Green Gables fame.