By Veronica Hackethal
What happens when two sisters and their mother encounter Agatha Christie’s Egypt three months before the recent revolution? An account of Egypt’s timeless mysteries, with observations about how the contemporary living situation contributed to Egypt’s recent upheaval.
“Gosh, a funeral procession!” exclaims an English traveler, with typical understatement. He points dockside where a wedding procession had passed just 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 job, 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 passengers 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 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 Dummie’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 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. 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 before boarding the cruise ship Karnak. At the Old Cataract we meet the heiress Linnet Doyle and her new husband Simon, the vengeful Jacqueline (who is stalking the newlyweds because her former friend Linnet stole her former fiancé Simon), 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 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. 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 Nubia’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.
I am dwarfed by the famous four colossi of Ramses II carved into the rock at Abu Simbel. I hear echoes of Cornelia Robson, “…