The assistant at the British Museum was incredulous when I told her about the recovery of the intricately carved Assyrian ivory plaques at Nimrud in northern Iraq. "Really!" she said, "Agatha Christie did that?"
Agatha Christie fans who travel to London today are much more likely to attend a performance of The Mousetrap than to visit the British Museum to see the ancient ivories she helped bring to light at digs in the 1950's. Certainly, the world knows Christie best as an author and playwright: The Mousetrap has been staged continuously in London since 1952, and her 94 books have been translated into 103 languages - 14 more than Shakespeare. Indeed, you'll find few booksellers today who don't stock a full shelf of Christie murder mysteries.
What's less well known is that a good deal of the author's immense output - she produced well over 100 works, including 21 plays - grew out of her close and affectionate links with the Middle East. In fact, she put together some of her most popular whodunits while assisting at digs in Iraq and Syria.
To do that, she had to cope with conditions that would have sent many women scurrying home. Roads in Iraq in the 1950's "were terribly bad, but Agatha never grumbled once with all of the bumps," recalled Robert Hamilton, an expedition surveyor at Nimrud. "She put up with any discomfort. Her endurance for physical exhaustion was incredible."
Hamilton, now in his 80's, reminisced about Christie when I visited him at his home in Suffolk, England. "You are wrong to think that [Christie] can't live in a tent," he read from a letter that he'd written home from Nimrud in 1950. "Indeed, she has traveled much, in the most varied circumstances, and stayed in places much queerer than tents, many times before."
Christie's daughter, Rosalind Christie Hicks, provided more insights about the author's Middle Eastern experiences at Greenway House, the family home in Devon, England. "She was very sympathetic to the Arabs and the people she was dealing with," recalled Rosalind, who spent a season with Christie and her archeologist husband, Max Mallowan, at a dig in Syria in the 1930's. "She understood how they lived. She didn't try to interfere in their life in any way."
Nimrud in the 1950's was Christie's last stop in a Middle Eastern journey that started several hundred kilometers to the south, at the site of the ancient Sumerian capital of Ur, in 1928. During the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's, she lived in or visited Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iran, and most of these countries provided venues for her crime stories.
In Murder in Mesopotamia, super-sleuth Hercule Poirot solves homicides at a dig in Iraq. In Death on the Nile, he catches a killer aboard a Nile cruise ship. In Appointment with Death, he uncloaks a murderer who committed the crime at Petra in Jordan. Those books were published in 1937,1938 and 1939, respectively.
Christie also set many of her short stories in the Middle East. In Parker Pyne Investigates, published in 1934, another detective unravels mysteries in Baghdad, on the Nile, in Shiraz in Iran, and at Petra.
The author dramatized at least one of her Middle Eastern mysteries, Death on the Nile; it was staged in London and New York in 1946. The film version, starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, was shot in Egypt in 1978, reopening that country to foreign filmmaking after a long drought. The film's New York release that year coincided with the opening of the King Tutankhamen exhibit (See Aramco World, May-June 1977).
Born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller to an American father and an English mother in Devon 100 years ago this September, the author was actually slow to establish ties with the Middle East. She missed a golden opportunity at age 20, when she was in Cairo for her formal "coming-out" into society in the winter of 1910-11. Invited to sample Egypt's historical riches, she declined, preferring dances and picnics.
"Mother tried to broaden my mind by taking me to the Egyptian Museum, and also suggested we should go up the Nile to see the glories of Luxor," she wrote in her autobiography, Agatha Christie, published in 1976, a year after her death. "I protested passionately with tears in my eyes The wonders of antiquity were the last thing I cared to see."
Cairo did make an impression, however. Shortly after returning to England, she drafted her first novel in a Cairo setting. She called it Snow Upon the Desert and modeled its characters on people she'd seen in a hotel dining room. But she was unable to market the manuscript.
Christie's circumstances were greatly changed by 1928, when she returned to the Middle East, this time to Iraq. She was by then a successful crime writer, with nine books to her credit. But she was also lonely, her daughter Rosalind said.
The authors' world had been shattered in 1926 when, first, her mother died and she then lost her husband, Archie Christie, to another woman. In December 1926, overwrought and probably ill, she vanished for 10 days. The curiosity of the press and the public was only whetted when she turned up under an assumed name in a Yorkshire hotel, claiming to have no memory of the days of her disappearance. Her marriage to Christie ended in divorce in April 1928.
Agatha Christie's trip to Baghdad, undertaken the following fall, wasn't planned until the last moment. In fact, Christie already had tickets in hand to sail to the Caribbean when she changed directions after dining with a couple just back from Iraq. She was especially intrigued when she discovered she could go part of the way on the Orient Express.
"My mother was lonely at the time; she didn't know where she was going for her holiday," said Rosalind. "I think it was a pretty bold step to go to the Middle East, traveling on her own."
Christie journeyed by train from London to Damascus and then rode 48 hours on a six-wheeler bus across the desert to Baghdad (See Aramco World, July-August 1981). The trip introduced her to the settings for several later crime stories, including Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934, and "The Gate of Baghdad," a Parker Pyne short story in which a man is done in on a bus bound for Damascus.
The trip entranced Christie. The dawn painted "lovely colors all over the desert -pale pink, apricots and blues," she wrote. "This is what I longed for. This was getting away from everything. What more could one ask of life?"
The answer to her question awaited her at Ur, where archeologist Leonard Woolley was uncovering evidence of the long-buried Sumerian civilization.
The dig, in southern Iraq, gave Christie the setting and several characters for Murder in Mesopotamia. Even more important, it was the site - in 1929 - for the opening chapter of a personal love story as fascinating as any of her works of fiction. In the few days she was at Ur, in 1928, Christie struck up a strong friendship with Woolley and his wife, Katherine. They stayed at her house in London in the summer of 1929, and invited her back to Iraq.
On her return trip the author met Max Mallowan, the expedition assistant at Ur. As she put it in verse 16 years later, in the introduction to Come Tell Me How You Live, she found Mallowan "a-sitting on a tell" - the mound of earth and rubble that overlies an ancient site of human habitation. She was fascinated by what he told her about his work.
... 'Who are you, sir?" to him 1 said,
"For what is it you look?"
His answer trickled through my head
Like bloodstains in a book...
Mallowan, then 26, was bright, quiet and adept at dealing with the dig's Iraqi workmen. He'd been absent with appendicitis the previous season.
"His accents mild were full of wit," wrote Christie. He told her:
"Five thousand years ago
Is really, when I think of it,
The choicest age I know.
And once you learn to scorn A.D.
And you have got the knack,
Then you could come and dig with me
And never wander back"
Continued the author:
But I was thinking how to thrust
Some arsenic into tea, And could not all at once adjust
My mind so far B.C. I looked at him and softly sighed,
His face was pleasant too...
"Come tell me how you live?" I cried,
"And what it is you do?"
Again Christie stayed at Ur just a few days. Then Katherine Woolley assigned Mallowan to accompany her back as far as Baghdad. Along the way, they discovered a lake and went for a swim; afterward, their car bogged down in the soft sand some 65 kilometers (40 miles) from the nearest town. They escaped a few hours later with the help of a carload of locals, but Mallowan was so impressed by Christe's uncomplaining behavior - she even fell alseep in the shade of the trapped auto -that he later wrote, "I then decided she must be a remarkable woman." He accompanied her most of the way home, proposed, and they were married soon after. The author kept her original married name for professional reasons, but when Come Tell Me How You Live came out in 1946, it was under the name Agatha Christie Mallowan.
She rejoined Mallowan at Ur early in 1931. He'd resigned his job, and the two took another route home to Britain, flying first to Iran. The author called Isfahan "the most beautiful city in the world," but she chose another Iranian city for her Parker Pyne short story "The House in Shiraz."
Mallowan quickly got a posting on a British dig at Nineveh in northern Iraq, and Christie joined him late in 1931. She started a new life in rhythm with his: traveling annually to digs, pitching in on expedition jobs, and - always - writing. The couple spent the summers in England, and Christie came home for Christmas every year.
She made an issue of her profession early on at Nineveh, where workers were digging a 30-meter (90-foot) pit to get to the level of the huge tell's earliest inhabitants. Overriding the wishes of the expedition's parsimonious director, she spent her own funds for a sturdy writing table in the bazaar in nearby Mosul, but her "extravagance" was quickly forgotten: On the table she typed Lord Edgware Dies, to be published in 1933, and then read the manuscript to the director and his wife. When workers unearthed a skeleton, it was promptly dubbed "Lord Edgware."
Mallowan's influence stimulated Christie's work. She wrote 15 well-received mysteries between 1930 and 1938 - what one biographer called "the single most productive nine-year period of her career."
By 1938, Mallowan had also made a name for himself as the leader of successful digs in Iraq and Syria. But Christie still got top billing with the public. In 1933, for example, when Mallowan embarked on his first independent expedition at the small mound of Arpachiyah, near Nineveh, a London newspaper headlined "Novelist on Thrilling Trip; Agatha Christie in Search of a Lost People."
Christie herself called the 1930's "particularly satisfying." The digs, far from the concerns of modern life, provided the peace she needed to work. "I enjoy writing books while I am in the desert. There are no distractions such as telephones, theaters, operas, houses and gardens," she's quoted as saying in The Agatha Christie Companion.
The digs themselves were also often good fun - even when she had to battle invasions of mice, fleas and more.
By the mid-1930's, Mallowan had moved to new ground in north-eastern Syria, with his wife beside him. There, the living conditions at the expedition's initial lodgings tried even Christie, as she admitted in Come Tell Me How You Live.
"No sooner have the lamps been extinguished than mice in their scores really believe in their hundreds - emerge from the holes in the walls and the floor. They gaily run over our bed, squeaking as they run. Mice across one's face, mice tweaking your hair...."
After Christie threatened to flee to Aleppo on the first train, Mallowan had their beds moved outdoors, and a suitable cat was found. In five days the mouse crisis was over - but the fleas proved more intractable. Most annoying, Christie wrote, was their "tireless energy, their never-ending hopping races round and round one's middle that wears one out. Impossible to drop off to sleep
Christie normally accompanied her husband to the mound at dawn, she wrote, "though occasionally I stay at home to deal with other things - e.g. mending of pottery and objects, labeling, and sometimes to ply my own trade on the typewriter."
She also worked in a rudimentary darkroom where she said she was "practically asphxiated." And she was medical adviser for the expedition's 140-man force of Arab, Kurdish and Turkish workers. She'd served as a nursing and pharmacy aide in Britain during World War I, training that was invaluable when a doctor was a day or more away.
Christie also launched cooking classes, with only partially positive results: "Lemon curd is a great success; shortbread is so uneatable that we secretly bury it; a vanilla souffle, for a wonder, goes right; whereas a Chicken Maryland (owing, as I realized later, to the extreme freshness and incredible age of the chicken) is so tough one cannot get one's teeth through it!"
World War II brought Chrstie home to England. Mallowan joined the Royal Air Force, and was sent to North Africa. In London, where Christie's war work was at a dispensary, she wrote Come Tell Me How You Live as a way of keeping in touch with her life in Syria before the war. And she produced more mysteries, including Death Comes in the End, a tale of intrigue and murder within the family of a minor official in Egypt almost 4000 years ago. To achieve historical accuracy in her characters, she peppered a family friend, Egyptologist Stephen Glanville, with questions about the daily lives of the people of the period.
The work, her only whodunit set in ancient times, was a critical success when it came out in 1945. "Besides giving us a mystery story quite up to her own high standard," wrote a reviewer in The New York Times, "Agatha Christie has succeeded admirably in picturing the people of ancient Egypt as living persons and not as resurrected mummies."
Christie was no stranger to ancient Egypt. In 1937, she'd written a play called Akhnaton, about the heretic pharaoh of the 14th century BC. An ambitious effort, with 11 scenes and 22 characters, the play didn't satisfy Christie, who tucked it away and forgot about it. It wasn't published until 1973, when she rediscovered it among her papers. In his memoirs, Mallowan said Akhnaton "comes as near to historical plausibility as any play about the past can be." He said the play offered a way "to learn painlessly about Ancient Egypt...."
When World war II ended, Mallowan secured - in 1947- the new Chair of Western Asiatic History at the University of London, and he and his wife got set to return to the Middle East. By 1949, arrangements had been made to work again in Iraq. But now they flew: It was cheaper and faster. "No more Orient Express this time, alas," wrote Christie. "You flew from London to Baghdad and that was that."
Mallowan returned to Baghdad as director of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq. Robert Hamilton, the former director of antiquities for Palestine and now the secretary of the school, met him and Christie there in January 1949. He'd rented a house for the school in Baghdad, and purchased a four-wheel-drive Dodge for the expedition. In February, Hamilton wrote to his wife that the explorers had taken the newly painted car out "to try out the springs, me driving, and Agatha got a good shaking in the front seat - which she bore nobly with complete fortitude."
The dig got under way shortly after that. The staff consisted of Mallowan, Hamilton, Christie and a representative of the Iraq Antiquities Department. For the author, life picked up where it had left off: She was initially responsible for photography; she carefully cleaned the ivory artifacts uncovered by the expedition; and she helped out with culinary tasks. Within a year a mud-brick expedition house was built on the tell, and a few years later Christie got her own attached room, which she paid for herself and where she wrote. The room still survives as a storehouse - and so, at least as late as 1986, do fond memories of the author. Early that year, an elderly watchman at the site told me with a broad smile how well he remembered "Lady Mallowan."
"Agatha had a typewriter and she typed away. She wrote most days, and did a certain amount of work ..." noted Hamilton, who himself was pressed into the service of literature in 1951, carrying the corrected galleys of two books from Christie's publisher in London to her at the dig.
Though in her 60's, heavy and troubled by arthritis, Christie kept pace with her much younger colleagues at the dig, and provided some spice as well. She liked to joke, recalled Hamilton, and she wrote humorous poems about her colleagues. She also paid for some trips into the surrounding countryside, and chipped generously into the kitty so that team members always dined well.
"Agatha's always good-tempered and surprisingly sympathtic and nice," Hamilton wrote home early in 1950. "She takes a lot of time to organize her own physical comfort and enjoyment, but at the same time is almost equally concerned with other people's well-being - not the least bit selfish."
And she still enjoyed swimming whenever she could. In 1955, Christie and two other women from the then-expanded dig stopped for a dip on an outing to the River Zab. They changed into their suits on the shore and jumped in "watched by a fascinated crowd of children," Hamilton wrote in May.
Five years later, in 1960, the archeologist and the author left Nimrud for the last time. For his work, Mallowan was knighted in 1968. For hers, Christie became a Dame of the British Empire in 1971. Though their careers were dissimilar in many ways, the couple found common ground in the joy of making discoveries in a land they came to appreciate.
As Christie herself put it, writing of a picnic in the Syrian countryside in 1938, "the utter peace is wondeful. A great wave of happiness surges over me, and I realize how much I love this country and how complete and satisfying this life is...."
Aramco writer Arthur Clark is a long-time fan of Agatha Christie's novels.