Settled on the terrace veranda of the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, Agatha Christie began writing one of her famous murder mysteries. Soaking in the heat of the sun, watching the beauty of the gliding felucca sails, the sparkling waterfront, and experiencing the opulence of imperialism, Christie was inspired to set a tale of exoticism, luxury, mystery, treachery, and murder.
Seventy-one years later, the Old Cataract Hotel, its splendor, its majestic vista, and its legacy of colonialism still exist. It is possible to sit on the same luxurious veranda, sip away at Earl Gray, nibble at lemon tarts, and experience the imposition, both beautiful and destructive of the British Empire on Egypt’s history. Christie’s book gives us a lense through which to view the colonial past by narrating about its surviving relics.
Born into an aristocratic British family, Agatha Christie was able to pursue her passion for writing freely and grew to be immensely successful at her craft, hailed by the Guinness world records as the best selling writer of books of all time.
Her second marriage to the archeologist, Sir Max Mallowan, brought her to Egypt at the height of British rule, and served as inspiration for multiple mystery stories set in the Middle East. “Death on the Nile, takes place on the heavily frequented tourist route from Aswan to Luxor and Cairo.
The intersection of Christie’s background and the sociopolitical climate of 1936 Egypt created an interesting subtext for reading the novel. The fascination surrounding Egypt’s history, its ancient artifacts, its exoticism, and the simultaneous disrespect and intrusion on its autonomy is perceived by examining the context in which Christie wrote and its affect on her storyline.
In “Death on the Nile, the environment heightens the mystery; the context makes the danger more present and the stakes unknown. But while Egypt is a mysterious backdrop, the action, the characters, and plotline are European. However in a knowing twist, the author makes the travelers responsible for the crimes inflicted. They bring the conflict with them.
However an abstract, historic, sociopolitical dissection of Christie’s story is not what makes it most interesting. The excitement of the storyline and its ability to connect with our present surroundings make “Death on the Nile compelling. This is primarily achieved through references to historic hotels and restaurants. The book gives Egyptian readers new eyes through which to examine the subtle connections involved in a quiet stroll downtown or a quick vacation to Upper Egypt.
Christie’s characters come into contact with still existent, colonial establishments such as Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel, Luxor’s Winter Palace, and the Shepeard Hotel in Cairo. Christie’s book gives us a tangible location to picture her story in. While in Christie’s time the hotels were once peripheral to the Pharonic monument pilgrimage, they are now a valuable part of the historic Egyptian experience.
The hotel’s beautiful details and decorations tell stories of the merging and friction between cultures. An afternoon tea and French pastries on the Old Cataract Hotel terrace overlook the Nubian desert landscape; a whiskey at the dim, velvety Winter Palace bar is served but one hundred meters from the Luxor Temple; and brunch at the Shepeard hotel dining room with its mashrabia ceiling, all exhibit the grandeur of the past.
For tourists “Death on the Nile also capitalizes on the dynamics that form between strangers, acquaintances, and friends, which become intimately interlocked through travel. In the book, a couple comes to Egypt to celebrate their honeymoon, hoping to escape their complicated history. Instead they are followed by a jealous ex and trapped on the cruise in an even greater web of tangled lies. After taking any guided tour or cruise, one can identify with the peculiar relationships formed, delicately balanced between familiarity and mistrust aboard these expeditions.
In reading “Death on the Nile, one does not only look for clues to solve Christie’s mystery, but clues to patch together Egypt’s own complicated storyline.