Agatha Christie in Shiraz
November 23, 2001
A bitter November wind blew across the vast courtyard of the British
Museum sending a few orange leaves into the air. A dozen tourists stood
shivering on the steps of a genuine Simplon-Orient-Express voitures-lits
that inspired one of Agatha Christie's most famous novels and film. It was
almost half-past-four in the afternoon and my wife was anxious not to miss
Holding on to her gloved hand she rushed me up the stairs.
We crossed the marbled hall and bought our tickets at the Great Court. The
exhibition, created by Dr. Charlotte Trumpler of the Ruhrlandmuseum, Essen,
and the family of the famous crime writer and her archaeologist husband,
was located in Room 5 in the West Wing Exhibition Gallery. To get there
we had to pass through a narrow corridor where Peter Ustinov's white linen
suit used in the film "Death On The Nile" hung majestically in
front of an enlarged photo of an Egyptian sunset complete with feluccas
sailing down river.
Room 5 stood adjacent to a vast gallery of giant Babylonian, Median,
and Persian statues peering down on us from several hundred centuries. Our
visit started uneventfully as we went inside, briefly stopping by at the
museum shop. Then as if lured by magic we followed the sounds drifting from
the labyrinth: jazz music, laughter, the chuff chuff of a train's engine,
the voice of a commentator and at the end the piercing chant of a muezzin.
Trains have always been one of my favourite things. For me the idea of
creative heaven is to sit in a comfortable compartment with a good book,
pen and notepad in case I'm struck with inspiration. But more interesting
than that is the level of dialogue and the interesting, even strange characters
that often show up on the train.
In the antechamber where a short film was playing was a large map tracing
the famous train routes that connected the great cities of London, Paris,
Venice, Istanbul, Damascus and Baghdad. One rare poster that caught my attention
depicted the Sassanian arch at Ctesiphone near the capital of modern Iraq.
The caption beneath read: "London-Baghdad In 8 Days By Simplon-Orient-Express
& Taurus Express: Safety, Rapidity, Economy."
In the autumn of 1928, at the age of thirty-eight, Agatha Christie,
recently divorced from her estranged husband and writing for a living, was
at a low point in her life, and in need of a holiday. As she boarded the
Orient Express for the first time she was unaware how the journey would
change her life so entirely. Five days before leaving London, Agatha had
been introduced to a naval officer and his wife over dinner at a friend's
The couple had lived in Baghdad and had loved it. The more they talked
about the city the more fascinated she had become so much so that when they
proposed she travel by the Orient Express Agatha had, the next morning,
rushed round to Cook's, cancelled her tickets for the West Indies, and instead
got tickets and reservations for the journey to Mesopotamia determined to
find herself and all the pleasures of the unknown.
From Baghdad where she stayed a few days she travelled on to Ur, to Leonard
Woolley's excavations, widely publicised in England at that time. Woolley's
wife, Katherine, was a fan of Agatha's writing and together they explored
"The lure of the past came up to grab me," Christie wrote in
autobiography. "To see a dagger slowly appearing, with its gold
glint, through the sand was romantic." Agatha fell in love with Ur,
with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up to the moon, faintly
shadowed, "and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colours of
apricot, rose, blue and mauve changing every minute."
In the spring of 1930 Agatha took up Katherine's invitation
and returned to Mesopotamia where she met Max Mallowan, an archaeologist
fifteen years her junior. They seemed to hit it off and soon afterwards
they were married in England. Life with Max took Agatha to worlds she had
not known and in Room 5 my Baghdad born wife pointed at the notebooks and
letters and novels exhibited around the place showing how stimulating Agatha
had found these new experiences.
Of her stories Christie always said that, while her characters were fictitious,
the settings were real and some of her plots and characters were based loosely
on experience and imagination. When Agatha rejoined Max in the following
spring she arrived in the middle of a dust-storm.
Unfortunately, the exhibition which concentrated on the couple's Mesopotamian
digs in far-flung places such as Nimrud, Nineveh and Ur between 1930 and
1958, had omitted an important part. In 1931, when the season's expedition
came to an end, Max and Agatha decided to go home by way of Persia on a
brief honeymoon. There was a small air service (German) which had just started
running from Baghdad to Persia. Boarding a single-engined machine, with
one pilot, they flew to Hamadan, then to Tehran. From Tehran they flew to
Being a Shirazi myself I must admit that the discovery of this fact has
always made me proud for she too was enchanted by my beloved city. "I
remember how beautiful it looked like a dark emerald-green jewel in a great
desert of greys and browns," she wrote. She praised the gardens and
While in Shiraz, Max and Agatha visited a beautiful old house where the
rooms had various pictures painted in medallions on the ceilings and walls.
So enamoured did she become of this house probably Qavam's Narenjestan that
she was to return two more times to Shiraz in search of it and when she
found it she was disappointed. The house was already dilapidated and abandoned,
but it was still beautiful, even if dangerous to walk about in. She used
it as the setting for a short story called, "The House at Shiraz"
with a mad English woman and her dead servant among her characters.
From Shiraz they went by car to Isfahan which
she considered a "lovely fairy-tale city" adorned with glorious
colours, of rose, blue and gold the flowers, birds, mosques and illustrated
tiles. Many years later, in the 1970s, Isfahan's Shah Abbas Hotel was used
to film a murder scene with actor Charles Aznavour collapsing in front of
a piano in the film, "Ten Little Indians".
Agatha Christie as the exhibition revealed was influenced by time and
place. She was also a keen photographer shooting pictures with her Leica
camera from the balcony of her suite at the Winter Palace in Luxor. A chance
meeting with Howard Carter who discovered Tutankhamun's tomb and the ruins
at Karnak in Egypt left a deep, eerie impression on her writing, even inspiring
her historical play, Akhnaton (1937).
Max returned to the Middle East after the Second World War with Agatha
at his side and in 1949 she wrote, "They
Came to Baghdad" published two years later while sitting on a terrace
of the house belonging to the British School of Archaeology in Iraq. The
main character of this bestseller was an absent-minded archaeologist that
leaves no doubt to the reader whom she meant.
Max Mallowan's dig in Nimrud lasted until 1958 when he returned to England.
After his retirement from the field Max took up writing about his discoveries
in Iraq and Iran. More importantly, I learned, he had founded the British
Institute of Persian Studies in 1962. As a result he made numerous visits
to Iran and worked closely with British and Iranian colleagues in Tehran,
something that did not go unnoticed by the Shah of Iran.
Among the surprises in Room 5, were two medals from Iran and a letter
from Buckingham Palace dated 8th December, 1977. It read: "Sir, I have
the honour to inform you that the Queen has been graciously pleased to grant
to you unrestricted permission to wear the insignia of Order of Homayoon,
Class 2, which has been conferred upon you by His Imperial Majesty, Mohammed
Reza Shah Pahlavi Arya Mehr, Shahanshah of Iran in recognition of your services."
While Agatha continued to enjoy her success as one of the world's most
famous crime writers, Max went on to teach at Oxford. He was knighted in
1968 and in 1973 he was appointed a Trustee of the British Museum.
Towards the end of the exhibition a certain sadness had taken over as
we read how in her last years Dame Agatha had led a modest life, living
quietly and privately, enjoying books, music, flowers, her house in South
Devon, garden and friends. She died on 12 January 1976 at Winterbrook, just
after luncheon, and was buried in the churchyard at Cholsey, nearby.
Her death left Max with "a feeling of emptiness after forty-five
years of a loving and merry companionship." In September 1977 Max Mallowan
married his old friend Barbara Parker who had been the epigraphist at Nimrud.
He died the following year on 1st August 1978.
It was half-past five and as we came to the end of the exhibition
it was clear to my wife and I that the contents of Room 5 with its wide
range of objects over 200 including diaries, photos, Hollywood sketches
of costumes for movies based on her novels, and previously unseen films,
shot by Christie herself, had revealed a unique personality who had combined
writing with the reality of archaeological excavation and oriental travel.
Agatha Christie as far as we were concerned had in her lifetime held a certain
dialogue with civilizations different from hers and yet rooted in antiquity
Outside the museum in the main courtyard, my wife Shuhub and I toured
the inside of the voitures-lits and marvelled at the exquisite compartments
of the Orient-Express train promising each other a trip one day on the real
thing. Later on the way home we imagined our own personal travels from our
sunny childhoods in Shiraz and Baghdad to another existence in London.
We recalled how we had fallen in love among the Babylonian and Persian
statues in the British Museum. We talked about the past and how once we
had wanted to be archaeologists and how despite this unfulfilled dream we
still longed to revisit our lost cities. We imagined a day when we would
stroll together among the eternal ruins of Persepolis and Ctesiphon.
Then the words of Agatha Christie haunted us. "Never," she
warned, "go back to a place where you have been happy. Until you do
it remains alive for you. If you go back it will be destroyed."