TRAVEL: Agatha Christie & the Nile
While one can collect tangible Agatha Christie items – such as books – it is sometimes the intangible experiences that can be an even more satisfying part of the ‘collecting Christie’ journey. As the world starts to benefit from vaccines and the promise of travel starts to glimmer on the horizon, now felt like the right time to revisit our favourite Christie travel experience – a journey across Egypt centered around time aboard the Steamship Sudan.
Background: In 1933 Agatha Christie steamed on the Nile visiting the many wonderful archeological sites along the way from Cairo to Aswan. Her experiences were immortalized in one of her most famous novels – Death on the Nile. Today, travellers can follow very closely in Agatha’s footsteps with a journey aboard the same boat – the Steamship (SS) Sudan.
The boat and the journey transport you back in time and provide an experience rarely found anywhere in the world today. Timeless, luxury travel in a land with unparalleled wonders. For any fan of Agatha Christie, it is a journey that must be made.
History of the SS Sudan: With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 awareness of Egypt rose and its economy improved. Thomas Cook, a British entrepreneur, saw the potential in bringing the British aristocracy to Egypt to explore its history. He organised the first cruise on the Nile in a boat rented from the Khedive (Viceroy of Egypt), and when Egypt became a British protectorate in 1876 Cook expanded his operations and ultimately obtained the concession for all tourism-related river sailing.
Cook extended his empire along the Nile banks with the construction of hotels, including the Old Cataract Hotel at Aswan in 1899, which was designed to cater to cruise passengers obliged to stop off on their way to the great temples of Upper Nubia, including Abu Simbel. Between 1911 & 1921 Cook built a new fleet of faster steam ships, named Egypt, Arabia, and Sudan. They reduce the length of a Cairo-Aswan voyage to 20 days drawing even more tourists.
By the 1920s cruising aboard the SS Sudan along the Nile attracted diplomats, high society and archaeologists – all who would pay handsomely to discover the fabulous sites of Ancient Egypt. In 1933, Agatha Christie & Max Mallowan embarked on one of these journeys while on their way to join an archaeological mission in Aswan. During this cruise, Agatha Christie became inspired to write Death on the Nile.
End of an Era: World War II brought an end to tourism on the Nile and the SS Sudan was docked along with Cook’s other ships. It sat abandoned until the early 1990s when tourism started to recover, and the SS Sudan was relaunched by an Egyptian shipowner for a German tour operator. But it was short lived. In 2000, the French travel company Voyageurs du Monde partnered with the Egyptian owner to refit the ship and restore it to its golden age splendor. Full ownership by the French company occurred in 2006 and further restorations occurred, giving us the SS Sudan as it is today.
Travelling on the SS Sudan Today: Due to lower water levels on the Nile and to accommodate shorter journey times that appeal to today’s travellers, the SS Sudan currently steams between Luxor and Aswan – with sailings in both directions.
Luxor is the gateway to many of the wonders of Egypt, including Karnak, the Valley of the Kings & Queens, and thus the burial tombs of Egypt’s greats.
In Luxor, you will also find the Winter Palace hotel – sadly in need of refurbishment – but also a destination for anyone travelling in Christie’s footsteps as she stayed her also. Our journey in 2020 on the SS Sudan took us up-river (south), with stops along the way, including Edfu and Kom Ombu.
After five nights and six days aboard we disembarked in Aswan. Aboard the ship, impeccable service and high-quality food and drink enhance the experience. The number of rooms aboard the Sudan are far fewer today than when Christie sailed on her, as remodelling has allowed all the rooms to now be ensuite, reducing the number to 20.
Several of the rooms are larger named suites, including one named Agatha Christie & another named Hercule Poirot.
The Old Cataract Hotel: After leaving the ship in Aswan, many passengers stay a few nights at the Old Cataract Hotel as we did.
This is another must see for Christie fans as it was here that Christie stayed while her husband participated in excavations on Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile directly across from the hotel. Built by Thomas Cook, the Old Cataract hotel continues the golden age experience. With wonderful views, Moorish architecture, and top-class service, it is a fitting place to stay after the SS Sudan.
For those who want a very glamourous experience, you can stay in the Agatha Christie suite at this hotel, with a balcony with views across to the island (pictures above). While hotel staff will tell you that Christie chose this room so that she could see Max at work, it is uncertain if this really was the room she stayed in. Regardless, it has been fully remodelled to a very high standard and will satisfy the more fastidious traveller – which it should given that in high-season its rack rate is $8,000 USD per night. There are much more affordable rooms that will accommodate most travellers’ budgets. Of note, the hotel has preserved the desk and chair from Christie’s suite, displaying them in the lobby with a sign that she wrote some of Death on the Nile at this desk during her 6 month stay at the hotel.
Abu Simbel: When Christie visited, she would have travelled by land south of Aswan to pass the cataracts in the Nile to smoother waters, where she would have joined a different ship. From here, she would have steamed south to Abu Simbel – the temples of Ramses II and his wife Nefertari.
The image of Ramses II’s temple and the steamship grace the dust jacket of the Collins Crime Club first edition, designed by Christie’s archaeological friend, Robin (Mac) Macartney.
Collecting Books: The first edition of Death on the Nile, in jacket, evokes both the time and place of Christie’s visit. It is a highly appealing collectible for any fan of Christie’s works – but is also for those with deep pockets. A jacketed version in very good condition will generally cost at least £6-7,000.
The US first edition is still appealing, featuring the Steamship and the Sphinx on the cover, and is quite a bit more affordable with very good jacketed copies costing at least $2-3,000. At the other end of the price spectrum would be paperbacks of which the Fontana version with cover art by Tom Adams is our favourite and also very evocative of place and crime, and can easily be found in very good condition for only £5-10.
A Note re: Film Adaptations: The film version of Death on the Nile featuring David Suchet as Poirot was filmed aboard the SS Sudan and visited most of the sites discussed in this article. The new film featuring Kenneth Branagh was mostly shot aboard a replica in a sound stage. Even Abu Simbel was a reproduction erected at the studio in the UK.