The elements of plot were all in place. An exotic setting, a cruise through the ancient land of the Pharaohs, a small, isolated group of colorful characters, a great detective (that would be me by-the-way), and, hopefully, at least one murderer in our midst. But whom?
I have been an avid mystery fan, in particular an Agatha Christie aficionado, ever since a dotty aunt of mine started leaving dog-eared Christie mysteries behind on our cottage bookshelf. I began reading her novels surreptitiously at first, (because the book’s campy covers seemed a bit risqué), and stopped a few years later, if temporarily, only because I had read everything she wrote. Now, thankfully blessed with a somewhat aging memory, I have begun to enjoy her whodunnits anew.
Her mysteries are the finest of puzzles, exercise for the little gray cells, splendidly plotted, and always with a masterful denouement. After I read “Death on the Nile” as a teen, I was fully hooked, not only with the mystery but also with the romantic destination. This was one of Christie’s finest, a superb exposition, engaging characters, and a glamorous setting. Who could ask for more? Not I – which is why I find myself here, on my own Egyptian adventure.
Chapter 1 – Our Arrival and Character Introductions
My wife and I arrive in Cairo on a splendid February afternoon. The first clue that we have entered a mysterious new world comes in the city’s chaotic tangle of traffic and its noise, a cacophony of horns known as the music of the city. Our own story begins in the shadow of the pyramids, where our small group of 24 travelers gather at the Marriot Mena House.
This worldly group of characters include the requisite doctor, in this case a veterinary surgeon from Ohio, a loquacious spinster from Vancouver, a much-too-happy married couple from Australia, the necessary English military man with his third wife, (I wonder what happened to the first two), a Parisian tour guide, and a rich widow from Georgia. Unfortunately there are no nosy maids to kill and stuff in a closet, or fanciful authors to shoot before they expose the murderer and ruin the story. There is our tour’s Egyptologist, Ms. Fayez, a prime suspect who seems a bit too preoccupied with death, an obsession for the macabre that becomes more apparent with her illuminating lectures on each pyramid, temple hieroglyphic, spooky tomb, necropolis, and crumbling rock monument that we visit. To complete the ensemble, I am the marvellous detective, aka Hercule Poirot, and my wife my somewhat blundering sidekick – (no strike that) – my intuitive partner in fighting crime.
Our Egyptian journey will take us from Cairo’s pyramids, Sphinx, and wonderful Egyptian Museum to the vibrant city of Luxor, with the temples at Karnak and Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, and the magnificent shrine to Queen Hatshepsut. From there, we are booked on a four-day 145-mile cruise up the Nile to Aswan. A Nile cruise remains the best way to explore Egypt in full Agatha Christie style – and it is where I expect the proverbial plot to thicken!
Chapter 2 – Cruising the Nile
As I am welcomed aboard by the ship’s Purser, I hint that in the event of a murder on board, I will be the face of discretion itself. His befuddled expression makes me add his name to the lengthy list of suspects. As the boat’s lines are released and we slip into the current, white egrets lift off from the bank, an elegant dahabiya ploughs past downstream and colorful, single-sailed feluccas flit about us like butterflies. It is like a Disney movie set – that’s a clue, more about that later.
Life on board falls into a pleasant routine. Mornings are spent moored on the riverbanks and wandering through temple ruins, while hot afternoons are spent on deck luxuriating over gin and tonics while watching life on the Nile. Old men fish from diminutive skiffs, hawkers paddle alongside our ship to flog colorful gallabiyahs and embroidered kaftans, while on shore young shepherds ride trotting donkeys herding cattle and goats, weary camels shelter in the soft shade of palms, and women scrub clothes while children splash in the shallows. They stop their play to wave. As dusk settles, haunting calls to prayer linger over the water. Starlit evenings are spent sharing tales of pharaohs, mummies, ancient curses, and murderers.
As a ruse to expose a murderer before they even thought of killing, I imitate the manner of my favourite dapper detective Poirot by addressing my fellow travelers in a cryptic manner: “An evening most agreeable, n’est-ce pas? And yet, mes amis, one of you has a deadly secret.” I watch for guilty reactions and make the shocking discovery that the handsome French guide looks startled! (A red herring perhaps – he is simply surprised by my impeccable French n’est-ce pas?).
We dock at a bend in the river and meander through a chaotic bazaar to the Temple of Kom Ombo. The mayhem of the marketplace evokes the proper sense of mystery; you can imagine all manner of untoward happenings taking place here. Egyptian pounds exchanged for a jewel-encrusted dagger, dainty revolver, or vial of snake venom. I spy many shifty-looking characters but nobody who looks like a murderer. Nobody, that is, except my wife, after I tip a snake charmer to get a photo of her with his cobra.
Chapter 3 – Inspiration for a Story
At the edge of the Nubian Desert, the majestic Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan sits on a pink granite cliff overlooking the Nile. Built in 1899, the hotel conjures up the golden age of travel, of wealthy guests and colonial administrators sipping cocktails on the terrace at sunset. Agatha Christie stayed here after completing a Nile cruise, and in her top-floor suite wrote her classic mystery. I tour Christie’s suite and then remark on the view from her balcony to my wife. “It enchants me. The black rocks of Elephantine, and the sun, and the little boats on the river. Yes, it is good to be alive.” Poirot’s words I admit, not mine – but after the cobra incident, they ring true.
We take a daytrip 190 miles south to Abu Simbel, where the temples of Ramesses II and his queen Nefertari were carved into a mountain. While we reach the temple after a short flight, on Poirot’s fateful cruise in 1937, Abu Simbel was a stop on the Nile, where a dislodged headstone tumbled down in an attempt at murder. Unfortunately nothing so exciting happens to us, and we are running out of time. Yes, we are still lacking that good, old-fashioned murder. Still, when we return to Aswan, I gather the group to share my masterful solution!
Epilogue – Suspicions and Accusations
I suspect: In lieu of the desired corpse, the mysterious Madam Fayez teaches us that in uncovering, deciphering, and understanding Egypt’s monuments to the afterlife, Death on the Nile is a daily part of our Egyptian journey.
I accuse: Sir Kenneth Branagh of stealing my role. He had the Means, he is a great actor, Motive, his recent Poirot film “Murder on the Orient Express” was a success, and Opportunity, Disney wanted to reprise his role as Hercule Poirot for the February 2022 release of “Death on the Nile.” When it hits the theaters, I Suspect a whole new generation of Christie enthusiasts will be seduced by magical Egypt and set off on their own deadly adventure.
My Own Masterful Denouement: A cruise along the epic Nile through Egypt is the best way to explore this ancient land in full Agatha Christie style. Though her fictional travels may have been fraught with murder and mayhem, the Queen of Crime certainly knew how to pick luxurious and romantic destinations. Tourism in Egypt has suffered the ebbs and flows of troubled times; terrorism, political unease, and the revolution of 2011. The situation was righting itself and the tourists returning when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Egypt will bounce back, and travellers will return. Until then, we have our movies and books to satisfy that travel bug – and to dream about our bucket list of getaway destinations, like the Nile.
MORE ABOUT EGYPT
Egyptian Tourism Authority: https://egypt.travel/
When you Go: To achieve the best experience in a safe manner, it is best to book with a tour company. I booked with Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours. Their itinerary, lodging and meals were first class. My tour director, Egyptologist Caroline Fayez, was personable, passionate, and full of knowledge. The group size was only 24 and their smaller Sanctuary Sunboat III reached places that the larger river cruise ships could not access.