“When I read it now I feel myself back again on the steamer from Assuan to Wadi Halfa,” Agatha Christie wrote of her novel Death on the Nile published in 1937. Christie was inspired by a holiday in Egypt, escaping the British winter, and observed that the resulting book “is one of the best of my ‘foreign travel’ ones… the reader can escape to sunny skies and blue water in the confines of an armchair.” Kenneth Branagh’s lavish new film version of the murder mystery will likely also have viewers vicariously visiting Egypt.
Like Agatha Christie and her Death on the Nile characters, I stayed in Aswan and travelled by boat to Abu Simbel several winters ago. And like them I checked into the Old Cataract Hotel which felt like stepping into an Agatha Christie novel. The writer not only stayed at the grand hotel, she partly set Death on the Nile there. At the “Cataract Hotel at Assuan” her fictional detective Hercule Poirot first met heiress Linnet Ridgeway on honeymoon with her husband Simon Doyle, the pair being stalked by Simon’s jilted fiancée, Jacqueline de Bellefort. Along with a cast of other intriguing guests they subsequently took an ill-fated Nile cruise on the SS Karnak.
Branagh shot most of his film at a studio in England (even recreating the Karnak steamer and Abu Simbel temple there) but the equally star studded 1978 movie included extensive shots of the Old Cataract. Though refurbished and renamed the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan, the cocoa powder coloured exteriors adorned with terraces and balconies were kept intact (there’s also now an Agatha Christie Suite).
It was easy to enjoy Aswan without leaving the hotel, dozing on a sun lounger by the pool or sitting on the cool, canopied terrace where there was a bird’s eye view of the Nile, Elephantine Island, and the desert beyond. Like Poirot however I did venture into town to visit the souk (a frenzied experience involving the world’s most persistent salesmen) and took a felucca straight from the hotel’s dock to Elephantine Island.
Following in Christie and her characters’ footsteps I boarded a boat at Aswan that would take me to the magnificent Abu Simbel temples. In Christie’s day the temple complex was on the Nile but the Aswan High Dam built across the Nile in the 1960s created Lake Nasser and the temples were moved and rebuilt on higher ground. Abu Simbel was the scene of a pivotal part of the plot in Death on the Nile, indicated by the fact that the original UK book dust jacket featured an illustration of a graceful steamer moored in front of the temple. Although the boat I travelled on was not a steamer like SS Karnak it was designed to look like one on the exterior. And the luggage brought up the gangway at Aswan consisted of roll on aluminium suitcases rather than vintage leather trunks.
Our trip had its share of intriguing Christie-esque characters: the eccentric couple in the presidential suite who never mixed with the rest of the passengers, the lone man who bombarded the guide with questions at every temple and tomb and the tall, pale woman permanently dressed in clothes more suited to The African Queen.
We would be taking a gentle jaunt around Lake Nasser, visiting lesser-known temples and tombs rescued from the area flooded by the creation of the High Dam and culminating in a stop at the the massive temple dedicated to Ramses II and the slightly smaller, but no less impressive, one to his wife, Nefertari.
Lake Nasser had far fewer boats than the popular stretch of the Nile between Aswan and Luxor. Admittedly, there was a lot less to see than on the river but as Christie said through the caddish Simon Doyle, “It feels, somehow, so much less touristy – as though we were really going into the heart of Egypt.”
Most visitors take a day-trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel by plane but by taking a four night cruise we were truly able to appreciate the temples. We had been told to start looking out for Abu Simbel half an hour before we were due to reach it. Once I spotted the grey hulk on the horizon I looked through binoculars to see four colossal figures hewn from a mountain of rock that marks the main temple’s entrance. I was hooked, keeping my focus on them until we disembarked to see them up close.
Staying overnight we visited the temples in both daylight and darkness, the latter including a light and sound show. And by staying aboard a boat rather than at a hotel, we were treated to dinner on deck with the floodlit temples as a back drop. Just as Christie had done in the 1930s, it felt wonderful to escape the winter weather back home.