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The Egyptian Locations that inspired Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile

Armie Hammer as Simon Doyle and Gal Gadot as Linnet Ridgeway in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE, a mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

“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).

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE, a mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Ali Fazal as Andrew Katchadourian, Letitia Wright as Rosalie Otterbourne and Sophie Okonedo as Salome Otterbourne in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE, a mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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. 

Annette Bening as Euphemia Bouc and Tom Bateman as Bouc in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE, a mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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.

The Orient Express Revisited


[UPDATE: For the first time, the Venice Simplon Orient-Express will offer journeys during the month of December this year. The VSOE will travel the Classic Journey from Venice to Paris on 2nd and 12th December 2022, and from Paris to Venice on 20th December. The train will stop in Florence on 7th December (Venice to Paris) and 8th December (Paris to Venice). The train will depart from Paris to Vienna on 17th December, and will make the return journey (Vienna to Paris) on 18th December 2022.]

Now synonymous with Agatha Christie and that infamous journey, the original Euro Night train number 469, monikered the more romantic sounding “Express d’Orient”, made its inaugural journey from Paris bound for Constantinople in October 1883. The train which Christie caught, and placed her fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot onboard, however was the Simplon Orient-Express – one of several luxury sleeper trains that cropped up as an offshoot linking the port town of Calais in northern France with Istanbul (previously Constantinople) and ran through the 1920s and 30s.

Luxury trains fell out of favour with the advent of the second world war and airplane travel. Then American businessman James B Sherwood bought a few antique carriages at auction in Monte Carlo in 1977 which seemingly sparked a quest for him to seek out more vintage carriages. After finding them variously abandoned in sidings and people’s gardens across Europe, used as pigeon transporters and in one case a brothel, they were lovingly restored to their Art Deco splendour and launched as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in 1982.

One of the carriages bought by Sherwood at auction in Monaco was sleeping car 3425. It is the oldest of the sleeping cars on the VSOE having been built in 1926 and was marooned in a snow drift 60 miles from Istanbul for 10 days in 1929 (allegedly sparking the idea for a certain murder mystery).

And the Venice Simplon-Orient Express (a mouthful but now the official name for legal reasons) is in the spotlight once again with the release of the new Kenneth Branagh film Murder on the Orient Express starring Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer and Penelope Cruz. So what’s it like to travel onboard? You’ll be greeted aboard by your be-capped and white gloved personal cabin steward who’ll take care of you for your entire trip. Firstly by showing you to your cosy cabin where your luggage will already be waiting.

vsoe_1366x570_platform_luxury_travel09 VSOE

The twin cabins come with bunk beds – probably the most deluxe ones you’ve encountered with an upholstered ladder. During the day time there’s no sign of your sleeping arrangements but when you return from dinner your cabin steward will have cleverly transformed your sofa into cosy beds with crisp sheets and fine blankets. After breakfast perhaps while you’re taking a stroll the length of the train, your steward will whisk away the beds and your cabin will once again become a sitting area. In true authentic fashion, each cabin has a concealed washbasin while loos are found at the end of each carriage.

vsoe_1366x400_cabin_luxury_train19vsoe_1366x570_cabin_luxury_train17 VSOE

As well as the famous sleeping cars the train is made up of three dining cars and a bar car complete with grand piano and resident pianist. Each carriage features polished wood, beautiful marquetry, plush fabrics and antique details.


The VSOE operates on continental Europe – contrary to popular belief the it does not travel to the UK. Rather, the train is embarked or disembarked at Calais and the journey to or from London is completed through the Euro tunnel and the Belmond British Pullman train once in Britain.

While the most popular route is to and from Venice, just once a year the VSOE makes a five night journey between Paris and Istanbul. The exclusive journey follows the route of the inaugural 1883 train journey stopping in Prague, Budapest and Bucharest along the way.

vsoe-acc-cab-36 VSOE

While the Venice journeys have a feel of celebration the journey to Istanbul is about adventure, says general  manager Pascal Deyrolle. The six day journey from Paris Gare de l’Est station follows in the footsteps of the original train route in 1883. As the VSOE journeys towards the edge of Europe passengers stop for overnight stays at hotels in Budapest in Hungary and Bucharest in Romania with the rest of the nights spent onboard.

After crossing the Danube from Romania into Bulgaria the train arrives in Varna, a beach resort town with a surprisingly grand station building with a wonderful Art Nouveau roof. You’ll spot the Black Sea and then smell the scent of the ocean in the air when you disembark, just as the original passengers experienced. On the early routes, passengers would disembark at Varna and cross the Black Sea by ferry before picking up another train.

Crossing the border from Bulgaria to Turkey, the train stops and all the passengers alight to have their passports stamped in person at the customs booth. Pascal admits to being worried about how passengers would react but has found that they think it’s fun and enjoy chatting to their fellow passengers on the platform as well as the passersby who gather to look at the train. “It’s a social element on the platform. It’s absolutely my favourite aspect of the trip,” says Pascal.



Guests are encouraged to dress up onboard so cocktails and dinner is particularly fun with everyone in Art Deco inspired frocks and Black Tie. The bar car can be a bit of a crush with guests crowding in between the two dinner sittings but a Champagne Bar has been created within one of the dining cars. Most importantly, like all the best bars it doesn’t close until the last guest has gone to bed.

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