Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie doesn’t need any introduction. I grew up reading the detective novels of the British writer, who authored 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, particularly those revolving around fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, she remains the most-translated individual author.
That day I saw a tweet showing the house of the British novelist Agatha Christie in Baghdad. Throughout her life, Agatha Christie published 66 detective novels. Roughly two billion copies have been sold worldwide, making her the best-selling novelist of all time.
I did not know that the ‘Queen of Crime Literature’ ever stayed in Baghdad. I read her novels based on Iraq but it never hit me that she would have lived in Iraq. I immediately googled and found that she did live in Iraq and in fact, she met her second husband in Iraq. After a devastating divorce, she took a trip to Baghdad in 1928 and lost her heart — to the ancient sites of Iraq and archaeologist Max Mallowan.
At age 39, Agatha decided that a solitary holiday in the West Indies might help her recover from the breakup. But two days before leaving, she had dinner at a friend’s house in London where she met a couple who had recently returned from Baghdad. Christie was utterly seduced by their tales of the Middle East: the bazaars of Mosul and Basra and the fascinating ruins of ancient Ur, which, thanks to the sensational discoveries unearthed by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley, were being widely reported in the newspapers.
The most obvious way to travel there was by steamboat — but there was another option: the Orient Express, the train that took travellers to Baghdad via Milan and Istanbul. The prospect of such a journey was a turning point in Christie’s life. The next day, she cancelled her ticket to Jamaica and bought one for Baghdad.
When mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote, “We found the woman in the well! They brought her in on a piece of sacking, a great mass of mud,” she was not describing the murder victim in her latest bestseller. The detectives trying to identify the woman were not the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot nor the English dowager Jane Marple, as per the National Geographic.
The woman in question was not a person at all, but an artefact retrieved as part of an archaeological dig. Christie was describing the ivory mask, now nicknamed the “Mona Lisa of Nimrud”, which was discovered in 1952 during the excavations that were being carried out in the ancient Assyrian capital of Calah in modern-day Iraq — known now by the name of Nimrud.
Christie’s second husband, Max Mallowan, was the lead investigator, and the “detectives” in this case were not police officers, but archaeologists. Christie was assisting Mallowan in the collection, cleaning, and storage of artefacts on the dig.
During her stay in Iraq, Christie also lived in Baghdad, in a house overlooking the Tigris River in Karrada Maryam (one of the oldest areas of the capital, Baghdad), which is in very bad shape and now needing urgent repair. It did not receive any restoration or maintenance during all these decades, and some families inhabited it for successive periods of rent before its owners decided to close it and offer it for sale. The house is however registered as a heritage building.