Agatha in Mesopotamia

51cLgdgyOeLMore Agatha Christie – not fiction this time, but her recollections of the time she spent in Mesopotamia with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowen. I spotted Come, Tell Me How You Live whilst browsing the internet, and it conjured up memories of long-ago history lessons when we learned about Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, home of the Sumerians with their mysterious cuneiform writing, and their great epic poem,The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s earliest literary/religious texts.  I wasn’t even sure what replaced Mesopotamia, but I gather it covered most of modern-day Iraq and Kuwait, as well as parts of Syria and Turkey.

Agatha first visited the area in 1930, when she was invited to join Leonard Woolley and his wife on a dig at Ur. Within months, she married his assistant Max Mallowan, and worked alongside him on five excavations in the years before the outbreak of war. She was obviously fascinated by the region, its people, and its history. Early on she tells us she is often asked how she lived in Mesopotamia, and she responds:

“It is the question, too, that Archaeology asks of the Past—Come, tell me how you lived? And with picks and spades and baskets we find the answer. ‘These were our cooking pots.’ ‘In this big silo we kept our grain.’ ‘With these bone needles we sewed our clothes.’ ‘These were our houses, this our bathroom, here our system of sanitation!’ ‘Here, in this pot, are the gold earrings of my daughter’s dowry.’ ‘Here, in this little jar, is my make-up.’ ‘All these cook-pots are of a very common type. You’ll find them by the hundred. We get them from the Potter at the corner. Woolworth’s, did you say? Is that what you call him in your time?’

She’s not bothered about palaces and kings. Her interest is in the lives of the potter, the farmer, the tool-maker, and the expert cutter of animal seals and amulets, and I can relate to that – take me to a stately home or castle, and I head for the kitchens and servants’ quarters! I would have liked to see far more about the history of Mesopotamia and the archaeological finds that were unearthed (many of them photographed, cleaned and labelled by Agatha). When she writes about the past and the relics left behind, her interest and curiosity shines through:

I pick up one find on the slopes of Tell Baindar. It appears to be a small shell, but on examining it I see that it is actually made of clay and has traces of paint on it. It intrigues me, and I speculate vainly on who made it and why. Did it adorn a building, or a cosmetic box, or a dish? It is a sea shell. Who thought or knew of the sea here so far inland all those thousands of years ago? What pride of imagination and craftsmanship went into the making of it?

Just think what she could have done if she’d turned her hand to historical novels rather than crime stories!. What she does give us is a lively account of  her day-to-day life.

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Max Mallowen, Agatha Christie and Leonard Woolley on a dig in Mesopotamia.

To begin at the beginning, her picture of shopping for clothes and other supplies is an absolute hoot. She is humiliated to discover she is viewed as OS (Outsize) and is shunted around various departments – Cruising, Tropical, and ‘suitable wear for our Empire Builders’. it reminded me a little of poor old William Boot, in Scoop, kitting himself out for Africa, the main difference being that Agatha is obviously very practical. She wants comfortable, washable, lightweight garments (including a felt hat which won’t come off). She also buys pencils, and several fountain and stylographic pens – in the desert apparently, pens either spout ink over everything, or refuse to work at all.  And watches are equally temperamental, plus they get lost, or broken, so she buys lots of those too. 

I feel it’s worth reproducing her comments on archaeologists, books and suitcases – remember, Kindles hadn’t been invented!

One thing can safely be said about an archaeological packing. It consists mainly of books. What books to take, what books can be taken, what books there are room for, what books can (with agony!) be left behind. I am firmly convinced that all archaeologists pack in the following manner: They decide on the maximum number of suitcases that a long-suffering Wagon Lit Company will permit them to take. They then fill these suitcases to the brim with books. They then, reluctantly, take out a few books, and fill in the space thus obtained with shirt, pyjamas, socks, etc.

Finally they are off: a train from Victoria, and a boat across the Channel to Calais where they board the Simplon Orient Express and are transported all the way across Europe to Stamboul, and then on to Alep and Beyrout by local trains. I love Agatha’s descriptions of train journeys. Somehow she captures the excitement of rail travel – the oddities of fellow passengers, the railway staff and customs officials (she fears her tin of bug powder makes them think she is drug smuggler). Then there the platform clocks with conflicting times, perplexing currencies, smoke from the engine and the motion of train:

I like its tempo, which, starting Allegro con furore, swaying and rattling and hurling one from side to side in its mad haste to leave Calais and the Occident, gradually slows down in a rallentando as it proceeds eastwards till it becomes definitely legato.

There is no railway beyond Beyrout so Agatha and Max acquire a cook, a chauffeur, a second-hand lorry with ‘optimistic’ bodywork and an old taxi to take them, their luggage, and supplies to their destination, along with the expedition architect, and the foreman. Again, I really liked Agatha’s travel writing:

Yesterday we were travelling within the confines of civilization. Today, abruptly, we leave civilization behind. Within an hour or two there is no green to be seen anywhere. Everything is brown sandy waste. {…} There is something frightening, and yet fascinating, about this vast world denuded of vegetation. It is not flat like the desert between Damascus and Baghdad. Instead, you climb up and down. It feels a little as though you had become a grain of sand among the sand-castles you built on the beach as a child.

They head out into the wilderness, collecting sherds of pottery and searching for a mound (or ‘tell’) which could be suitable for excavation. And that’s not the end of the story, because once a site is earmarked, permits have to be obtained. supplies and equipment provided, local men employed, and somewhere found to live. In the 1930s Syria was still ruled by the French, and throughout their time in the East  dealings with officials, at the bank, and elsewhere, are long and complicate – in fact, nothing ever seems to be straight forward.

But Agatha doesn’t seem to mind roughing it when she has to, and is unfazed by odd food or idiosyncratic plumbing and sanitation – but is less sanguine about bugs and beasties! There are some lovely descriptions of the landscape – I think she really loved Mesopotamia and, in an odd sort of way, I think she loved the people as well. However, she is very much a product of her time and class, and she and Max are very patronising, and very paternalistic towards the Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Turks and Yezidi ‘devil-worshippers’, treating their work-force much as they would a group of squabbling children, who are very likable, but very naughty, and very stupid. I would have to say they’re also pretty disparaging about the other Europeans they meet and work with. I think there was a tendency for the English to regard all foreigners as dirty, lazy, sly, and ignorant!

But other nations seem just as bad.  There’s no consideration for local people and their customs and beliefs, and no attempt to improve their living conditions or provide education, or health care or anything like that. I guess the English (and the French) were not prepared to acknowledge that this was not actually their country. I was horrified at the way the archaeologists lease a group of houses while their own (much posher) home is being built, and seem to think it’s no business of their’s what happens to the 11 families who live there. 

Notwithstanding that, I enjoyed the book – it gave me a different view of Agatha Christie, as well as providing a glimpse of life in a culture that has vanished.

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Murder in Mesopotamia, featuring Hercule Poirot, must have been inspired by Christie’s time in Mesopotamia.