Agatha Christie's adventurous 'second act' plays out in Mesopotamia

After a devastating divorce, the crime novelist took a trip to Baghdad in 1928 and lost her heart—to the ancient sites of Iraq and archaeologist Max Mallowan.

Photograph by BRIDGEMAN/ACI
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This ivory carving of a young man grasping a lotus flower, a symbol of eternity, was found at Nimrud during excavations in the 1950s led by Agatha Christie's second husband, Max Mallowan.
Photograph by BRIDGEMAN/ACI

Agatha Christie's adventurous 'second act' plays out in Mesopotamia

After a devastating divorce, the crime novelist took a trip to Baghdad in 1928 and lost her heart—to the ancient sites of Iraq and archaeologist Max Mallowan.

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.

The woman in question was not a person at all, but an artifact 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. (See also: An ancient city, from Agatha Christie to ISIS)

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The photo of the happy couple was taken in 1946, just as Mallowan was poised to begin the greatest project of his career.

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 artifacts on the dig. More than 20 years earlier, Christie had fallen in love with both him and archaeology among the ruins of Mesopotamia.

Endings and beginnings

Over the course of 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. Her path to greatness was not without heartache. She discovered her first husband, Archie Christie, was having an extramarital affair in 1926. Devastated by the betrayal, Christie suffered a nervous breakdown, during which she disappeared. A massive police search operation was launched and, over a week later, the runaway author was found in a hotel in northern England. Two years later, Christie’s marriage to Archie was over.

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Ashurnasirpal's Might Capital Known as Calah, Nimrud emerged as a powerful capital of the Assyrian Empire under the ninth-century B.C. rule of Ashurnasirpal II. Above, a re-creation of his palace in Nimrud as rendered by Austen Henry Layard, British Museum, London

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 travelers to Baghdad via Milan and Istanbul. The prospect of such a journey was a turning point in Christie’s life. The next day, she canceled her ticket to Jamaica and bought one for Baghdad.

Escape to Iraq

Already a well-known author by the late 1920s, Christie received a steady stream of invitations from the British colonial population when she arrived. But their games of bridge, tennis, and cricket bored her. She longed to escape from the things that reminded her of England and to explore the rich culture and illustrious history of Iraq. After a few days in Baghdad, she set off alone on a trip to the site of Ur, the great capital of the kings of Sumeria from the middle of the third millennium B.C. It was the perfect remedy, as she later recalled:

I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colors of apricot, blue and mauve, changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket boys, the pick men—the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.

During this first trip to Ur, Christie met Leonard Woolley, the director of the excavation, and his wife, Katharine. A close friendship developed between the two women, which grew in part from Katharine’s fascination with the author’s work. She had been enthralled by Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published three years earlier. Later, after Christie returned from the Iraqi desert, she hosted the Woolleys at her home in Chelsea, London. In turn, they proposed that she join them when they returned to the dig in Ur. Christie needed no persuading and joined them in 1930.

Love among the ziggurats

On this second visit to the ancient Sumerian site, Agatha Christie first met Max Mallowan, Leonard Woolley’s assistant. Thirteen years her junior, the two got to know each other over the course of the season and fell in love. Six months later, the young archaeologist became the writer’s second husband.

From then on, leaving aside the interlude imposed by the Second World War, Agatha Christie would spend long seasons at various excavation sites in Syria and Iraq, accompanying her husband’s expeditions. She worked on restoring pieces of pottery, inventorying finds, and photographing artifacts.

The long, exhausting journeys and austerity of life on a dig proved to be no obstacle to her writing, and enriched her murderous plots. While Mallowan was working near Nineveh at Tall Arpachiyah, a Neolithic settlement dating from the sixth millennium B.C., Christie wrote her celebrated 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express. Dedicated to Mallowan, it was inspired by the many journeys she had taken on that remarkable train to Baghdad. (Is the Orient Express amoung the world's best train trips? Find out here.)

Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Mallowan continued his rise, emerging from Woolley’s shadow to become a director in his own right. Christie’s writing career exploded as she prolifically published novel after novel. Many of her new works, such as 1936’s Murder in Mesopotamia and 1937’s Death on the Nile, were colored by her new experiences with Mallowan and the world of archaeology.

After Tall Arpachiyah, Mallowan went on to direct expeditions at sites in modern-day Syria, including Chagar Bazar—an early Bronze Age settlement where numerous cuneiform tablets were discovered—and another at Tall Birak, once a thriving city of northern Mesopotamia.

A dream of Nimrud

Christie recalls in her memoirs that as early as 1932, Mallowan had taken her to see Nimrud. It was, he confessed, the site he longed to excavate above any other in the world. He felt it was a place as important as Ur and potentially as rich as Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt. Following service in the British Royal Air Force in North Africa during World War II, that dream became a reality. Appointed the first director of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, Mallowan secured the necessary support for the excavation from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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The Mona Lisa of Nimrud eighth century B.C., National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad

Part of the fascination with Nimrud, which is also known by its ancient name of Calah, lay in its biblical connection. In the ninth century B.C., it was the military capital of Assyria under the brilliant, if brutal, ruler Ashurnasirpal II, whom the Old Testament describes as “a mighty hunter before the LORD,” an empire builder who “went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh [and] Calah” (Genesis 10:8-12). (Read about Semiramis, the only woman to rule the Assyrian empire.)

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The Fragile Glory of Nimrud A ziggurat rises behind the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city, before its destruction by the Islamic State in 2015. Austen Henry Layard identified the site in 1845, which was extensively excavated by Max Mallowan throughout the 1950s.

Throughout the 1950s, Nimrud became a second home for Christie, who by this time had some 45 novels to her name. A small room for writing was put aside for her, where her literary output continued unabated. A sign on the door, written in cuneiform, read Beit Agatha (Agatha’s House). Mallowan was responsible for the in-depth excavation of the great palaces of Ashurnasirpal II and his heirs, one of the greatest projects in the history of Mesopotamian archaeology. (See also: ISIS bulldozes one-of-a-kind ancient palace in Iraq)

Ancient Mesopotamia 101 Ancient Mesopotamia proved that fertile land and the knowledge to cultivate it was a fortuitous recipe for wealth and civilization. Learn how this "land between two rivers" became the birthplace of the world's first cities, advancements in math and science, and the earliest evidence of literacy and a legal system.

Nimrud proved a rich source of archaeological finds, comparable to those Leonard Woolley had found in Ur. Among the many spectacular discoveries was a fabulous collection of thousands of ivories. Of outstanding artistic quality, these exquisite carvings, dating from the ninth to the seventh centuries B.C., have been traced to workshops across northern Mesopotamia and to the coast of Phoenicia, in what is today Lebanon.

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Lotus flower ivory from Nimrud

Some of these treasures would have been sent as tribute by princes of the kingdoms that had fallen under Assyrian subjugation. Others were probably appropriated and carried off as war booty to the Assyrian capital in the aftermath of Assyrian military campaigns. The ivories would originally have been encrusted with semiprecious stones and gold leaf, which accentuated the beauty of the figurative scenes, and the botanical or geometric designs. In their day they were used to adorn furniture, vessels, horses’ harnesses, and royal carriages. Today many can be admired in the British Museum in London and in other institutions around the world.

After the artifacts were recovered, Christie often helped by cleaning and documenting them, a process she describes in her memoirs:

I had my part in cleaning many of them . . . I had my own favorite tools just as any professional would: an orange stick, . . . a very fine knitting needle . . . and a jar of cosmetic face cream, which I found more useful than anything else for gently coaxing the dirt out of the crevices without harming the friable ivory. In fact there was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks!

In all, the couple spent 10 years working at Nimrud before retiring in 1958. Looking back, Christie described Mallowan’s successes there as “his life work: what he has been moving steadily towards ever since 1921 . . . It seems a kind of miracle that both he and I should have succeeded in the work we wanted to do.”