After I’d seen the splendid Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs at the British Museum, I went to the London Library and got out Agatha Christie’s Come Tell Me How You Live. She published it in 1945 under her married name of Agatha Christie Mallowan, and it is an account of the trips to the Syria that she undertook with her archeologist husband before the war. It is in the tradition of light-hearted travel writing that goes back to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. She doesn’t at all mind telling funny stories at her own expense – but all the same, what a trooper she was, putting up with food-poisoning, primitive living conditions and at one point, a near riot among the workmen. Her love of Syria, the land and the people, come over very strongly. I was amused by her description of her husband’s ability to ignore everything except his work (I too am married to an academic – and I’ve been one myself).
It was strange reading about Aleppo and Raqqa, knowing what is happening there now. There is a terrible irony in the epilogue where she explains that she wrote her memoir as an escape from war-time London: ‘for it is good to remember . . . that at this very minute my little hill of marigolds is in bloom, and old men with white beards trudging behind their donkeys may not even know there is a war. “It does not touch us here . . . “
Reading Come Tell Me How You Live put me in the mood to read Christie’s Death Comes as the End (also 1945) set in Ancient Egypt. The copy I read was one of my mother’s collection of Christie novels and has the splendid Tom Adams cover. It was engrossing and I am guessing that the fascinating historical detail is accurate; it’s certainly convincing. But I was disappointed by the solution to the mystery which I guessed, because it involved a device she’d used in at least one other novel. I’d like to know how other Christie fans rate it.
Last week I visited this exhibition at the British Museum. It covers a period of twelve centuries from 30 BC, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, to AD 1171 and tells the story of the shift from the traditional worship of many gods to the monotheism. When Constantine was converted to Christianity, Christianity gradually became the dominant religion, only to be displaced by the Islamic invasion of the seventh century. There was also a Jewish community.
There is a lot to take on board from the informative panels and I found this fascinating, but of course the objects are the stars of the show: textiles, coins, manuscripts, jewellery, pottery. It wasn’t always the most precious or the showiest objects that have stuck in my mind. Egypt’s hot, dry climate allowed things to be preserved that in other cultures have vanished. It was touching to see a stripy child’s sock, a toy horse, and a mummy portrait of a little girl, who had died aged seven.
Although there was occasional tension and violence between the different communities, there were long periods when the communities lived peacefully side by side and were influenced by each other in their arts and crafts.
I came out of the exhibition thinking of the words of the Quaker, William Penn, written in 1693, ‘The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion: and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers.’ At the week-end after the events in Paris, it was good to hold on to this thought. The exhibition is a timely one and I recommend it. It runs until the 7 February.