Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie inspired by Ziggurat in Ur

Great Ziggurat of Ur

Ziggurats strike me as aggressive. At least in their restored form featuring perfectly straight lines and corners. Just imagine how you’d feel to wander a dessert landscape and suddenly something like a massive rectangular building comes into view. I may be biased but I’m sure that, without history knowledge, I’d avoid it.

Ziggurat of Ur now and a century ago
Ziggurat of Ur in 1925 and 2009. (photo sources: left – Leon Legrain collection http://www.ur-online.org; right – http://www.photosforclass.com)

When Sir Leonard Woolley started excavating in the 1920s at Ur, the zig (as the US soldiers pet it nowadays) looked impressive but mild. Like an old dictator whose powers, once thought eternal, get irreversibly eroded by time. 4000 years of existence mean real power, but the time of the war-lover ancient Mesopotamian rulers was gone.

The ziggurat rose in an exotic landscape, among mysterious ruins, embraced by a resplendent sun. All these are enough to fascinate. They fascinated Pietro della Valle — an Italian composer who travelled to Near East in the beginning of the 17th century —  so much that he ended up marrying a woman from Baghdad. Uncovered in 1850 by the archeologist Thomas Loftus, the ziggurat was thoroughly explored between 1922 and 1934 by Sir Leonard Woolley.

Love and mystery at the zig

Woolley married late. In that time the field of archeology was dominantly male. Conditions were extreme: war, looting, typhoid were just a few side effects of the job. For a hint into that harsh reality, just read the following excerpt from Woolley’s letter. It was the first of four archeological seasons at Ur:

In the small hours of the night of Nov. 7-8 our camp was attacked by six men armed with rifles; one of our guards was killed and a great deal of our belongings, mostly personal effects, stolen.

Leonard Woolley's letter from Ziggurat in Ur
Woolley’s letter. 1922. Source: http://www.ur-online.org

Yet, archeologists at that time were cool. Who wouldn’t marry one? They were witty, travelled, mysterious. Think at Lawrence of Arabia — the real T.E. Lawrence, not Peter O’Toole starring in the 1962 movie  – as a mix of diplomat, writer, historian, and spy. Eight years younger than Woolley, Lawrence assisted him in the archeological works in Egypt in 1910s. But they were working simultaneously for the British Naval Intelligence to spy the Imperial German construction works for the Berlin-Baghdad railway. Such an adventurous life doesn’t get unnoticed!

When moving on with his archeological work to Ur, Woolley met Katharine Menke. Katharine had moved from England to Egypt in 1919 due to her wedding to a British Lieutenant who worked in Cairo. In March they had arrived in Cairo. In September he committed suicide. But the call of the Orient was enough strong to get her to Baghdad!

In 1924 she arrived in Baghdad. For the first time she visited Ur and … remained there. Eight years younger than Woolley, Katharine became his assistant, drawing artist, writer and archeologist. The only woman at Ur. Three years later they married but rumors said their wedding was not consumed.

Agatha Christie and Katharine Woolley at Ziggurat in Ur
The not-at-all desperate wives at Ur. Left: Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan (source: wiki commons). Right: Katharine Woolley (source: http://www.ur-online.org)

Meanwhile Agatha Christie arrived at Ur. After a turbulent divorce from her first husband, Dame Agatha Christie embarked on Orient Express for an exotic trip. She eventually reached Ur, where she met a 14-years-younger-than-her archeologist, Max Mallowan. They rapidly married in 1930. Katharine didn’t quite like the star Agatha being on the site. The real-life intrigues inspired Agatha to write her novel Murder in Mesopotamia. The main character, Louise,  is based on Katharine.

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie inspired by Ziggurat in Ur
Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie. 1936. (photo source: archive.org)

They lived together until her death in 1976, not necessarily happy but successful as they were, separately, appointed Commanders of the Order of the British Empire. Just a year after her death he re-married the archeologist Barbara Hastings Parker, with whom he had worked before. One year later he died. It was 1978.

The brand new plasticky zig

By the time the Ur love affairs were fading, Saddam Hussein was rising. From 1979 on, the ziggurat of Ur, Babylon, Niniveh, Assur and other ancient sites were rebuilt. Not restored. Rebuilding went hand in hand with the new rhetoric inscribed on the bricks:  “This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Irak.” The cult of personality exploited the Mesopotamian roots fiercely. The megalomaniac rebuilding project of Babylon, for example, would had included a new ziggurat-shaped private palace on the top of the ruins.

The Ziggurat of Ur got a brand new façade and staircase. It looks now, despite of the war, fresh and neat, like a ziggurat in a history children book. Clean of broken old bricks. Perfect. No ageing, no crack. Like Angeline Jolie. Plasticky. Devoid of mystery.

There’s nothing fascinating today in the dessert-like landscape that once stirred passions and detective novels. Straddled by some fences, caught in a military camp and enlivened by a poor Mesopotamian souvenir shop, the mysterious ruins of the ziggurat became a new building and a new symbol with the dictatorial appropriation of history. Ironically, today it looks as aggressive as it probably looked 4000 years ago.

Just the sun warms the bricks in the same resplendent way as in Agatha Christie’s time.