steamship sailing into sunset
© SS Sudan

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile just came out. Rather than sink this all-style-no-substance Hollywood ship – sorry KB, but overall I was underwhelmed – I’ve something better to float our boats today.  I want to take you on a Nile cruise circa 1930 with the thriller queen herself, Agatha Christie, to learn about the star of the show. No, not Armie Hammer, but the SS Karnak, a luxury steamship on which most of the action takes place (that you can sail on with a company called Original Travel, more on that later!) So, with our bags safely stowed, and life jackets on? Well, then let’s sail!

The sight of SS Karnak in the latest film had me at hello. Look at her above! Isn’t she something?  The beautiful white curved wooden deck, the low-lit rooms, the way she wears the chiselled cast and dusky Nile backdrop so well. Turns out, though, that not only is she a giant prop – yes people, the SS Karnak in the latest Death on the Nile film is one giant luxurious prop constructed in a studio in England – but it’s also inspired by a real-life steamship that none other than Agatha Christie travelled on, which you can still travel on today! (More on that later, stay tuned.)

The SS Sudan was – and still very much is – a luxurious and fast steamer ship. She belonged to Englishman, Thomas Cook, who founded the synonymous English travel company in England in 1841. Egypt was becoming a fashionable destination for those of means, a group which included Agatha Christie, and Cook was keen to meet this growing demand. He also wanted to make cruising the Nile more comfortable and faster. So in 1911, he commissioned a fleet of luxury steamships, which included the SS Sudan.

Before these luxury steamships were introduced, however, a cruise on the Nile was not for the faint-hearted:

The journey up the Nile from Cairo to Aswan and back could take as long as three months and was made on traditional boats, with bad reputations for neglect and rat problems. Published in 1847, the “Handbook for Travellers in Egypt” advised passengers to bring iron bedsteads, carpets, rat traps, washing tubs, guns and staples such as tea and “English cheese.” Pianos were popular additions; so were chickens, turkeys, sheep and mules,” according to New York Times travel writer,  Michelle Green.

Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan onboard SS Sudan

Agatha Christie was a wealthy lady with the means to travel to Egypt several times in her life. Her first trip was in 1907 to visit her mother who had moved there for the warmer winter weather and cheaper cost of living. Her second was to visit her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, at a dig site in 1930. She writes about her travels in Egypt in her autobiography, Come Tell Me How You Live, and it’s thought that her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, was based on her time staying at the Gezirah Hotel in Cairo. However, it was the journey she made in 1931 onboard the SS Sudan with Max to an archaeological mission in Aswan that would be the most poignant, as the inspiration for her 1937 novel, Death on the Nile.

Guests onboard the SS Sudan

The 236-feet-long SS Sudan launched in 1915. She was designed to carry 80 passengers in 40 luxury cabins and lavish suites set on matching decks. She even had running hot water in every room. Not surprisingly, by the 1920s cruising the Nile aboard the SS Sudan attracted an elite clientele of diplomats, high society and archaeologists, all willing and able to pay generously to discover Ancient Egypt.

The golden age of Nile cruising lasted from 1922 to 1935 when the Second World War began. For this and other political reasons, the SS Sudan was left abandoned until the mid-1970s. At this point, an exhibition called The Treasures of Tutankhamun toured six American cities attracting millions reigniting the world’s fascination with Ancient Egypt, while the release of the film version of Death on the Nile made everyone nostalgic for luxury pre-war cruises. 

At this point, the Egyptian government decided it was time to find a company to buy and restore SS Sudan. It took several attempts, but in 2006, a French tour company called Voyageurs du Monde bought and completely restored her, keeping the historic layout and adding modern engineering and services. Today, thanks to them, the SS Sudan remains one of the oldest operating traditional Nile steamships in the world.

© SS Sudan
© SS Sudan
© SS Sudan

Inside, it looks pretty much the same as it did originally, while several of the suites are named after various famous Nile travellers from the past or people linked to Egyptian history. These include Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb; King Farouk, the penultimate king of Egypt; the Lady Duff Gordon suite, named after a high society author who settled in Luxor after contracting tuberculosis, best known for her book  Letters from Egypt – I feel a blog post about her coming on – and obviously, the Agatha Christie – obviously – prow cabin on the upper deck.

Agatha Christie Cabin on the SS Sudan © SS Sudan
© SS Sudan
© SS Sudan

You can book your Nile cruise on the SS Sudan with various travel companies including Original Travel, the only UK tour operator to offer cruises on her (I’ve bookmarked it for when I win the Lottery), or you can book direct, here.

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