Russian Artworks Literature Agatha Christie in Iran

Agatha Christie in Iran

With the season’s expedition at an end, we decided to go home by way of Persia. There was a small air service – German – which had just started running from Baghdad to Persia, and we went by that. It was a single-engined machine, with one pilot, and we felt extremely adventurous. Probably it was rather adventurous – we seemed to be flying into mountain peaks the entire time.

The first stop was at Hamadan, the second at Teheran.

From Teheran we flew to Shiraz, and I remember how beautiful it looked – like a dark emerald-green jewel in a great desert of greys and browns. Then, as one circled nearer, the emerald grew even more intense, and finally we came down to find a green city of oasis, palms, and gardens. I had not realised how much desert there was in Persia, and I now understood why the Persians so appreciated gardens – it was because it was so very difficult to have gardens.

We went to one beautiful house, I remember. Years later, on our second visit to Shiraz, I tried hard to find it again, but failed. Then the third time we succeeded. I identified it because one of the rooms had various pictures painted in medallions on the ceiling and walls. One of them was of Holborn Viaduct. Apparently a Shah of Victorian times, after visiting London, had sent an artist back there with instructions to paint various medallions of scenes he wanted portrayed – and there, among them, many years later, was Holborn Viaduct still, a little bruised and scratched with wear. The house was already dilapidated, and was not lived in by then, but it was still beautiful, even if dangerous to walk about in. I used it as the setting for a short story called The House at Shiraz.

From Shiraz we went by car to Isfahan. It was a long drive on a rough track, through desert the whole time, with now and then a meagre village. We had to stop the night in an excessively primitive rest-house. We had a rug from the car and bare boards to sleep on, and a rather doubtful-looking bandit in charge, aided by some ruffianly peasants.

We passed an excessively painful night. The hardness of a board to sleep on is unbelievable; one would not think that one’s hips, elbows, and shoulders could get so bruised as they do in a few hours. Once, sleeping uncomfortably in my Baghdad hotel bedroom, I investigated the cause, and found that under the mattress a heavy board had been placed to combat the sagging of the wired springs. An Iraqi lady had used the room last, so the house-boy explained, and had been unable to sleep because of the softness, so the board had been put in to enable her to have a good night’s rest.

We resumed our drive, and arrived, rather weary, in Isfahan, and Isfahan, from that time forward, has been listed by me as the most beautiful city in the world. Never have I seen anything like its glorious colours, of rose, blue and gold – the flowers, birds, arabesques, lovely fairy-tale buildings, and everywhere beautiful coloured tiles – yes, a fairyland city. After I saw it that first time I did not visit it again for nearly twenty years, and I was terrified to go there then because I thought it would be completely different. Fortunately it had changed very little. Naturally there were more modern streets, and a few slightly more modern shops, but the noble Islamic buildings, the courts, the tiles and the fountains – they were all there still. The people were less fanatical by this time, and one could visit many of the interiors of the mosques which were inaccessible before.

Max and I decided we would continue our journey home through Russia, if that did not prove too difficult as regards passports, visas, money, and everything else. In pursuit of this idea we went to the Bank of Iran. This building is so magnificent that you could not help considering it more as a palace than a mere financial establishment – and indeed it was hard to find where in it the banking was going on. When, finally, you arrived through the corridors set with fountains in a vast ante-chamber, there in the distance was a counter behind which smartly dressed young men in European suits were writing in ledgers. But as far as I could see, in the Middle East you never transacted business at the counter of a bank. You were always passed on to a manager, a sub-manager, or at least to someone who looked like a manager.

A clerk would beckon to one of the bank messengers who stood about in picturesque attitudes and costumes, and he would then wave you to any one of several enormous leather divans, and disappear. By and by he would return, beckon you towards him, take you up marble stairs of great magnificence, and lead you to some presumably sacred door. Your guide would tap on it, go in leaving you standing outside, to return presently, beaming all over his face and showing himself delighted that you had passed the test successfully. You would enter the room feeling that you were no less than a Prince of Ethiopia.

A charming man, usually rather portly, would rise to his feet, greet you in perfect English or French, beckon you to a seat, offer you tea or coffee; ask when you had arrived, whether you liked Teheran, where you had come from, and finally – quite, as it were, by accident – proceed to the question of what you might happen to want. You would mention such things as travellers’ cheques. He would sound a little bell on his desk, another messenger would enter and would be told: “Mr Ibrahim.” Coffee would arrive, there would be more conversation on travel, the general state of politics, failure or success of crops.

Presently Mr Ibrahim would arrive. He would be wearing a puce-coloured European suit, and would be about thirty years of age. The bank manager would explain your requirements and you would mention what money you would like the payment to be made in. He would then produce six or more different forms which you would sign. Mr Ibrahim would then disappear and another long interlude would take place.

It was at this moment on the present occasion that Max began to talk about the possibility of our going to Russia. The bank manager sighed and raised his hands.

“You will have difficulties,” he said.

“Yes,” Max said, he expected there would be difficulties, but surely it was not impossible. There was no actual bar, was there, to crossing the frontier?

“You have no diplomatic representation at present, I believe. You have no Consulates there.”

Max said, no, he knew we had no consuls there, but he understood there was no prohibition on English people entering the country if they wanted to.

“No, there is no prohibition at all. Of course, you would have to take money with you.”

Naturally, Max said, he expected he would have to take money with him.

“And no financial transaction that you can make with us will be legal,” said the bank manager sadly.

This startled me a little. Max, of course, was not new to Oriental ways of doing business, but I was. It seemed to me odd that in a bank a financial transaction could be both illegal and yet practised.

“You see,” explained the bank manager, “they alter the laws; they alter them the whole time. And anyway the laws contradict each other. One law says you shall not take out money in one particular form, but another law says that is the only form in which you can take it out – so what is one to do? One does what seems best on that particular day of the month. I tell you this,” he added, “so that you may understand beforehand that though I can arrange a transaction, I can send out to the bazaar, I can get you the most suitable kind of money to take, it will all be illegal.”

Max said that he quite understood that. The bank manager cheered up, and told us that he thought we would enjoy the journey very much. “Let me see now – you want to go down to the Caspian by car? Yes? That is a beautiful drive. You will go to Resht, and from Resht you will go by boat to Baku. It is a Russian boat. I know nothing about it, nothing whatsoever, but people go by it, yes.”

His tone suggested that people who went by it disappeared into space, and nothing was known of what happened to them afterwards. “You will not only have to take money,” he warned us, “you will have to take food. I do not know if there are any arrangements for getting food in Russia. At any rate there are no arrangements for buying food on the train from Baku to Batum – you must take everything with you.”

We discussed hotel accommodation and other problems, and all seemed equally difficult.

Presently another gentleman in a puce suit arrived. He was younger than Mr Ibrahim, and his name was Mr Mahomet. Mr Mahomet brought with him several more forms, which Max signed, and also demanded various small sums of money to purchase the necessary stamps. A messenger was summoned, and sent to the bazaar for currency.

Mr Ibrahim then reappeared. He set out the amount of money we had asked for in a few notes of large denomination instead of the notes of small denomination we had requested.

“Ah! but it is always very difficult,” he said sadly. “Very difficult indeed. You see sometimes we have a lot of one denomination, and some days we have a lot of another. It is just your good fortune or your bad fortune what you get.” We were obviously to accept our bad fortune in this case.

The manager attempted to cheer us by sending for yet more coffee. Turning to us, he went on, “It is best that you take all the money you can to Russia in tomans. Tomans,” he added, “are illegal in Persia, but they are the only things we can use here because they are the only things they will take in the bazaar.”

He sent yet another myrmidon out into the bazaar to change large quantities of our newly-acquired money into tomans. Tomans turned out to be Maria Theresa dollars – pure silver and excessively heavy.

“Your passport, it is in order?” he asked.


“It is valid for the Soviet Union?” We said yes, it was valid for all countries in Europe including the Soviet Union.

“Then that is all right. The visa, no doubt, will be easy. It is understood then? You must make your arrangements for a car – the hotel will do that for you – and you must take with you sufficient food for three or four days. The journey from Baku to Batum lasts several days.”

Max said he would also like to break his journey at Tiflis.

“Ah, for that you will have to inquire when you get your visa. I do not think it is possible.”

That rather upset Max. However, he accepted it. We said goodbye and thanked the manager. Two hours and a half had passed.

We went back to our hotel, where our diet was somewhat monotonous. Whatever we ordered, or whatever we asked for, the waiter would say: “There is very good caviare today – very good, very fresh.” Eagerly we used to order caviare. It was amazingly cheap, and though we used to have enormous amounts of it, it always seemed to cost us only five shillings. We did, however, occasionally baulk at having it for breakfast – somehow one does not want caviare for breakfast.

“What have you got for breakfast?” I would ask.

“Caviare – tres frais.”

“No, I don’t want caviare, I want something else. Eggs? Bacon?”

“There is nothing else. There is bread.”

“Nothing else at all? What about eggs?”

“Caviare, tres frais,” said the waiter firmly.

So we had a little caviare and a great deal of bread. The only other thing offered us for a meal at lunch except caviare was something called La Tourte, which was a large and excessively sweet kind of jam tart, heavy, but of pleasant flavour.

We had to consult this waiter as to what food we should take into Russia with us. On the whole the waiter recommended caviare. We agreed to take two enormous tins of it. The waiter also suggested taking six cooked ducks. In addition we took bread, a tin of biscuits, pots of jam and a pound of tea – “for the engine,” the waiter explained. We did not quite see what the engine had to do with it. Perhaps it was usual to offer the engine-driver a present of tea? Anyway we took tea and coffee essence.

After dinner that evening we fell into conversation with a young Frenchman and his wife. He was interested to hear of our proposed journey, and shook his head in horror. “C’est impossible! C’est impossible pour Madame. Ce bateau, k bateau de Resht a Baku, ce bateau russe, c’est infecté! Infecté, Madame!” French is a wonderful language. He made the word infecté sound so depraved and filthy that I could hardly bear to contemplate the prospect.

“You cannot take Madame there,” the Frenchman insisted firmly. But Madame did not shrink.

“I don’t suppose it’s nearly so infecté as he says,” I remarked later to Max. “Anyway, we’ve got lots of bug powder and things like that.”

So in due course we started, laden with quantities of tomans and given our credentials by the Russian consulate, who were quite adamant about not letting us get off at Tiflis. We hired a good car, and off we went.

It was a lovely drive down to the Caspian. We climbed first up bare and rocky hills, and then as we came over the top and down the other side discovered ourselves in another world – finally arriving in soft warm weather and falling rain at Resht.

The above text is taken from Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, which was written between 1950 and 1965 and published posthumously in 1977. In this extract, the writer describes visiting Iran on her way home to Britain from the Middle East, where she had been excavating with her second husband, Max Mallowan. Her husband was a famous archaeologist who wrote the following article on Cyrus the Great in 1972:

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