It was a lonely summer in Columbia, South Carolina. All of my friends had moved away and I was left behind to finish my Masters thesis. During the day, I researched and wrote. The evenings were long and television shows I got on my old portable black and white television with the rabbit ears were unremarkable. My brother had sent me a box of mystery books. Reading offered some escapism from my solitary condition. I recently heard a report on the radio that a study had shown that a good book can have the same effect as a visit from a friend. I found that to be true that summer. That is the time I first met my friend, Agatha. You may know of her as Agatha Christie.
Besides her knack for writing a splendid murder mystery, she also had another persona as the wife of archaeologist Max Mallowan. It was her second marriage, and his first. She was 14 years his senior. I once heard her quoted as saying, “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her.”
My favorite book of hers is called Come, Tell Me How You Live. What is delightful about her book, which is more like a journal, is that it serves as a time capsule from the time period 1935-1937 and yet aspects of it are timeless. She describes on their way out to Syria a stop in Lebanon at Nahr El Kelb with its rock inscriptions which includes Egyptian hieroglyphics dating to Ramses II, from Assyrian and Babylonian armies, Alexander the Great, Esarhaddon, Nebuchadnezzar and Allenby’s army from 1917. The human need to say “Hey, I was here”. Would such history not make one’s lifetime seem very small?
She spends several field seasons in Northern Syria with her husband. His area of interest was in the Tells, archaeological mounds created by several generations of human settlement . (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tell). The time of interest for him was anything dating to around 2,000 BC or before. The Romans were considered the new kids on the block and more of a nuisance when their archaeological layers were found. Mallowan and his crew excavated Tell Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak. In the land of many Tells, what dictated the selection of a particular Tell was that it was near a village (a source of goods and labor), had a fresh water supply and showed promise of revealing quality artifacts.
Agatha was a bit of an adventuress of her time and takes in stride dealings with mice (eliminated by the very professional cat), fleas (that thrive on flea powder), and bats. She participated in “Le camping” while they were surveying which site to excavate. As she stated only the French could turn it into a sport. Her description of the men in their party attempting to assemble tents is absolutely priceless. Their group was multicultural. Between assundry explicatives and finally praise for Allah the merciful and thanks be to God, they did manage to get the tents up.
We also get an insight into the grand digs from the days of old, like the ones portrayed in the Indiana Jones movies. Before anything could get started, terms for the use of land needed to be negotiated for the local Sheikh and the French authorities (rulers at that time). Labor was comprised of men from the Sheikh’s extended family, the village and beyond. There were Kurds, Armenians and Muslims all participating, ranging in ages between small boys to old men. Getting everyone to work together could be difficult at times due to religious and cultural friction and extreme heat. Tuesday was determined to be the “day off” for the workers as it fell on no one’s particular feast day. Prices for labor were negotiated and finds were rewarded with extra compensation.
While Mallowan directed excavations, Agatha concentrated on how to finish off someone in her mystery story of that moment. She also served as head medic for many of the local people that would come to her with an ailment. As a student of the human condition, she delights in observing the differences in culture between the Kurdish and Muslim women, both most commendably. The Kurdish women’s customs were more open, and no veils; while the Muslim women were shy, veiled and did not directly engage one in eye contact.
She also relays a story about the Biblical character Jezebel. In western culture to be a Jezebel was someone who might be heavily painted with cosmetics. However, in the East, it was quite alright for Jezebel to have hennaed hair and hands. Her fault was to look out the window!
I have only been able to relay some of her stories and experiences. I hope that you will have the opportunity to meet my friend, Agatha, some day.