More About Egypt

Although The Phoenix Code is a completely fictional story it is set in real locations in Egypt. I am not an archaeologist and I have never lived in Egypt so I had to read a lot of books, study hundreds of websites and visit many museums to find out everything I wanted to know.  I spent several of my teenage years in Saudi Arabia, so I had many memories of the Middle East to build on, and a smattering of Arabic, and these all came in useful too.

But the most important thing of all was to travel to Egypt and look around the places that would form the backdrop to the action in the book. There is nothing like being there to get a feel for the sights and sounds and smells of a place.

Research trip, not holiday, but my husband came along too and took most of the photos
I went to Egypt with my husband in March 2013 and spent a week on a beautiful boat cruising along the River Nile. We started near Luxor and sailed south to Aswan and back. Every day we disembarked for tours of temples, tombs, markets and museums. The afternoons were mostly free and we would sail slowly along the river.

While the other passengers sunbathed and read books, I was busy looking out at the scenes we passed, making notes, and plotting, plotting, plotting.

I'm working, honest! - look, I've got a pen in my hand!

I felt just like Agatha Christie, who set one of her most famous Hercule Poirot mysteries, Death on the Nile, on a cruise just like this. We passed the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan where she stayed while working on the book, but sadly didn't have the chance to call in for tea on the terrace.

Many details found their way into The Phoenix Code. Here are just two scenes as examples.

1. Ryan's Big Leap

It's Chapter 18 and Cleo and Ryan are crossing the Nile on a ferry on their way back from looking for important documents at the museum. Disaster strikes when an unknown thief steals Ryan's backpack -  which contains a very precious cargo (I won't tell you what it is so I don't spoil the plot for  you if you've not read it). When the thief throws the backpack overboard to a man in a tiny rowing boat far below, Ryan dives into the water to try to save it. Things don't go too well at first, but luckily Ryan gets some much-needed help from Mr Mansour, the caretaker from Cleo's apartment building, who is out fishing with his grandson, Ali . . .

the elegant "feluccas" that Ryan notices on the water - before he has more serious things to worry about - like crocodiles trying to bit his legs off!

These little boats that drew up alongside us our boat gave me the idea for the thief throwing the backpack to his  accomplice in the small rowing boat far below  These men weren't stealing anything though - they were just trying to sell their wares - towels, rugs, shawls and so on - to the tourists on the big boats.

The salesmen threw the items up onto deck. If people wanted to buy they threw the money down, but mainly they just thew the unwanted goods back.

Luckily the men on the boats were very good at catching - (much better than the thief's accomplice).

Ryan thinks the water must be safe because he sees guys washing their donkeys and playing in the water. Cleo is not so sure!
The backpack gets caught on a "raft" of weeds that float down the Nile - a bit like the ones where this little bird is sitting.

The Arabic name for the plant  that floats in these clumps is Ward-i-Nil. I noticed them because one features in a tragic incident in a crime novel that I was reading, which was also set partly in Egypt - "The Labyrinth of Osiris" by Paul Sussman.

As we passed this man in his fishing boat he proudly held up the fish he'd just caught. I'm not sure whether it's a Nile Perch, but that's what it turns into when Mr Mansour catches it in The Phoenix Code - and he catches Ryan at the same time! I even based the "jade-green" of Mr Mansour's boat on the beautiful colour of this one.

Ryan is sure he's being savaged by a crocodile when he's in the water. He's not quite convinced when Cleo points out that there are no crocodiles in the Nile, at least not north of the Aswan dam. This little croc was a pet kept in a tank (don't worry, the man isn't trying to strangle it, just holding his pet carefully!)

2. Escape from Karnak

The Karnak temple complex in Luxor is one of the most magnificent sites in the world. If you ever have chance to go there, grab it with both hands and GO!  Built over many years it contains hundreds of temples, columns, pylons, statues and is truly one of the wonders of the world. If you want to find out more, have a look at this this amazing website, which contains reconstructions, time maps and videos.

When Cleo and Ryan discover that the priest, Rahotep, was sent to Karnak in the guise of an apprentice priest while searching for the Benben Stone they are certain that it's the place to look for clues to crack his coded messages.

First problem: it's a big place.
Second problem: they're not the only ones looking . . .  soon they're both running for their lives!

My visit to Karnak wasn't quite as dramatic, but it is an experience that will live with me for the rest of my life.

This is the Hypostyle Hall. There are more than a hundred and twenty of these massive columns. Ryan compares it to a forest of mighty redwood trees. He's totally dumbstuck.

"I forgot you hadn't seen the Great Hypostyle Hall," Cleo said. "Impressive, isn't it?'

There she goes with the understatement again, Ryan thought. Manchester Town Hall was impressive. This was in a whole other league!
(The Phoenix Code, p155) 

That's just how I felt!

But I was also looking at things the other tourists probably weren't quite so interested in! Here and there were ladders and scaffolding platforms, where the people restoring the stonework had been climbing up to work on various sections.
Hmm, I thought, that would be just the thing if you need to climb over a wall to escape from someone chasing you in and out of all those columns . . .
And, of course, that's what Ryan does.

As Ryan escapes he uses some wall carvings as a foothold to help climb up. The carving is of Rameses II holding out a bunch of severed heads of his enemies to Amun-Ra. You might think I made that gory scene up, but I saw one just like it.  The figure on the left is holding a bunch of enemies (shown as small people to make it clear that they are not as powerful as they think!) - happily not decapitated in this picture, although they were in others!

Ryan then ends up sharing a ride on a donkey cart full of oranges with a snake. Spooked by a low-flying orange, the donkey hurtles out of control through the narrow streets of a busy night market. You might think I got this idea from watching too many car chases on TV, but in fact this really happened to me in Luxor. OK, it wasn't a donkey cart and there was no snake, but we did take a ride on a horse and cart through the market and the horse did get spooked and start galloping through the alleyways, as people leaped out of the way . . .

" Women scooped children out of the path of the runaway cart. A man carrying a tray of white eggs jumped backwards and landed in a tub of chilli powder. The eggs flew up and rained down like hail to splatter all over the mounds of spices and bunches of herbs. "Sorry!' Ryan shouted in all directions, ducking as the items for sale, hanging from lines festooned between the buildings on either side of the alley zoomed towards him: dresses, towels, blankets, radios, kettles, furry toys, baskets of live chickens, sides of meat, bike tyres and flip-flops. It was like the most random 3D film ever."
(The Phoenix Code, p 178)

When I got home I covered the pinboard in my office with souvenirs and pictures from the trip to keep me inspired while I was writing.