By Andrea Byrnes. Published on Egyptological, Magazine Reviews, August 14th 2012.
Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel
American University in Cairo Press
Grand Hotels of Egypt is essentially a book about the influx of western visitors into Egypt after Napoleon had departed and Anglo-American style infrastructure had arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using contemporary accounts and photographs, cartoons and some remarkable marketing material in full colour, Andrew Humphreys explores the role of the grand hotels of the day in the constant swirl of people as they experienced Egypt’s towns and cities.
Chapters are organized by city or town: Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor and Aswan. In each case the chapter looks at the main attractions of the town for the intrepid new visitors, the experiences described by both famous and less exalted names that pass through (derived from original journals and other contemporary material) and, of course, the hotels themselves, many of which became legendary in their own right, and are the real stars of this book.
Between the text and the images a vivid world is reconstituted. It is a largely western view of the Egyptian world, but every now and again Egypt herself and her people creep in.
By the mid Nineteenth Century Egypt was firmly embedded in Western consciousness, and as travellers arrived in ever-increasing numbers, Egypt started to experience the first stirrings of its long relationship with foreign businesses, Egyptology and numerous types of tourism. The new hotels of Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor and Aswan were the liminal zones between two cultural traditions, becoming an integral part of Egypt’s ability to benefit from tourist spending and the visitors’ ability to expand their various business or leisure horizons.
Humphreys begins, as so many good accounts do, with Amelia Edwards. Edwards arrived in Alexandria in 1873 “to get out of the rain” that enveloped England and France. Thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte’s short-lived invasion of 1768, by the time Edwards and her friend arrived in Cairo, Egypt was already a fashionable topic of conversation in Europe and America. But Egypt was a long way away.
Entrepreneurs of the era, not blind to the opportunities provided by this curiosity, set about enabling visits to Egypt. Humphreys gives the example of one Thomas Waghorn, responsible for serious improvements in the time it took for mail to travel between Egypt and India. Not limiting himself to the handling of mail, he turned his direction to human cargo, and handled some of Egypt’s earliest visitors, transporting scholars, artists and explorers into Alexandria and beyond. Waghorn was followed shortly afterwards by Thomas Cook, a most surprising character, whose son John won the concession to run Egypt’s steamer fleet from Cairo to Aswan in 1873. These highly literate travellers wrote and published stirring accounts of their visits, which inspired the interest of others who became Egypt’s first tourist generation.
The hotels were anchors for all this activity. As with the travel entrepreneurs, the hotel trade realized that it could cash in on the enthusiasm of Egypt. In every major city and town, little corners of Europe sprang up in all their elaborate glory: “These grand hotels provided more than just accommodation. They were outposts of Europe planted on Egyptian soil. They offered familiar home comforts” (p.15), and they doubled up as “enclaves” for the experts who wanted the exotic but craved the familiar.
As travel to Egypt became simpler, the inevitable marketing engine kicked into being, promoting the glories of sun, sites and the exotic mystery of it all. Some of this marketing artwork forms a vast archive of contemporary illustration and design, and Humphreys has made excellent use of it throughout the book, a marvellous insight into how Egypt was promoted and what visitors might have been expecting of Egypt (whatever their actual experiences). Filled with mysterious history, bright colour, golden sunshine, calm blue waters with the desert beyond, and filled with people in strange clothing, with unfamiliar traditions, it must have seemed like an accessible eastern paradise.
Cities and Towns
The first town to be considered by Humphreys is Alexandria, the main point of entry into Egypt. But, “like the majority of tourists today” most visitors were passing through, aiming for Cairo and the Nile. Humphreys, however, provides an evocative view of Alexandria, describing it as “a place just stirring from centuries of torpor, where only in the last decades, at the instigation of Egypt’s modernizing ruler, Muhammad Ali, had a new town started to breathe life into a small moribund settlement among the ruins of a once considerably larger old Arab town” (p.22).
Cairo, at the centre of Mohammad Ali’s, Ismail’s and Said’s plans for an economically vibrant Egypt, was the centre of a cosmopolitan expatriate community, many of whom were invited in to effect those economic transformations. It was characterized by architectural transformation, and certain areas of the city’s landscape began to take on a distinctly Western look and feel. Humphrey paints a portrait of Cairo as a world of invention, expansion, balls, husband-hunting, spas, opera and a vast array of other entertainments, interrupted only by the First and Second World Wars. During the wars, there was a strong military presence in Cairo. In 1914 the Australian Light Horse Brigade were based behind the Mena House, causing disruption amongst the locals: they “turned over donkey buses, shot up cafes and bars, and rampaged through and set aflame the brothel quarter” (p.114).
Quite unlike either Cairo or Alexandria, Luxor was a rural place. The heart of ancient Thebes, it was home to an agricultural community, a scene of date palms, green fields and irrigation channels. For most of its foreign visitors the main attractions of Luxor were its temples and tombs. Egyptologists were there in large number, together with the officials required to ensure the smooth running of their activities. Visitors arrived on cruise boats, tourists eager to see the famous ancient temples or looking to Luxor’s favourable climate and quiet pace to improve poor health.
Aswan, different again, thrived under the development of the Aswan dams and as its position as the terminus of the Nile cruises. Tourists, engineers and business men mixed in one of Egypt’s most beautiful Nile-side locations.
It seems strange today that Cairo was once thought capable of rivalling Nice or Naples in terms of its celebrities and facilities, albeit on a highly seasonal basis between December and March, but it became a popular destination and many of the hotels became legends of that era: Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, the Winter Palace in Luxor and the Cataract Hotel in Aswan.
Each of the hotels has its own story. Part of those stories are made up of the personages who made the hotels their homes in the short or long term. All were built along magnificent lines and offered an extension of European expectations in an unfamiliar land. Europeans had a knack for making themselves at home on other people’s countries, not by blending in to the local environment but by heading for nearest hotel that offers the comforts of home. Egypt was no exception, and when they arrived expatriates and visitors found hotels operating as fully functioning social systems, held together by bricks, mortar, western ideas of the way to live and supported by Egyptian management and labour.
Humphreys describes the general style and offering of the hotels that served these western clients: “imposing without being particularly distinguished,” offering full board, “French style cooking and imported wines” with formal dress a requirement. Most visitors spoke English and Humphrey suggests that the British Protectorate encouraged the provision of British style hotels with English names.
Of Alexandria’s San Stefano, Humphreys says that as well as a vast sea-facing veranda “[t]here was a large indoor restaurant with high class cuisine service luncheons, dinners and suppers, a club reading room supplied with the latest newspapers, a ballroom with orchestra, and a games room with both French and English billiard tables”. Humphreys tracks the fortunes of the San Stefano until its final demise in 1993, when it was demolished.
Ancient Egyptian themes clearly became a major feature in Western design after the discovery of Tutankhamun. Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo was obviously something special: “The building enclosed a courtyard garden, while more gardens lay to the rear filled with palms, fountains, kiosks, wandering pelicans and flamingos . . . . If the exterior was classic, the interior was something else. The grand Entrance Hall was done out in Pharaonic Style, with thick, lotus-topped columns and friezes in the colours seen in artists’ depictions of the monuments of Upper Egypt” (p.82). After the discovery of Tutankhamun the Louis XVI ballroom became a Pharaonic Hall, complete with pillars, bas reliefs and frescoes. I would have given much to have seen it! Unfortunately in 1952 the hotel burned down during anti-British riots, taking with it many records of its history and its visitors.
When Lord Carnarvon stayed in Luxor he was always resident at the magnificent Winter Palace, a place that Humphreys describes as “the headquarters of society” (p.183), and the base for “the all-nations corpus of Egyptologists.” He goes on: “For the individuals and teams excavating the ruins of Thebes, regular visits to the hotel were a tonic against the loneliness of their work among the dry and dirty remains of the long dead” (p.183).
Egyptian facilitators were an essential part of the operation, with dragomen offering end-to-end services to wealthy visitors, and acting as tour guides, although apparently their versions of Egyptian history were seriously dubious, even then. Glimpses of Egyptian experiences of this invasion is preserved to a limited extent in photographs that usually focus on visitors but manage to include glimpses of Egyptian personnel – waiters in elaborate outfits at Shepheard’s and the Helwan Grand hotels, the less exalted porters wearing galabeyas bearing the word SHEPHEARD’S on their fronts, and in Aswan more porters, this time carrying luggage on their shoulders for those embarking on cruises. The scenes of local Egyptians pushing and pulling tourists up the sides of Great Pyramid still make me wince with embarrassment.
Egyptology and Observers
For anyone interested in Egyptology the presence of early Egyptologists and their experiences of Egypt at this time are a real treat. Egyptology connections are strewn throughout the book, with John Gardiner Wilkinson in Cairo, Auguste Mariette, Lord Carnarvon, Lucie Duff-Gordon in Luxor and Amelia Edwards in Aswan, to name but a few.
In Cairo we see the city through the eyes of John Gardiner Wilkinson as well as other scholars and artists including Gustave Flaubert and Maxime du camp. Gardiner Wilkinson first visited Egypt at the age of 24 to study antiquities and became so fascinated that instead of returning home he spent “twelve uninterrupted years surveying every major archaeology site between Alexandria and northern Sudan” (p.57). He published a number of Egyptology titles, as well as his Handbook for Travellers in Egypt (1847). In the first edition of his Handbook there was no museum of Egyptology on his itinerary: “The simple reason is none existed at the time” (p.57).
Of course, most of the Egyptologists in Humphrey’s tale were based in Luxor. The location of the Valley of the Kings, even before the discovery of Tutankhamun, had a powerful attraction for Egyptologists and tourists. In 1905, the discovery of the treasure-filled tomb of Yuya and Thuya by Theodore Davis had created quite a stir. Widely reported, this led to the Winter Palace opening its doors as a hotel. Magnificent, with lovely gardens, it was naturally the place where Lord Carnarvon stayed when he visited Howard Carter, and most notably when he came to inspect the new discovery – the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Humphreys provides a short but excellent account of the discovery of Tutankhamun in November 1922. He says that by Christmas that year “the town was inundated with visitors eagerly anticipating the day when the archaeologists would open the sealed door to the inner chambers of the tomb” (p.184-185). Now, as well as Egyptologists and visitors it was swamped with journalists – such was the madness that the hotel had to set up tents with cots in the garden to cope with the overflow. Humphreys goes on to describe Carnarvon’s death and looks briefly at the rest of Howard Carter’s career.
The Experiences and Peculiarities of Visitors
As we have seen, Humphreys draws on the writing of contemporary visitors who kept and sometimes published their journals and travelogues. These frequently offer remarkable insights into what travel was like in the mid nineteenth early twentieth centuries- a mixture of good and bad, all adding to the unique nature of the experience. Humphreys quotes Emma Roberts, for example, who wrote in 1830 of the boat from Alexandria to Cairo: “In the whole course of my travels I have never seen anything so forlorn and uncomfortable as this boat” (p.25). Others were more flattering about the local sights, even the somewhat neglected Alexandria. Samuel Bevan, a clerk going out to work in Egypt in 1840 thought that Pompey’s pillar in Alexandria stood out “in solitary grandeur from a vast plain of ruins and tombs” (p.23). I particularly enjoyed the description (and contemporary illustration) of people picnicking on the top of Pompey’s Pillar, “[o]ne of the maddest exploits indulged by early visitors to Alexandria” (p.27).
No less mad was the custom of climbing the Great Pyramid. Humphreys describes how the Mena House Hotel, which opened in 1886, became a popular destination for those who wished to see the pyramids, some of whom felt that seeing was not sufficient – the ascent to the top became a very fashionable activity. Humphreys says that when Baedecker’s guide to Egypt was updated, it had upgraded the recommended number of Bedouin required to assist with this ascent from two to three: “one holding each hand and pulling, and a third pushing from behind” (p.102). The effect, as acknowledged by one such adventurer, was “ridiculous.” The practice was banned in the 1960s.
Grand Hotels is much more than an account of Egypt’s fine hotels. It introduces a whole world of experience in Egypt at a time of political and economic upheaval, making great use of first-hand accounts, photographs and marketing material.
Humphreys has a great talent for taking contemporary writing and using it to portray a coherent and fully visual impression of each town, hotel and its occupants, bringing the life of Westerners in Egypt to life. Egypt is seen very much through the eyes of its expatriate inhabitants and visitors, contemporary accounts making up a substantial part of the text, giving it a strong sense of immediacy.
The hotels themselves reflect a way of life that has been lost but not, thanks to books like this, forgotten. There is glamour in the story, but there is also pathos. As personalities, some of the hotels were vibrant and alive, but many of them decayed and died, victims of political upheaval. One or two, however, survived the turmoil and are still cherished by visitors today. The Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, for example, has just been the subject of a major overhaul, and the Mena House Hotel continues to sit serenely at the feet of the pyramids of Giza. The dreadful modern block known as the “New Winter Palace” has been demolished in Luxor, and plans show a much more sympathetic companion for the Winter Palace in its place.
Although there is plenty about visiting personages of all types, shapes and sizes, there’s not a great deal about what Egyptians made of these visitors, although they were clearly a welcome source of income (and, I suspect, a source of some amusement, bewilderment and derision for some of their stranger exploits). As this book is so heavily focused on using first hand written and graphic materials, this is probably down to the lack of equivalent accounts written by contemporary Egyptians, and it’s a shame but inevitable that they are somewhat lost in the history of this era.
Some readers might be expecting more political contextualization either in the introduction or elsewhere, putting the hotels and the personalities into the context of colonialism and the protectorate, but there is very little. Most of the sense of a changing Egypt comes not from analysis, but in the form of personal accounts of Egypt, in the photographs and marketing materials and the fate of the museums themselves that show, implicitly, how Egypt’s fortunes were being altered.
In summary, this is a really engaging book, looking at how travel companies and hotels enabled scholars, artists, photographers, business men and the ever-increasing droves of tourists to come to Egypt without ever really leaving home. The first-hand accounts strewn throughout the book are well integrated into Humphreys’s narrative, and his own writing is a delight, flowing naturally and with great clarity, seamlessly holding all the different threads together. The production standards are very high, and the book is visually beautiful, with lovely photographs and illustrations throughout.
All photographs images are the copyright of Andrew Humphrey and the American University in Cairo Press. Sourced from The Grand Hotels of Egypt blog by Andrew Humphreys: http://grandhotelsegypt.com/?page_id=7
Grand Hotels of Egypt blog by Andrew Humphreys: http://grandhotelsegypt.com