The Cataract aka the ‘Grand Hotel’

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Nice to see Aswan’s Cataract hotel enjoying plenty of screen-time as it takes the lead role in the ritzy Ramadan TV series Grand Hotel. I have only seen the first two episodes so far but there are lots of scenes in the hotel’s Nile-side gardens and some on the terrace with its views of the river and desert beyond. But it seems the production wasn’t given permission to film inside the hotel because the interiors – at least in the first two episodes – were definitely not shot at the Cataract.

In honour of the series, here are a few things you may or may not know about the Cataract.

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It was built by Cook & Son

The hotel was financed by the English travel company Thomas Cook & Son. The railway had arrived in Aswan in 1898, bringing far more visitors to the town than the existing hotels could cope with. For a few seasons Cook & Son had been accommodating some of these tourists on one of its Nile cruisers, which was permanently moored on the Corniche at Aswan as a floating hotel. In 1899, the company decided to address the problem by commissioning a grand new hotel.

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Mummies were harmed in the construction
Construction began in 1899 on nine feddans bought from the state. There was considerable controversy when Al-Ahram reported that workmen leveling the driveway to the hotel had come upon two hundred mummies which they then destroyed with their picks.

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It was an immediate hit
The hotel opened to guests on 8 January 1900. It was two storeys high with 120 rooms, the majority south-facing with balconies overlooking the Nile. Forty more bedrooms were added later that year but the following season the number of visitors was so great that tents had to be erected in the grounds to house the overflow. So in 1902, the hotel gained a third story with an additional sixty rooms, bringing the total number of rooms to 220.

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It was critically acclaimed
The architect of the hotel was an Englishman with the very un-English name of Henri Favarger. He was the same architect responsible for the Mena House out by the Pyramids in Cairo. The highlight of the Mena House was Favarger’s Moorish dining hall and at the Cataract he created an even more dramatic dining space, a great octagonal, double-height hall topped by a central dome seventy-five feet high. The press described it as “unmatched even in Europe”. You can still see Favarger’s name etched into a stone at the foot of one of the columns.

…but not by everybody
Not everyone was a fan of the hotel. French travel writer Pierre Loti, who was generally appalled by the Europeanisation of Egypt. “Cook & Son have even gone so far as to conceive the idea that it would be original to give to their establishment a certain cachet of Islam. And the dining-room reproduces the interior of one of the mosques of Stamboul. At the luncheon hour,” he wrote with dripping sarcasm, “it is one of the prettiest sights in the world to see, under this imitation holy cupola, all the little tables crowded with Cook’s tourists of both sexes, while a concealed orchestra strikes up the Mattchiche.” English travel writer Douglas Sladen was almost as scathing: he thought the hotel looked like a county asylum.

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There is no evidence Agatha Christie stayed at the Cataract
Despite the claims of the hotel – and everybody else taking these claims as fact – there is no evidence Agatha Christie ever stayed at the Cataract. She holidayed in Egypt twice in the early 1930s and passed through Aswan on a Nile cruise. Her descriptions of the hotel in her twenty-second novel, Death on the Nile, prove that she certainly visited the hotel but passengers on Nile cruises tended to sleep in their cabins on the boats while in Upper Egypt. I’m not saying categorically she did not take a room at the Cataract, simply that there is no evidence to say she did.

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It attracted repeat visitors
A Lord Benbrook, a regular guest at the hotel, once arrived at the terrace to find his favorite table taken and informed the seated party that the table was reserved. “Since when,” asked the occupant. “Since twenty years,” Benbrook replied. Another regular was regular was Sultan Muhammad Shah, better known as Aga Khan III. After his first stay in 1937, when he and his new bride honeymooned at the Cataract, he reserved a suite at the hotel every year during the winter months. Before his death in 1957, he requested to be buried in Aswan and his mausoleum faces the Cataract from the top of a sandy hill across on the far side of the Nile.

…and repeat offenders
Egyptian royalty, on occasion, also favored the Cataract. King Farouk visiting for the 1941–42 season took an entire floor. According to stories doing the rounds at the time, the King enjoyed taking potshots from his balcony at the little Nubian boys paddling their boats on the river below. True or not, it says a lot about Farouk that such a story was so widely circulated.

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There is a painting of it in a Cairo museum
Maybe because it is so far from Cairo, but the Cataract was never written about or photographed as much as most of Egypt’s other grand hotels. It is, though, the only hotel to feature in a Cairo museum. This is a painting done in 1948 by Shaaban Zaky, a self-taught artist and railway employee, who travelled Egypt with his easel and brushes, and you’ll find it in the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art on Gezira.

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Cairo in vintage photos

Joanne Woon just posted a comment on this site to alert me to an image of the Muski taken around 1900 that shows a street sign for the Hotel du Nil (click twice on the photo to enlarge). This hotel was rare among Cairo hotels in that it wasn’t in the modern city but hidden away in an alley deep in Islamic Cairo.

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It comes from a set of wonderful photos mostly taken in the 1930s sourced from the Library of Congress, which was an invaluable source when it came to finding images to include in Grand Hotels of Cairo (less so for On the Nile). Point your browser over that way and you could spend hours lost in its image archive.

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This could almost have been taken in taken in the last 20th century until you notice the guy at the far right in his Edwardian pith helmet.

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What really dates the photo above is how clean it is. I’ve certainly never seen it like that. The images in this post and several more can also all be found here.

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Shepheard’s in photographs

Although no physical trace of the original Shepheard’s hotel remains, it was well documented while it stood. It was the subject of several photo essays in international magazines including Life and, I think, Picture Post. The hotel’s earlier incarnation (before the 1890 rebuild) was captured by several of the pioneering Middle Eastern photographers including Bonfils and Sebah. When it came to selecting images for Grand Hotels, we were spoiled for choice, and we were only able to include the merest fraction of what was available. I thought I might post some of those images that did not make the cut here. This particular set, below, dates from 1948, so just four years before the hotel was burned down.

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The chap behind the counter here is bartender Joe Scialom: if you don’t know about Joe, then go here.

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A rare Richter poster

A chap named David Hopper added a comment on this site last week mentioning he had a poster that recycled one of the designs used on the cover of an Anglo-American Nile Company brochure. He kindly sent me an image with permission to post here:

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It’s a fabulous thing and, as far as I know, very rare – I’ve never seen a poster for the Anglo-American company. He tells me it’s 39 1/2 x 25 inches and going by the date on the brochure with which it shares a design, it probably dates from around 1929/1930.

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Also interesting is that it was designed and printed by the well known Richter & Co of Naples, a company responsible for designing and printing many of the fine luggage labels and advertising material put out by Egypt’s top hotels, including Shepheard’s, the Winter Palace and Cataract. The Anglo-American company spent years overshadowed by the more commercially successful Thomas Cook Nile services and subsequently largely vanished from history while the Thomas Cook name lives on, but thanks to Richter it can at least boast the better graphics.

 

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Wonderful things

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I mentioned a few posts back that there had been some amends made for the paperback edition of Grand Hotels. Chief of these was correcting a big mistake of mine, which was to attribute the design of the 1890 rebuild of Shepheard’s hotel to the English architect George Somers Clarke. I was repeating a claim published elsewhere without testing the truth of it. In my defence, information on the architects of hotels built in the 19th century was and is hard to come by.

You’d imagine that for an institution as famous as Shepheard’s, everything about it would be thoroughly documented but this is not the case. Not even the daily newspapers of the time, which reported at length on the remodeling and relaunch of the hotel, bothered to credit the architect. Hats off then to Tarek Ibrahim, a researcher at the Humboldt University of Berlin who has succeeded where I failed and managed to identify the real architect. A name in an old Shepheard’s brochure led him to a castle in Bavaria where he gained confirmation that the architect was a German named Johann Adam Rennebaum. This is not a well known name. In fact, I think few architectural historians that specialise in 19th-century Cairo have even heard of him. But apparently he was a long-term resident of Egypt, who designed villas for members of the German community in Alexandria and a number of buildings for Belgian enterprises in Cairo. It appears he was also involved in restorations of some of Cairo’s most important mosques including Ibn Tulun, Sultan Hassan and Al-Azhar.

But Tarek’s real find was in Bavaria. He discovered that Rennebaum’s ancestors still had a dusty tower room filled with their ancestor’s belongings (he died in 1937). These include sketchbooks, photographs, and plans and preparatory drawings for details of the décor in Shepheard’s, as well as items of furniture that may possibly have come from the hotel. Tarek told me he felt like Carter discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb. The pictures in this post were sent to me by Tarek.

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Tarek is now hoping to find sponsors to fund the restoration of the furniture, which is in a fairly bad way, with a possible view to a future exhibition. He’s also hoping to write a book on Rennebaum and Shepheard’s. It’s amazing news.

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Grand Hotels in paperback

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It’s been out for a while now but I only recently got to see it for myself – the paperback edition of Grand Hotels of Egypt.

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The Oxford Pension

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For a spell back at the end of the 80s/early 90s whenever I was walking around Downtown Cairo I used to have guys shout at me, “Hey! Kaboria!” The reference was to a hit film that was playing at the cinemas, staring Ahmed Zaki. In it, he sported a distinctive close-crop hair cut and, unasked for by me, my local barber had given me the same cut. Then the film finished its run and my hair grew out and that’s the last I heard of Kaboria, until last month.

It unexpectedly popped up again in British newspaper The Guardian in an interview with Cate Blanchett. Rehashing old history with the journalist, she explains how aged around 20, she was doing the Australian thing of travelling the world for a year. She was hanging out in Cairo when she was approached by some guy at her hostel and asked if she wanted to appear as an English-speaking extra in a local film. And so she went along and it turned out to be Kaboria. However, contrary to what sources on the internet say, Blanchett says it was so hot and boring she left and was never in the film.

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The hostel where the future Elizabeth I and Galadriel was staying in Cairo was the Oxford pension. A “fleapit” she calls it. A fleapit? That’s not half the story. It was cockroach central. A fetid lice incubator. A rodent ranch. It had a rickety lift with the greater part of its back kicked out that carried guest up to the sixth-floor reception and which felt uncomfortable like an ascending coffin. It had nicotine-hued walls, showers that spouted only rusty trickles and rooms that weren’t rooms at all, just widenings in the corridor with a mattress on the floor.

But it had a prime location midway up Talaat Harb and it was cheap, cheap enough that it was always full of long-term boarders, paying just a few pounds a week for a place to flop. It had the added attraction of a reception area that was the place to score drugs, pick up work, sell a Walkman or a passport, buy a false student ID, or just to share Stellas and stories with like-minded warriors on the overland trail.

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I never stayed there – I valued my health too much – but I knew plenty who did. These memorably included a guy from Manchester who had to be medivaced out after catching hepatitis and an American who taught English up the street at a cowboy school where the pay didn’t allow for anything more than a bed at the Oxford. To brighten up his room the American bought some red cloth from Khan al-Khalili and draped the ceilings and walls. For company he bought a white rabbit from the butchers and named her Miss Fifi. When he left a few months later, the management at the Oxford left his room as it was and certain guests got given a room that looked like a brothel, complete with white rabbit and droppings.

Who said the golden age of travel ended with World War II?

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Grand Hotels now in revised paperback

I’ve yet to see a copy but I think Grand Hotels of Egypt is out in paperback. We updated the text earlier this summer, correcting a few typos and including new information that has come to light since the book’s original publication (more on that shortly). We also changed the spine colour to a lovely deep red. I can’t wait to see it. If you haven’t already bought a copy of the book, maybe put off by the price tag of the hardback, then the good news is the paperback is selling for just £10 on amazon in the UK.

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Avoid crowds. Don’t let strangers talk to you

This is why I love old guidebooks. These pages are from a guide to Chicago published in 1888, but the paternalistic going on paranoid tone of the advice is familiar from guides to Egypt.

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An American Express on the Nile

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Americans had been vacationing on the Nile since the mid 19th century but in the first years of the 20th they were coming in ever greater numbers. The Hamburg-American Line increased its sailings to Alexandria to accommodate the growth. Meanwhile, on the Nile new cruise companies were setting up to challenge the monopoly of the English-owned Thomas Cook & Son. I’ve written before about the Anglo-American, established in the mid 1890s, and this was joined ten years later by another new venture, the Express Nile Steamer Company.

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Boasting all-American management and operating on “the American plan”, it inaugurated services aboard its two purpose-built steamers, the America and the Virginia, in 1906. (The steamers, incidentally, were British built.) What the “American plan” was, I’m not sure, but the company’s particular selling point was speed. It claimed its boats were the fastest on the Nile, with an average speed upstream of 12 knots an hour. This enabled them to complete the journey to Aswan and back in eight days as opposed to Cook & Son’s standard twenty. In fact, by synchronising with the train that left Cairo at 6.30pm and arrived in Luxor at 9am the next morning, where a boat would leave at 10am arriving in Aswan at 11pm, the company could boast it could get the traveller from Cairo to Aswan in not much over 24 hours “and have a good view of some of the principal ruins on the way”.

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Except tearing up and back down the Nile at breakneck speed was not the experience most tourists in Egypt were looking for and it seems the Express Nile Steamer Company did not remain in business long because very little evidence of it exists. I found just one or two mentions in archive issues of the daily Egyptian Gazette. Until, that is, this brochure came up recently on ebay (scans above and below). I’ve never seen any other material relating to the company, which might explain why this item went for a price far beyond my each.

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If anybody has any more information about this company, I’d love to hear from you.

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