I was at the Thomas Cook Archives in Peterborough, 45 minutes north of London, recently, doing some last-minute picture research for my forthcoming Nile steamers book. I came across the images below, of a dahabiya against a low-rise river bank of what look like villas. I couldn’t identify where it was at first until I noticed in the background of the top image the distinctive silhouette of the Citadel (click on the pics to enlarge). So Cairo then. And then I noticed on the extreme left of the middle picture a familiar building: it’s the old Semiramis hotel. So this is Garden City, some time post 1907. The building on the right in the bottom picture is the British Residence, now the embassy. But what is the building in the middle, anyone know?
I’ve posted many times here on Shepheard’s hotel, which, until it was burned down in 1952, was not only the most famous hotel in Egypt but one of the most famous in the world. But what about its founder, the man who gave his name to the hotel, Samuel Shepheard?
He was born on 21 January 1816 in the village of Preston Capes, Northamptonshire, in the English Midlands. As a young man he was apprenticed to a pastry cook but chose instead to abandon the parochialism of country life and run off in search of adventure at sea. He found more of it than he bargained for when, in January 1842, serving as a junior ofﬁcer aboard a P&O mail ship he took the crew’s side in a mutiny and was charged by the captain with insubordination and thrown off at Suez. From here he made his way overland to Cairo. He may have been intending heading up to Alexandria where he could board another ship for England, but he never got that far, instead he found employment in Cairo with a Mr Hill who ran the British Hotel.
Although still only in his twenties the marooned sailor proved himself capable enough that by 1846, when English social reformer and journalist Harriet Martineau passed through Cairo on a tour of the East, Hill’s hotel was already being referred to as “Shepheard’s”.
Officially though, it was still the British Hotel. We know this for sure because a couple of years later, in 1848, it moved premises to a new location on the Ezbekiya and there’s an image of it with the name clearly painted above the door (click on the image below to enlarge).
Business must have been good because within just another couple of years Shepheard was looking for somewhere bigger again. The opportunity came through a chance meeting between Shepheard and Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive Abbas, in which the two discovered shared a love of hunting. Soon afterwards, in November 1849, Shepheard wrote to his brother that the Pasha “has given me a grant of a large college to build an Hotel on the site. I am busy making a plan” (the letter is reproduced in Michael Bird’s 1957 biography of Shepheard).
The site granted was the Palace of Alﬁ Bey, which overlooked the recently created Ezbekiya Gardens. This was the residence commandeered by Napoleon when he rode into Cairo in July 1798. Following the departure of the French, the building was occupied by a daughter of Muhammad Ali and later became a school of languages, which was closed during the reign of Abbas, leaving the premises empty and free to gift to Samuel Shepheard. The new establishment (pictured below), the ﬁrst to bear the name of Shepheard’s Hotel, opened its rooms to guests in July 1851.
Samuel Shepheard would stay on in Cairo for just another nine years before selling up in 1860 and returning to England. There, he retired to the Midlands, not far from where he grew up, buying a grand Georgian house called Eathorpe Hall. For all that, he was not a lucky man: no less than four of his children died in infancy in Cairo, and another at the age of ten. One possible reason he sold up so early in his career was that he feared to lose any more children to illness in Egypt. But ill luck followed him to England and he hardly had time to enjoy his bucolic surroundings before he also died, in 1866 at the age of 50.
He was survived by three daughters, but only one of them went on to marry, the other two dying as spinsters. She married a man called Arthur Bird and I’m presuming the Michael Bird who wrote the Samuel Shepheard book in 1957 is a descendent. I have managed, or rather my mother, who is good at this sort of thing, has managed to piece together a Shepheard family tree.
If we’ve got this right then it seems there are definitely some descendents of Samuel Shepheard out there – if so, and if any of them ever come across this blog post, I would dearly love to hear from you. In the past I have had emails from descendents of other Egyptian hoteliers I’ve blogged about, so fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, Samuel Shepheard’s old home Eathorpe Hall still survives. It remains a beautiful place, as can be seen in the photographs below which were posted on an estate agent’s site last year when the property came up for sale. The asking price was £2,750,000, which is one historic hotels of Egypt souvenir I couldn’t stretch to.
Many of the items used to illustrate Grand Hotels of Egypt (and the forthcoming On the Nile) I’ve bought at auction. I’m on the mailing list of several auction sites, which notify me when they have something that may be of interest. Which is how this came to my attention:
It’s a postcard of Cairo and it’s autographed by Mark Twain.
As part of a tour of Europe and the Holy Lands, he travelled to Egypt in 1867 aboard the steamship Quaker City. He had convinced a San Francisco newspaper to pay for his ‘Great Pleasure Excursion’ in exchange for a series of articles, later edited and published as Innocents Abroad (1869).
On arrival at Egypt, he and his fellow travellers alighted at Alexandria where they proceeded in picturesque procession to the American Consul’s residence, the public gardens at Nuzha, Ras al-Tin Palace, and to Cleopatra’s Needles and Pompey’s Pillar where, in keeping with the attitude to antiquities at the time, one of the party took a hammer to the Roman-era column and attempted to smash off fragments for a souvenir. Twain thought Alexandria was too much like a European city to be of any interest, and soon got tired of it.
He liked Cairo more because it came closer to fulfilling his expectations of the ‘Orient’. But not his hotel. As an outpost of Europe in Cairo, Shepheard’s was never going to ﬁnd much favour. Twain was acerbic about the place, writing that it was ‘the worst [hotel] on earth except the one I stopped at once in a small town in the United States. It is pleasant to read this sketch in my note-book, now, and know that I can stand Shepheard’s Hotel, sure, because I have been in one just like it in America and survived.’ Specific objects of his ire included the hotel’s threadbare carpeting, sagging ﬂoorboards and poor lighting.
Why Twain should be signing postcards of Cairo in 1908, more than 40 years after visiting is a bit of a mystery. But if after all this time Twain still remembered Egypt, the country hadn’t forgotten him either. Philip Marden was sightseeing at the Pyramids just a year or two after Twain signed that postcard when he was given a donkey to ride named ‘Marka Twain’: it was, he reported, ‘the name of more than half the donkeys of Egypt’.
I’ve posted previously on Cairo’s Savoy hotel, at one time the flagship for George Nungovitch’s Egyptian hotel empire, here. I’ve also mentioned in passing the Luxor Savoy, here, which used to stand on the east bank, a little north of the Luxor Temple, and survived, albeit in a sorry state, until the 1970s when it was gutted by fire and subsequently demolished to make way for a shopping development. But there was a third Savoy. This was in Aswan and by all accounts was quite a grand affair. Here’s Amédée Baillot de Guerville writing in the first years of the 20th century: “At Assouan there are three excellent hotels, two of which are large modern houses. The Cataract, belonging to Cook, is admirably looked after by M. Pagnon (proprietor of the hotels at Luxor) … On the Elephantine Island, in the midst of a charming garden, there is another palatial building, the Savoy Hotel, belonging to the Anglo-American Company, and which enjoys equal popularity with the Cataract.”
(The third hotel was the Grand, which was apparently misnamed.)
The Anglo-American was a recently formed Nile steamer company, which came into being toward the end of the 1880s and entered into direct competition with the well established Thomas Cook & Son passenger services. Naturally enough, having transported boatloads of tourists up the Nile, the last thing the new company wanted was to hand them over to its rival to accommodate, so the Anglo-American took to building hotels of its own. Its Savoy was a palatial, boomerang-shaped structure with accommodation for 80 guests and a riverfront setting among the palm groves at the northern tip of Elephantine. There was a magnificent dining hall, bar, ladies’s lounge and a billiard room. Any inconvenience arising from being separated from the town by water was more than made up for by a luscious terraced garden coloured with golden-plumed parkinsonia, crimson poinsettia, and bushes of chrysanthemums which had to be drowned every day to keep them alive; a long hedge of oleanders overhung the river.
Ofﬁcially opened on 20 January 1900, the hotel was afﬁliated to the Nungovich Hotel Company, which supplied its manager, a Mr Brey, formerly of the Savoy Hotel, Cairo, and handpicked the staff. In 1905, the hotel became part of the Upper Hotels Company, of which Nungovich was a founder board member and shareholder.
Although I’ve never heard of anyone staying there, the Aswan Savoy survived until modern times, only being demolished in the 1970s. It was replaced by a new Oberoi hotel, notable for being the worst eyesore in the whole of Egypt (and that is a hotly contested title); it recently changed hands and is now the Mövenpick Resort Aswan, although it still looks as hideous. (With thanks to Cornelius Von Pilgrim)
It has been quite a while since I posted anything here for which I do apologise. There was good reason. I have been busy writing the follow-up to Grand Hotels, which is to be titled On the Nile in the Golden Age of Travel. It tells the story of tourism on the Nile, from languorous expeditions in dahabiyas to the coming of the steamer, and the heyday of Cook’s Nile services in the early 20th century. I’m pleased to say the manuscript is now with the American University in Cairo Press, which will be publishing the book in Spring 2015. There’s still plenty to do: for the next couple of months I will be working with Gadi Farfour, my wife, on the design of the book (like Grand hotels it will be heavily illustrated in full colour), and then there’s captioning, editor’s corrections, proofing and a whole heap of other things. However, we’re very much on the home straight and life outside of writing now starts to get a look in once again, including, hopefully, more posting here.
Today I received another email from Peter Kuonen – who sent me the wonderful images of his grand-uncle Victor, who was concierge at the Winter Palace in its heyday (see here). Here’s the text of Peter’s email:
Much to my surprise, I found the gold watch which Victor received with a dedication from Charles Baehler for his excellent work during 30 years in Egypt. You surely wonder how and where I found it. In my research, I have of course spoken with many relatives. Thus, it happened that I was talking about this watch and then I held it in my hand. You cannot imagine how I felt. It was just great… like getting a reward for my work. The person that keeps this memorable piece is Toni Kuonen, a hotelier in Sierre, Switzerland. He received it from his father Richard, a son of Victor Kuonen.
And here is the watch, courtesy of photos from Peter.
Incidentally, the Charles Baehler who Peter mentions in his email was the king of Egyptian hotels. A former accountant from Switzerland, he arrived in Egypt on 21 October 1889, aged eighteen. He went to work at Shepheard’s in a junior role but so impressed his employer with his conﬁdence and knowledge of hotel administration that he was soon appointed manager. By 1905, he owned the hotel. By the time he died, in 1937, his companies not only owned every major hotel in Egypt (including the Winter Palace), but also 72 shops and 130 ﬂats, a stable of race horses, a kennel of prize-winning St. Bernard dogs, and a museum-worthy collection of paintings and tapestries. He married three times and fathered three sons. His obituary in The New York Times on 28 September 1937 called him “one of the world’s greatest hotel men.”
Now if any of his descendents read this, I would love to hear from them.
I was doing some research on the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits this week, the outfit best known for operating the Orient Express and other luxury train services. Less well known is that in 1894 the directors set up a subsidiary, the Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hotels, through which they began operating luxury hotels around the world. In Egypt, they took up the lease on what had been one of Ismail’s numerous palaces until it had been seized following his abdication in 1879. The CIGH had the former khedivial residence remodeled, reﬁtted and opened to paying guests in October 1894 as the Gezira Palace Hotel—or Gheezireh Palace Hotel, as in those days the more letters in a word the more authentically foreign it was thought to be.
The image above is part of a CIGH advertising poster and it is one of the most unique and beguiling views of Cairo I’ve ever seen. It must date from the very last years of the 19th century, soon after the CIGH acquired the Palace, which is at the centre of the panorama. If you don’t yet recognize it, the Gezira Palace would eventually – after a long spell as a private home – become the Cairo Marriott, and the island is what’s now Zamalek. The bridge in picture is Qasr el-Nil. It’s as though the artist is hovering above the east side of 26th of July Bridge.
Behind the U-shaped building are the extensive khedivial gardens with twin lakes overlooked by the Kiosque, a large free-standing pavilion that was originally used as guest accommodation, but later became function rooms and a casino. South of the ornamental gardens, the Khedive’s private park has already became a sports and recreation ground, for polo and horse riding – it’s now the Gezira Club. Missing is the 6th October flyover that now cuts across its middle. Beyond, the west bank is largely desert, apart from the thread of greenery that indicates the road running straight to the Pyramids on the horizon.
I love the detail, like the dahabiya just setting off from the moorings at Bulaq bound for Upper Egypt, and the lions at the end of the bridge. So many feluccas too – it looks more like Aswan than Cairo.
As I posted a couple of months back, I’m currently at work on a follow up to Grand Hotels, this time round focusing on the Nile steamer services. The manuscript is progressing well and I’m due to hand it over to my publishers, the AUC Press, in mid July. One of the major operators of Nile boats was an outfit called the Anglo-American Nile Company, founded in 1896 and in existence until at least the late 1920s. Unfortunately, information on them is very hard to come by. If there’s anybody out there who has any leads, I’d love to hear from you.
A new novel that might be of interest to readers of this site is The Visitors by Sally Beauman. It’s set in Egypt in 1922, where a young English girl has been sent in care of a chaperone to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother. The opening chapters largely play out in the salons and on the terrace of Shepheard’s in Cairo, which is beautifully brought to life. The supporting cast of characters include familiar names such as Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert, Arthur Mace, Harry Burton, Pierre Lacau, James Breasted, Arthur Weigall and a host of other real-life people, all of whom were involved in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun – the event that provides the novel’s dramatic backdrop. Beauman does a good job of putting flesh on the biographical bones of her historical cast and succeeds in bringing the characters to life. How accurate and fair she is, I can’t say – it would take someone better read in Egyptology than me to comment. Her descriptions of Shepheard’s and Winter Palace are generally spot on though, right down to describing the bathrooms of the former as being vast and echoing, like mausoleums – one 19th century journalist said sitting in one of them was like being in a chamber at the centre of a pyramid. If I were being picky I might mention that the Continental hotel isn’t across the Ezbekiya Gardens from Shepheard’s but just up the street, and the Winter Palace is not designed in a Baroque style – far from it – but that’s minor stuff. A bigger problem, I found, is the voice of the protagonist, Lucy, whose inner thoughts run to things like, “In the fustian Cambridge circles in which I’d grown up, divorce equaled disgrace”. She’s supposed to be eleven years old, for god’s sake. I found this such a problem I gave up on the book a quarter of the way in. Now I’ll never know whether Howard Carter found that tomb or not.
The English novelist EM Forster was 36 when he arrived in Alexandria in November 1915. He had already had four novels published, including A Room with a View and Howards End. A paciﬁst by inclination, he had decided to avoid ﬁghting by volunteering for the Red Cross, and was posted to Egypt. While he looked for more permanent accommodation, he took a room at the newly built Majestic, which had opened the previous year on 20 April 1914.
The hotel had announced its arrival the previous year with the following notice in the local press:
Messrs Pappadopoulo & Co beg to announce the opening of the Majestic Hotel, the construction, furnishing and installation of which has been executed according to the latest modern methods of good taste and comfort.
The Hotel situated in the centre of town opposite the Jardin Francais, with a splendid view on the sea, in close proximity of the new quai, the Egyptian Post Offices, the Mixed Courts, and the principal commercial Establishments offers both by its exceptional position and irreproachable service all that could be desired.
Mr F. Roure who managed during 25 years the Grand Hotel Abbat and afterwards the Grand Hotel and whose repute is well known has assumed the management of the new House thus a guarantee is assured that entire satisfaction will be given.
Messrs Pappadopoulo and F. Roure earnestly hoping that Travellers and Residents alike will extend to them at the MAJESTIC HOTEL the confidence which they have hithero shown to them: beg to thank one and all in advance.
Forster intended to remain only three months in Alexandria but in the event stayed more than three years. He spent his ﬁrst few months visiting the city’s hospitals during working hours and walking the seafront for recreation. He wrote to his mother, ‘one can’t dislike Alex … because it is impossible to dislike either the sea or stones. But it consists of nothing else as far as I can gather: just a clean cosmopolitan town by some blue water’. Over time he obviously discovered more to the city, finding the place sufficiently inspiring for him to produce his Alexandria: A History and a Guide (published 1922) and a collection of essays on Alexandrian themes called Pharos and Pharillon (1923).
But while Forster did a fine job of keeping alive the legends and myths of Alexandria, the hotel in which he stayed has faded into obscurity. I’ve been able to find virtually no references to the Majestic. Obviously, it lacked the glamour that was attached to other Alexandrian hotels, such as the Cecil or San Stefano. I suspect its clientele leaned toward travelling businessmen, civil servants and low-ranking officials, the sorts of low-visibility types who couldn’t afford to splash out on somewhere like the Cecil but weren’t going to be around long enough to warrant finding an apartment – the sort of person Forster perhaps was when he first arrived.
I don’t know when the Majestic ceased to be a hotel, but it is long gone. The building survives, though. Its lower ﬂoors are occupied by a modern shopping mall, the upper ﬂoors by ofﬁces. Until very recently it was still distinguished by the elegant twin cupolas on its front corners, but recently these were destroyed in a shameful act of architectural vandalism by an opportunistic developer looking to add an extra couple of storeys. Apparently work on the building has now ceased on orders of the governor of Alexandria but it’s a bit late.
The news of what’s happened to the Majestic building (and the photos) came from the Facebook page run by Zahraa Adel Awad, an Alexandrian tour guide who is campaigning to save the city’s architectural heritage – visit her site here.