Five Years

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This coming weekend marks five years since the first post on this site (which was about four months before the publication of Grand Hotels of Egypt). To mark the occasion I’d like to say a big thank you to everybody that regularly checks in here, and particularly to all those people who’ve left comments or have emailed me directly. Every time my enthusiasm has flagged and the posts have dropped off, there’s been a fascinating or gratifying communication from someone out there and I’ve been inspired to dig up more material to share.

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It really is the interaction that keeps this site going. I’ve got a big kick out of hearing from the distant relatives of some of the hoteliers and other characters that I write about in my books and from people whose ancestors travelled to Egypt way back when, especially those who’ve shared diaries and photos with me. I’ve also loved fielding some of the intriguing requests for information that regularly come my way – helping to identify a hotel in Alexandria hotel for an exhibition about Paul Klee in Germany or show what a letterhead from Shepheard’s would have looked like back in 1914 for a dramatisation of one of HP Lovecraft’s weird tales. The query about tessellated pentagonal tiling at the Cataract flummoxed me, though. Next year I’ll also be loaning some of the bits and pieces I own relating to Egypt’s old hotels to a couple of museum exhibitions here in the UK, one on an amateur Egyptologist who travelled to Egypt in 1886/7 and 1890/1 and the other devoted to Winston Churchill in the Middle East. More on those nearer the time.

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Meanwhile, please keep checking back regularly, and keep the comments and emails coming. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my obsessions. (The photos, by the way, are from the launch party for Grand Hotels, which took place at Cairo’s Windsor hotel.)

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All aboard

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The item above is not a Christmas card or greetings card, although it was handed out to all who boarded a Cook & Son Nile steamer. It is a passenger list – flip it over and the small card lists out all your fellow passengers.

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It was important to know who they were, after all, with the standard cruise taking three weeks, everybody would be spending a lot of time in each other’s company. Chances are some of the names would be familiar – a trip up the Nile was not cheap and the steamers were largely the preserve of the aristocratic and moneyed classes.

Cook & Son employed a variety of slightly different designs for their passenger lists. These lists relate to the boats I wrote about in the last post, so they would have been issued some time in the 1890s or first decade of the 20th century.

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From the same period comes the excellent ticket below, issued by the Cairo office of Cook & Son on 22 November 1893 and good for a journey from Girgeh south to Aswan and back down to Cairo. It is personally signed and authorised by John Mason Cook, son of Thomas and head of the company since his father passed away the previous year.

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All these items come from the Thomas Cook archive in Peterborough.

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When Steam Replaced Sail on the Nile

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In 1888 Cook & Son’s seasonal Egypt and the Nile brochure opened with an apology: “It will be known to all who have watched the course of events in Egypt, that from the season 1883-84 until the past season of 1886-87, we have not been in the position to justify us announcing a regular tourist steamboat service on the Nile.”

The reason for this was that Cook’s fleet of Nile steamers had been requisitioned by the British Army to transport its troops up to Khartoum in a doomed attempt to rescue Major General Charles Gordon and his besieged forces. The boats were ruined in the attempt. Cook & Son sued for recompense and in 1887 was able to commence the launch of a wholly new, purpose-built fleet of paddle steamers, built to order and custom-fitted for Nile service.

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The first two boats were ordered from Fairfield Govan of Glasgow. The design of the boats was based on the American river steamers, with upper, main and lower decks, and side-mounted paddlewheels. The completed hulls and engines were delivered in sections to Egypt in the second half of 1886, and assembled in Cairo, where Cook & Son had its own boatyards at Bulaq. These first vessels were an almost identical pair, the Tewfik and Prince Abbas, which made their trials on the Nile in October 1886.

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At around the same time, two additional steamers were ordered from France. These were the Rameses and Prince Mohammed Ali, which were towed across the Mediterranean to Damietta and up the Nile to Cairo.

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In November 1889, a further Fairfield boat, the Rameses the Great, was delivered. It made its maiden Nile voyage in January 1890 with African explorer Henry Morton Stanley on board. Business was so good, two seasons later Cook & Son commissioned yet another steamer. This was the Rameses III, launched into regular service on 17th January 1893.

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There were also four smaller, less lavish steamers that were built for use on a “Cheap Express Service”: the Amenartas, Cleopatra, Hatasoo and Nefertari. To prove their “express” credentials, in November 1888 the Cleopatra completed the run from Cairo to Aswan and back, a distance of 1,200 miles in 122 hours, faster than anyone had ever done it before. The Express service ran Asyut–Aswan–Asyut, where it connected with the Cairo train. It was for travellers who wanted to spend less time and money on seeing the Nile. It only made short stops en route, including just a few hours at Qena, Luxor and Edfu.

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Another purchase was a small steam launch, a boat suitable for a party of not more than eight. This was named Nitocris and was used for private hires (one client was Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who sailed the Nile in January 1896). The company also retained a small fleet of dahabiyas, which were also used for private hire.

At a speech to mark the launch of Rameses III, head of the company John Cook recalled that when he had made his first trip to the Nile in 1870, there had been only one passenger-carrying steamer and 136 dahabiyas; now there were fifteen steamers, all running under his ownership, and not more than thirty dahabiyas. (In the 21st century, the dahabiya has made a bit of a comeback, while there are no more than two or three working steamers.)

The beautiful drawings included here come from a Cook’s Egypt and the Nile brochure from the 1890s. They were cleaned up and reproduced in large format in my On the Nile book, which is, as far as I know, the first time they have ever been published. You need to double-click on them to appreciate the detail.

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The Diary of Charlotte Riggs

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From the unpublished diary of Mrs Charlotte Riggs of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, who with her husband Reverend Alexander B Riggs sailed from New York to the Holy Land in 1907 aboard the White Star Line steamer Arabic.

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Launched in 1902, the ship was only in service thirteen years before being torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat on 19 August 1915. It was used mainly on Atlantic crossings between Liverpool and New York, but was also used for Mediterranean winter cruises. The ship berthed briefly in Alexandria to allow passengers to make an excursion down to Cairo.

March 20, 1907
We left the boat this morning & took a ride in the steam cars, reaching Cairo about 2 PM.  We have a fine room with bath.  Took a walk, sat on the hotel veranda & then dressed for dinner.  ‘Tis lovely here.  To think of my being in that terrible Jerusalem, making my trip, at least this part, so unpleasant, but ‘tis past now.

Thursday, March 21
We made to Pyramids through a lovely road lined with large trees & along the river Nile.  We crossed the river twice on five bridges.  Saw the Sphinx.

Friday morning
Saw Coptic church, Old Cairo, Nilometer, place where Moses was found, Mosque & Citadel, Bazaar.

Saturday, March 23
Took a walk in morning, afternoon drove to Bazaar.  Took tea with the Warthys.  Buchanans called last evening.

Sunday, March 24
Went to Church of Scotland this morning.  Sat on [hotel’s] veranda after church.  Also after lunch a while saw several funerals.  Street full of all sorts of people.  The people who live at this hotel are very dressy.  At six o’clock attended service at American Mission.  Dr. Kennedy of Pittsburgh preached.  Took our last dinner here tonight.  Leave the Grand Continental Hotel in the morning.

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Monday, March 25
We left Cairo this morning at 8:20 by steam cars & reached the boat about one o’clock safely. We were rushed through Alexandria as they have smallpox there, we hear.  It was good to get back to ship though we had a lovely time at Cairo.  The greeting of friends on the boat was pleasant after my being away twelve days.

The hotel in which the Riggs stayed was the Grand Continental on Opera Square, which some years later would change its name to the Continental-Savoy. Thank you to Charlotte’s great-nephew Douglas Brookes for sending me the images and the diary extract.

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Did MGM rebuild Shepheard’s in Hollywood?

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It’s a beautiful poster and it belongs to the most politically incorrect film you’re ever likely to see. This poster is Italian, but the film was American, released by MGM in 1933 as A Night in Cairo (aka The Barbarian).

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The plot is an American socialite (Myrna Loy) arrives in Egypt to marry her terminally dull English fiancé, where she attracts the attentions of a sleazy desert prince (Ramon Novarro) who poses as a tour guide in order to make moves on foreign women. This charmer kidnaps, tortures and rapes her, after which she decides she loves him and the pair elope up the Nile. What got everybody heated up back then though was a scene in which Loy appeared to be naked in a sunken bath, modesty not quite preserved by floating petals.

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Much of the film takes place in Cairo, the bulk of it in a hotel that is clearly modelled on Shepheard’s. The shooting took place on an MGM back lot in Culver City, California, with Yuma, Arizona used for the desert scenes. Being a studio shoot there are no street scenes and only a handful of well-used locations, including a railway station, the Pyramids, hotel rooms and the desert. The hotel rooms are totally generic and look nothing like the photos I’ve seen of rooms at Shepheard’s from that time. But then there are a couple of scenes in which the characters go out onto the hotel terrace and they baffle me. They look completely authentic. The doorway, the steps down to the street, the arrangement of the terrace all appear exactly as they really were. Check out the railings in the screengrab below and compare them with the actual photo of Shepheard’s beneath it.

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They are identical. In a scene in which Loy and party leave the hotel you see part of the name Shepheard’s on the terrace wall (a bit dark, I’m sorry), as it was in real life (bottom image, taken in the 1920s).

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No way did the studio fly out Myrna Loy (that’s her in the screenshots) to shoot a couple of exterior scenes in Cairo, so this must have been a studio set back in California. How intriguing to think that in the early 1930s technicians built a replica Shepheard’s terrace in Hollywood. I wonder, as was the way with these things, if it ever got recycled for any other films?

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Opera Square in the 1940s

h4145-l103686233The painting above (click to enlarge) is of Opera Square from a balcony at the Continental-Savoy. It’s by François Krige (1913–1994), an artist I had never heard of, but a quick Google reveals he was a South African who painted in a ‘Post-Impressionist style which formed early in his career, influenced by his travels and studies in Europe’. He was in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Italy as a wartime artist during the Second World War, which is possibly when this painting dates from. I love the vitality and life about it, and the fact that there across the square, you can make out the terrace of the legendary Madam Badia’s casino.

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Cairo in the War

EGYPT. Cairo. W.W. II. Servicemen relax on the Hotel Shepheards terrace. 1941

Not too much to say about the photo above except it depicts British officers (no non-ranked soldiers allowed) relaxing on the terrace at Shepheard’s in 1941 and it’s new to me. It was shot by British photojournalist George Rodger (1908–1995), who went on to photograph the mass graves at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of World War II and later became famous for his images of tribal Africa. Rodger also shot the images below of soldiers relaxing at the other grand Cairo hotel, the Mena House.

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Graphics Before Graphic Designers

Although the term was not coined until 1920s, graphic design existed long before there were any graphic designers. The art of combining text and pictures for a range of printed material has been at the heart of the printer’s craft for hundreds of years. While the early pioneers of printers focused on books, others began using their presses for more humble uses, from handbills, signage, trade cards and timetables to popular reading material, games, advertisements and packaging. From Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman 1700–1914 by David Jury (Thames & Hudson, 2012)

The same printers that provided Egypt’s hotels with their fabulous posters and luggage labels, also designed some terrific letterheads and decorated envelopes (click and click again to enlarge).

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Fate Wove a Rug – and Other Pulp Tales of Egypt

While searching for images for my recent post on Shepheard’s in fiction I found so many wonderfully lurid pulp magazine covers on an Egypt theme (mostly harvested from pulpcovers.com) it seems a shame not to share them. One thing is clear: women who go around wrapped in bandages always end up in trouble.

So here you go.

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Mystery Heliopolis pics

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I have had the images above and below sitting on my hard drive for several years now. Obviously, they are the Baron’s Palace in Heliopolis, but that’s all I know. Who painted them and when? And why? And where do they come from?

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If anyone has any information on the origins of these paintings I would love to hear from you.

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