For Sleeping Or ‘Purposes’

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I received an email last week with the above image attached. The sender bought the item in an antiques shop. It measures 137 by 97 mm and appears to be made of brass. The text seems to be advertising the hotel management’s ability to go way beyond the normal expectations of service in providing prostitutes and rent boys for those who should require them. The sender wanted to know if I knew anything about it and whether it was an original item. The short answer is I don’t know, but there was and, indeed, still is a Grand Hotel in Cairo. It’s Downtown, on 26th July Street at the junction with Talaat Harb. It’s not a particularly old establishment, dating back only to the 1940s or ’50s, as you can see in the images below.

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Despite the name, I don’t think it was ever a salubrious establishment, not a place that would attract the better class of visitor. It probably, like many, second- and third-tier establishments catered for longer-term visitors – military, civil servants, business types, people that needed temporary lodgings for a few weeks or months. I guess such a sign as the one above might conceivably have hung at a hotel reception in the 1940s when the city was flooded with soldiers, but it is unlikely. It certainly would not have been displayed after the Revolution, when stricter morals prevailed. My feeling is given the generic nature of the hotel name and the design that this is a joke item. Having said that, I could be wrong – a sign in a favourite bar in Alexandria (sadly now closed) used to read ‘No service in pyjamas and no spitting on the floor’, and that was entirely genuine having hung in place since at least the 1960s. Anyway, if anyone knows anything about the plaque that is the subject of this post, do get in touch.

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The Nile Hilton Incident

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Cairo’s Zawya Cinema announced this week that Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident, which was set to screen as part of a festival programme, is not going to be shown after all. The cinema cited ‘involuntary circumstances’. In other words, state censorship. Shame. It’s a very good film. I saw it in Paris over summer – appropriately enough at the gorgeous Louxor cinema – where, as Le Caire confidentiel, it seemed to be doing well, enjoying extended runs all over town. The screening I attended was a sell-out.

The issue is almost certainly the film’s head-on depiction of police corruption. At the crime scene that gives the film its English title, the investigating officers sit around a hotel room with a young woman lying in a pool of blood at their feet, while they blithely use the toilet and have room service deliver food. It’s comical but also chilling – they aren’t just trashing a crime scene, they’re blatant in their disinterest in investigating this violent death. Somehow, it feels wholly believable.

Also believable is the film’s portrayal of an incendiary Cairo, immediately prior to the January 2011 Revolution, this even though Saleh shot most of the film in Casablanca, after he failed to secure a permit to shoot in Egypt. (Although the real Cairo features in some guerilla film-making, shot stealthily from a moving car.)

I’ve no idea where in Casablanca stands in for the Nile Hilton, location for the murder that kicks off the film, but, really, any anonymous interior would do. I have never been a fan of the hotel that was the Nile Hilton, and neither the passing of time (the building turned 58 this year) or the new love currently being shown for Brutalist architecture is likely to alter my view.

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The Hilton landed in Cairo in 1959, the first international hotel in the post-WWII Middle East and the second Hilton International after Istanbul’s (1955). It was a new form of sleek, all-mod-cons hotel for the nascent jet age. As the ad put it, ‘Modern as a TWA Jetstream’. The Hiltons were quite literally ‘little Americas’, constructed in key foreign cities, in Conrad Hilton’s own words, ‘to show the countries most exposed to Communism the other side of the coin’. With lawns, swimming pools, tennis courts, cocktail lounges, air-conditioning, international phone lines, iced water, cheeseburgers and soda fountains, they were adverts for a bountiful American way of life.

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If the Nile Hilton wasn’t the first modernist structure in Cairo, it was certainly one of the first. It was one of three adjacent structures erected by Nasser’s government on the site of the former British Army barracks: the Arab League building, the hotel and the Cairo Municipality, which later became the NDP headquarters until it was set ablaze during the Revolution and subsequently demolished. In line with Hilton International policy, the hotel was constructed with Egyptian state funds and operated on a lease by the American hotel chain. Which is all well and good: why shouldn’t the new Egyptian government have a new shiny modern international hotel?

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My issue is that these hotels were deliberately designed to dominate the city – the Nile Hilton was Cairo’s tallest building on its completion – yet at the same time they stood in deliberation isolation. Earlier hotels, like the Continental-Savoy, Semiramis and Shepheard’s, may have been ‘grand’ but they were very much a part of the city, and they engaged with it. Their outdoor terraces provided a space from which hotel guests not only observed but interacted with life on the street. By contrast, the new Hilton was intended as a sealed bubble, protecting guests from the volatile and possibly hostile environment outside. Most of the 400 rooms on the 14 or so floors turned their backs on central Cairo and faced toward the distant Pyramids and desert. Visitors were encouraged to literally overlook modern Cairo in favour of its antique past. Helpfully, the Egyptian Museum was right next door. This was the start of a shift that now sees many new hotels now being built out near the Pyramids, with the Egyptian government obliging by siting the new Grand Egyptian Museum at the Giza Plateau. In the very near future no tourist will have any reason to visit central Cairo.

The Nile Hilton closed in 2009. Following extensive renovations it reopened in 2015 under new management as the Nile Ritz-Carlton. The rebranded hotel is even more remote from the city than it ever was. The semi-public shopping plaza that used to connect the Nile Hilton to Tahrir Square is gone. Now, once you pass through the security block there is just an empty expanse, devoid of people and life, to cross in order to reach the lobby. Few guests, you imagine, enter or leave this hotel on foot. Inside, the hotel has undergone a massive upgrade – the Ritz-Carlton is a far more upmarket proposition than a Hilton. With its marble and carpets, faux Oriental trimmings, chintzy art and OTT floral displays, it is less ‘little America’ than ‘wannabe Dubai’.

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Dubai is, of course, where the real-life case that inspired The Nile Hilton Incident occurred – the 2008 murder of Lebanese diva Suzanne Tamim by former police officer, Mohsen al-Sukkari, who was hired by Egyptian tycoon Hisham Talaat Moustafa for the sum of two million Egyptian pounds. Al-Sukkari was sentenced to 25 years in jail, Talaat Moustafa to 15. After serving just nine years of his sentence, Talaat Moustafa was released this June, pardoned by President Sisi.

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Back at the Windsor

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Photo by Jacobs Cindi

In the 1990s, when I was lucky enough to be paid to travel and write guidebooks for the likes of Lonely Planet, people would occasionally ask, ‘Where’s your favourite place in the world?’ The answer was usually wherever I’d been last, but there were also a couple of immovable regulars I always mentioned: one of these was a coffeehouse in the shadow of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, another was the barrel lounge at the Windsor hotel in Cairo. I’ve no idea if that coffeehouse in Damascus has survived the devastation of recent years but the lounge at the Windsor hotel is definitely intact, and I was back there last week.

If you have never visited the Windsor, it is a time capsule, not just of Cairo, but of a very particular vanished world of steamer trunks, Baedekers and gin & tonic sundowners. The caged lift that carries guest up to the first-floor lounge is still manually operated and may well be the oldest in Egypt. The hotel décor has certainly not changed since the Doss family took over the hotel in 1962 and looks like it hadn’t been changed for a further 30 years before that. In the lounge, the wooden floors are deeply scored with age, the walls are hung with hunting lodge trophies and many of the seats are fashioned from old barrels – hence, the ‘barrel lounge’.

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Photo by Jacobs Cindi

In one corner there is a small flag, red with a white cross, a memento to the former owner from whom Doss purchased the business, a Swiss man named Frey. Last week I was delighted to find William Doss lunching underneath the flag, as he has done for decades, which is something of an achievement considering this year he turned 102. With him were sons Wafik and Wasfi, and daughter Marileez, who now together oversee the hotel. We drank tea together and I caught up on news.

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From left to right: Gadi Farfour, me, Marileez Doss Suter, Wafik Doss and William Doss

I first visited the barrel lounge in 1988, shortly after arriving in Cairo, and was a regular for a few years. During the 1990 football World Cup, the last in which Egypt participated, I watched some of the games at the Windsor – including the one in which England inevitably went out to Germany on penalties. Even without the football, it was a lively place at that time. Every night one particular large table would be filled by a boisterous crowd of actors, directors and hangers-on from the theatres on nearby Emad ed-Din Street. It went a little quiet in the 2000s – as, sadly, did the hotel side of the business – but on current evidence the bar seems to have bounced back into life. While we were there an Egyptian crew was shooting a short film in the stairwell, just the latest, Marileez said, in a string of recent shoots taking advantage of the Windsor’s period charms (taking advantage in a very literal sense in one case, when a production crew walked off with a couple of the hotel’s armchairs and the lid of an antique urn).

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A scene from the filming on the day of our visit

There have been one or two changes Marileez was pleased to point out to me. The faded old Swissair posters that used to hang on the stairs have been replaced with new Windsor hotel posters inspired by the luggage labels in Grand Hotels of Egypt. The cover of that book has also been framed and hung on a column in the lounge, as has the book’s title page, which I inscribed to the Doss family during the launch party, held in this very place in 2012. I’m hugely honoured to have a lingering presence in this wonderful old establishment.

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Photo by Jacobs Cindi

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For anyone who has never been to the Windsor, I urge you to pay it a visit next time you’re in Cairo. Meanwhile, with Egypt now qualified for the 2018 World Cup, I’m thinking I might book a room for next June and cheer them on again from a seat in the barrel lounge.

The photos in this post come from the Windsor’s Facebook page. Those credited to Jacobs Cindi are from the website of French newspaper Le Monde, where they accompanied a recent article on the hotel

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Mrs Goodison at the Atkinson

Further to the last post, here are images from the actual exhibition at Southport’s Atkinson Museum, courtesy of the museum. No caption information, I’m afraid. For anyone interested, there will be a catalogue, but not just yet.

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Adventures in Egypt: Mrs Goodison and Other Travellers

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If you find yourself anywhere near northwest England between now and next March, there is an exhibition well worth catching. It’s called ‘Adventures in Egypt: Mrs Goodison and Other Travellers’. I haven’t yet seen it but I did attend a talk this week here in London given by Egyptologist Tom Hardwick, who curated the show and who explained what it was all about.

Born in 1845, at the age of 22 Anne Padley married George Goodison of Waterloo, Liverpool. He was a successful civil engineer, who laid a sewerage system for which he had a road named after him, and when a football stadium was built on that road it too took his name, which it retains until today – Everton FC’s home ground of Goodison Park. We know precious little about Mrs Goodison except that she twice visited Egypt, in 1886–87 and 1890–91 and, while there, became an enthusiast for all things ancient and Egyptian. Back then, it was quite easy for the amateur enthusiast to acquire antiquities and using her husband’s wealth, Mrs Goodison amassed a sizeable trove of over a thousand artifacts. None of the pieces were outstanding in their own right, being mainly small pieces such as shaabti, bits of faience, beads, some textiles and some jewellery, but taken together they made a creditable collection. Her husband, however, was unimpressed and as soon as his wife died, in 1906, he sold the whole lot to the Bootle Museum in Liverpool. That museum closed in the 1970s and the collection eventually made its way to Southport and the Atkinson Museum, where it remains today and where the new exhibition on Mrs Goodison takes place.

It combines objects from her collection with some beautiful loan pieces from London’s British Museum, Petrie Museum and National Portrait Gallery, and New York’s Brooklyn Museum to evoke the Egyptian tourist scene of the 1890s and give context to the world of the Victorian-era collector of Egyptology. In addition to carved stones from Amarna, granite heads from the Temple of Mut at Karnak, watercolours by Howard Carter and cartoons by Egyptian satirist Abou Naddara, I am honoured to say that some of my vintage posters, luggage labels, guidebooks and brochures also feature in the exhibition.

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imageNote, these are pics of the Atkinson’s permanent Egyptology galleries, not the Goodison exhibition – I’ll post exhibition pics when I visit.

If you have never been to Southport, a sedate seaside resort just north of Liverpool favoured by pensioners on mobility scooters and footballers out on the lash, it is a place for which local historians make some imaginative claims. When exiled Prince Louis Napoleon – the future Emperor Napoleon III – lived in Southport for a short time in 1838, it’s claimed he so admired its long, wide, straight, tree-lined main parade that he ordered his engineer Baron Hausmann to remodel Paris along similar lines. Hausmann’s Paris was, of course, the model for Ismail’s modern Cairo of the 1860s. So instead of ‘Paris on the Nile’, Downtown Cairo is really ‘Southport on the Nile’.

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Journey: An Illustrated History of Travel

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Toward the end of last year I was contacted by the publisher Dorling Kindersley and invited to contribute to one of its titles, Journey: An Illustrated History of Travel. Over six months I wound up writing four out of its seven chapters. The book is – in the word’s of the company’s marketing department – a lavishly illustrated account of human journeys from Ancient Persian couriers to the ascent of Everest, the invention of Concorde, and the voyage into space itself. The scope of the book is immense and the topics on which I have written are mind-bogglingly diverse, from retellings of the voyages of explorers including Cook, Darwin, Burke and Wills, Lewis and Clarke, and Humboldt, to pieces on desert, polar and undersea exploration, ground-breaking expeditions into Africa, Siberia and Central Asia, the invention of the bicycle, the camping craze, the Romantics, Thomas Cook, the first round-the-world voyagers, three different golden ages of travel, world’s fairs, early guidebooks, the overland hippy trail, Route 66 and low-cost airlines. Of course, there are also spreads on the West’s ‘discovery’ of Egypt, Orientalism, grand hotels and even luggage labels. It was an absolute joy to write and the finished book looks stunning too. It is a brute of a thing, 360 pages heavy and 300 x 252mm in size. Maybe the content is too general to satisfy historians and specialists, but for anybody with a general interest in the history of travel, it is an absolute must. Journey is out in early October.

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Ocean Liners coming to London’s V&A

Vintage maritime history photo of the RMS Titanics propellers as the mighty ship sits in dry dock.
The Titanic in dry dock c. 1911 © Getty Images

I was at a press launch today. It was for a forthcoming exhibition, ‘Ocean Liners: Speed & Style’, which will be held at London’s V&A museum from 3 February 2018. It is going to be all about the glory days of ocean travel, exploring the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner, including the ground-breaking engineering, architecture and interiors, and the fashion and lifestyle aboard. Highlights, we were told, will include a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915, as well as a panel fragment from the Titanic’s first-class lounge where the ship broke in half, returning to the UK for the first time since its doomed maiden voyage in 1912. There will be custom-made furniture and decorative panels from the rival inter-war queens of the sea, the Normandie and Queen Mary. The exhibition will also throw the spotlight on some the famous passengers that travelled aboard, and will have personal luggage carried by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and dresses worn aboard by Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.

Duke and Duchess of Windsor's Luggage, Goyard, about 1950 © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California. Photograph courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Luggage previously belonging to the Duke of Windsor by Maison Goyard, 1940s © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California


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Marlene Dietrich onboard the Queen Elizabeth arriving in New York, 1959
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Wooden panel fragment from the first-class lounge on Titanic, c. 1911 © Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Wooden panel fragment from the Titanic © Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia

I don’t know that there will be anything in the show specifically relating to Egypt, but many great ocean liners frequently called at Alexandria and/or Port Said on their way between Europe and the ports of Asia. And, of course, visitors to Egypt from the United States first had to cross the Atlantic to Europe, and many would have done so on ships belonging to major lines such as Cunard and White Star.

Below are a handful of fantastic posters put out by various shipping lines, mostly dating from the 1920s and ’30s, advertising routes to Egypt, North Africa and beyond. Some of these you’ll find in my book, On the Nile, but I’m pretty sure none of them will feature in the V&A exhibition, though posters and other liner-related graphics will be definitely be included. Some of these images come courtesy of Galleria Alassio L’Image.

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The final journey of Sir Richard Francis Burton

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I made a visit to one of London’s most unusual tombs today. No great hardship as it’s only a 30-minute walk from my own front door. It is the final resting place of the famously restless Sir Richard Francis Burton and his forbearing wife Isabel.

His was a life that is hard to summarise in just a few sentences. He was perhaps the preeminent British explorer of the Victorian age, but he was also a soldier, spy, diplomat, linguist, ethnographer, travel writer, poet, translator and bloody-minded controversialist. He claimed to have learnt Latin at the age of three and Greek at four. In adulthood he was said to be proficient in an astonishing total of 40 languages and dialects. In his university years (Oxford), he was an accomplished boxer, fencer and frequenter of brothels. He began his career as a soldier and intelligence agent in India, where he perfected the art of passing himself off as a trader from the Arab Gulf. In 1853, disguised as a pilgrim he became one of the first Europeans to visit Mecca and Medina. He next ventured into Africa in search of the forbidden fortress city of Harar. At Berbera, an ancient Somali port, his expedition was attacked by local tribesmen one of whom drove a barbed lance through Burton’s face, scarring him for life. Undeterred in 1856, he returned to Africa in search of the source of the Nile in the company of fellow explorer John Hanning Speke. Both men fell sick and both went nearly blind. In 1861, aged 39, he married Isabel Arundell, a devout Roman Catholic who was ten years his junior. She evidently exerted a calming influence because Burton not long after joined the British Foreign Office and was sent as consul successively to Fernando Po (an island of the coast of West Africa), Brazil, Damascus and finally Trieste in Italy, which is where he died in 1890.

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The caption has a Baedeker guide saying to a Murry’s handbook, ‘A bit ahead of us old boy’

Burton was in Egypt several times, notably in 1853 enroute to Mecca. In Cairo he stayed at Shepheard’s hotel, where he came to know the proprietor, this blog’s old friend Samuel Shepheard. In the introduction to later editions of his Pilgrimage to Al Medina and Mecca, Burton thanked Shepheard for helping raise money for the expedition. He was back at the hotel three years later. Perhaps he was looking for money again because when Shepheard mentioned the visit in a letter, it was with a testy, ‘Captain Burton has just come to bother me about his expedition to the interior of Africa’.

Many years later, long after Samuel Shepheard had exchanged Cairo for the life of a wealthy landowner back in his native England – and had died there in 1866 – Burton was back at his former hotel. It was 1877 and he was off in search of gold and other valuable metals in the Arabian peninsula. In his account of the expedition, The Gold Mines of Midian, he writes, ‘I cannot pass Sam Shepheard’s old home without a few words upon the subject of its first owner, a remarkable man in many points’. He praises Shepheard for his independence of mind and manner, noting that he once threw a prince out of the hotel because he ‘would not behave like a gentleman’. According to his biographer, Sam was also independently minded when it came to Burton, who he considered a poseur.

On his death, Isabel tried to have Richard Burton buried in the hallowed precincts of Westminster Abbey. The problem was Burton’s later years had been spent in large part translating international erotica, including the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden. His greatest work was a major new 16-volume translation of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, in which he played up the sexual content. As a consequence, the establishment considered Burton far too rakish for the Abbey. (This can’t have come as a surprise to Isabel, who was also very uncomfortable with some of her husband’s enthusiasms, so much so that on his death she burned all his manuscripts, notes and diaries.)

Instead, she had him buried in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalen in the then-village of Mortlake, west of London, in what was then one of the city’s few Catholic cemeteries. She designed the tomb herself, which is in the form of an elaborate desert tent, based on one the couple had made for themselves when they lived in Damascus. She joined him in the tomb when her time came in 1896.

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These days the tomb can be visited – though not many do – in a small, unassuming but beautifully tended churchyard beside the railway tracks, not far from Mortlake station. This is how it looked today – thanks to a recent restoration it’s in magnificent condition.

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It is about 12-foot square and 12-foot high, with sloping sides, skilfully carved from sandstone to represent the folds of canvas. In addition to a Christian crucifix, there is also a frieze of gold-painted Islamic crescents running around all four sides. Around the back is ladder so visitors can climb up and peer into the interior of the tomb through a glass panel – which is there supposedly because Richard Burton didn’t like the dark. You can see the two caskets, an iron one on the right containing him and one of mahogany on the left containing her. The walls are festooned with camel bells, which were once wired up to ring when anybody entered the tomb, although the door has since been sealed up to prevent against vandalism.

It’s a fittingly eccentric tomb for a very unconventional couple.

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Best be prepared

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It’s July. Summer. Some of you may soon be heading off on holiday. I thought I could use this blog to pass along some solid advice on what to take along with you. It comes from Murray’s Hand-book for Travellers in Egypt, prepared by John Gardner Wilkinson and published in 1847. This was a period when baggage allowances on boats and other forms of transport were more generous than they are today. Under the heading ‘Things Useful for a Journey in Egypt’, Gardner Wilkinson lists all of those items that he considers more or less necessary for any traveller. Those marked with an A can be bought on arrival at Alexandria, those with a C can be left until Cairo:

* Jug and basin [A or C]
* Mats [one or two at A, others at C]
* Carpets [A or C]
* Common soap [A or C]
* Lamp [A or C]
* Kitchen-cloths
* Towels and table-cloths
* Sheets, horse-hair mattress, pillows, and pillow-cases
* Two or three blankets
* Iron bedstead to fold up

 

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To keep at bay at night biting insects, GW recommends an invention of Mr Levinge’s, which consists of a pair of sheets (a), about six feet long, sewn together at the bottom and the two sides, except where the piece (c) is attached to them, and by which you get in. To the upper end (d) is added a thin piece of muslin, serving as a mosquito net (b), which is drawn tight at the end by a tape or string, serving to suspend it to a nail (f).

* Gridiron
* 20 okas of potatoes [A or C]
* Tobacco [A or C]
* Pipes [C]
* Wire for cleaning pipes, put into a reed [C]
* Mouth-pieces and pipe-bowls [C]
* Salt and pepper [A or C]
* Oil and distilled vinegar
* Butter [C]
* Flour [C]
* Rice [C]
* Maccaroni [A or C]
* Coffee [C]
* Portable soup and meats
* English cheese
* Mishmish apricots [C]
* Ḵumredeen apricots [C]
* Tea
* Wine, brandy, etc. White wine is better in a hot climate than red
* Spermaceti candles
* Table with legs to fold up, and top to take off
* Foot tub (of tin or copper)
* Washing tub
* Flag (for boat on Nile)
* Small pulley and rope for flag
* Coffee-pot [A]
* Tea-kettle
* Plates, knives and forks, spoons, glasses, tea things, etc
* Copper saucepans, one to fit into the other [A]
* Copper pan for stewing [A]
* Baskets for holding these and other things [A]
* Candlesticks
* Water bottles [C]
* Almond paste for clarifying water [C]
* Some tools, nails, and string
* Small bellows
* Fez caps (tarabeesh) [A or C]
* Manásheh, fly-flap [A or C]
* A coop for fowls, with moveable drawer at the bottom, in order that it may be kept clean [A or C]
* White, or light-coloured boots or shoes, being cooler, and requiring no blacking
* Red Turkish slippers [C]
* Biscuits, or bread twice baked [C]
* Small tin cases for holding coffee, sugar, salt, pepper, etc [A]
* Ballási, or earthen jars for flour, rice and other things which rats might eat [C]
* Candles [C]
* Broom and a tin, for sweeping cabin [C]
* Gun, powder, and shot etc
* Ink, paper, pens etc
* Camp-stool and drawing table
* Umbrella lined with a dark colour for the sun
* Drawing paper, pencils, rubber and colours, in tin box of Winsor and Newton
* Telescope
* Thermometer, mountain barometer, if required
* Measuring-tape and foot-ruler
* For observations, a sextant and artificial horizon
* Curtains for boat, of common or other cotton stuff [A or C]
* A packing-needle or two, and some string, thin ropes, needles, thread, buttons etc, are useful
* An iron rat-trap for the boat

In the medicine chest, the most necessary things for a traveler, according to Gardner Wilkinson are scales and a liquid-measure, lancet, diachylon and blistering plaster, lint, salts, rhubarb, cream of tartar, ipecacuanha, sulphate of bark or quinine, James’s and Dover’s powders, calomel, laudanum or morphine, sugar of lead, sulphate of zinc, nitrate of silver, and sulphate of copper (these last four being of great use in ophthalmia), nitre, oil of peppermint, and other common medicines. All these, writes GK, are better brought from Europe.

In the absence of sound and light shows, GK suggests taking along plenty of reading material to fill the long evenings. He limits his list to only the most useful works, which are given as Herodotus; Champollion’s Phonetic System of Hieroglyphics, Letters, and Grammar; Pococke; Denon; Hamilton’s Ægyptiaca; Savary’s Letters; Clot Bey’s Aperçu Générale de l’Egypte; Gliddon on the Hieroglyphics; Mengin’s Egypte sous Mohammed Aly; Robinson’s Palestine and Mount Sinai; Lane’s Modern, and Wilkinson’s Ancient, Egyptians; Hoskins’s Ethiopia and Visit to the Great Oasis; Colonel Leake’s, Lapie’s, or Wilkinson’s Map of Egypt; Captain Smyth’s Alexandria; Wilkinson’s Survey of Thebes; Costa’s Delta; and Parke and Scoles’s Nubia; to which may be added Burckhardt, Laborde’s Petra, Ptolemy, Strabo, and Pliny. Now, don’t you feel just a little bit of a slacker packing only Paula Hawkin’s follow up to Girl on a Train?

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And just to show that the art of packing for every eventuality didn’t end with the 19th century, the picture above is of Marlene Dietrich and her luggage aboard the SS Normandie in 1936.

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A hospital in a palace

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During World War I the British military command saw Egypt, its industries, businesses and people as resources to be drawn upon to assist the war effort. The tourist industry was not exempt. Hotels around the country were requisitioned, as military headquarters in the case of the Cairo Savoy (which I’ve written about previously, here), but more commonly for use as hospitals (San Stefano in Alexandria, the Mena House and Heliopolis Palace in Cairo, Al-Hayat in Helouan) or as places where injured troops could be sent to convalesce (the Winter Palace in Luxor).

Opened to guests a month over four years previously, in January 1915 the 500-room Heliopolis Palace became Cairo’s main military hospital. Renamed the 1st Army General Hospital (1st AGH), it was operated by the Australian Army Medical Corps. It was reorgainsed to provide accommodation for 1,000 sick, every door on every corridor opening to rooms of neat white beds and the grand dining-hall converted into a great convalescent ward with room for one hundred. Even so, within a very short time the hospital had to expand into additional premises, including buildings at the aerodrome, Luna Park and Heliopolis Sporting Club. Why was so much room required? Because Egypt was receiving the wounded from ongoing campaign in the Dardanelles, including the landings at Gallipoli. Hospital ships transported the injured and dying the five or six days it took to get to Alexandria, from where patients were forwarded to local hospitals or on to Cairo.

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The Indiana, which belonged to the Anglo-American Nile Company, was requisitioned to ferry wounded soldiers on the Suez Canal.

They came in so fast the system couldn’t cope. “Men were poured into the wards, and they were crowded together until the place became overpowering,” reported a correspondent for Australia’s The Register newspaper in 1915. “They overflowed into a skating rink enclosure, five, six, eight hundred of them; also into a galvanized building with a glass roof; out to Helouan to a convalescent home. Very soon the crowding at the main building rendered the place septic, a statement I make on the authority of the doctors resident in it. They were afraid to operate.”

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Not everyone was so downbeat. In April 1915, The Queenslander newspaper published a letter from a corporal in the Army Medical Crops who was billeted at the Heliopolis Palace.

It is said to be the most beautiful hotel in Egypt. We have been told that it cost £2,500,000 to build. The King of the Belgians, with an English and a Belgian syndicate, built the hotel about three years ago. It was to be run as a casino, and the idea was to rival Monte Carlo. The syndicate was unable to get a license for the casino, and the hotel has been a white elephant. The war interfered with the tourist season this year—it should be in full swing now—and the very costly carpets and furniture have been carefully stowed away. It is possible that the King’s room, which cost £1000 to furnish, with a bed, a chest of drawers, and a washstand, will be made into an operating theatre, and there is talk of providing 800 beds for the hospital, which will be one of the very best.

As to the size of the building, if you put the Treasury and Executive buildings together they would require the largest part of Parliament House to make the group equal in size to this palace. And the exquisite marble, and alabaster, and granite! The ballrooms and reception rooms are things of rare beauty, and when you climb the marble stairs, of which there are many flights, and look down on the marble, and granite, and alabaster, and the richest of stained electric lights and clusters, it needs little imagination to call the building a palace. Some of it is like an artist’s dream. If I had any knowledge of architecture I might attempt a description of the palace within and without, but can only say it is wonderfully beautiful. There are perhaps 10,000 electric lights throughout the building, and, of course, all the appointments are on a lavish scale. We have hot and cold baths and showers, and are comfortably settled in rooms with tables and chairs. The nurses and doctors occupy some of the rooms on the first, second, third, and top floors, and have the most perfect accommodation. We, of inferior ranks, have the servants’ quarters in the basement, and are the envy of our less fortunate comrades in the other hospital, who are in tents pitched on sand in which you sink up to the ankles. The corporals have a private sitting room, where one can read and write at ease. Altogether the conditions are too comfortable for active service, but I suppose we should be glad on that account. (Extract courtesy of the Queensland State Library)

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The rear of the Heliopolis Palace with ambulances lined up on Al-Ahram Street alongside.

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Tents at the rear of the hotel/hospital catering to the overflow of patients.

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Ambulances parked at the rear of the hotel/hospital.

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The grand dining hall turned into a grand hospital ward.

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Some of the patients in the grand dining hall, possibly Australians who had taken part in the fighting at Gallipoli.

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A room at the hotel converted into an operating theatre.

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Australian nurses arrayed for a photo op at the rear of the hotel/hospital.

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Parked ambulances with the Heliopolis Company offices on Ibrahim al-Laqqani Street in the background.

In March 1916, the decision was made that the Australian forces should serve in France. The various medical units were ordered to pack up, transfer their patients elsewhere and depart. On 29 March, staff from the 1st AGH sailed out of Alexandria on HM Hospital Ship Salta bound for the battlefields of Europe, where operating conditions were certain to be far less palatial. (The images in this post are courtesy of the Australian War Memorial website)

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