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On the Nile is now available from Amazon.

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The Thomas Cook archive

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The new book On the Nile is a history of travellers and tourists on the river in Egypt. It starts with dahabiyas and quickly moves into the era of the steamboat. The first steamboat on the Nile was, as far as I can ascertain, l’Egyptienne, built at the request of Muhammad Ali by Laird, Son & Co of Birkenhead, England and delivered to Egypt in 1837. But it wasn’t until 1851 that Abbas, grandson of Muhammad Ali, inaugurated a government-run monthly service of passenger steamers between Cairo and Aswan. This was reportedly unreliable which is maybe why it doesn’t seem to have been much used by travellers. The change didn’t come until 1870, when Thomas Cook & Son took over the running of the steamers and not only made them run to schedule but made them popular thanks to extensive marketing through its offices around the globe. The company enjoyed a monopoly on the Nile for close on the next 30 years until it had to share navigation rights with a handful of rival new steamer companies including the Anglo-American Nile Steamer and Hotel Company, the Tewfikiya Nile Navigation Company and the Express Nile Navigation Company. Even so, On the Nile comes close to being a history of the company of Thomas Cook & Son in Egypt, for which there is a very simple reason. History may be written by victors but it’s also shaped by those with the best archives – and the Thomas Cook archive is fabulous.

It’s kept at the company’s industrial park HQ on the outskirts of the unlovely town of Peterborough, 75 miles north of London. I made over a dozen trips up there in 2013 and 2014 while researching On the Nile, and so extensive is the archive I still didn’t manage to look at everything relating to Egypt, never mind the stuff concerning the company’s operations around the rest of the world (which includes everything from contracts and minutes of meetings to porters’ costumes and a couple of glass panels by Lalique from the Orient Express).

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A particularly brilliant resource for any travel historians is a complete run of The Excursionist, which is a sort of proto travel magazine, published by Thomas Cook from 1851 and which featured details of Cook’s tours, as well as general travel news and articles, book reviews and a wonderful selection of advertising.

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Even more useful, as far as my book was concerned, are the Egypt & the Nile brochures that were put out almost every year from around 1880 through until the 1930s, and which included timetables, descriptions of the ever-changing Nile fleet and tour itineraries.

There were also diaries (more of which in a future post) and letters – notably an entertaining sequence of correspondence between John Mason Cook and his son Bert, who ran the Nile service operations, with Cook senior getting splenetic over the wrong soap being placed in the boats’ bathrooms and “some mean skunk” stealing all the pieces from the boardgames in the lounges.

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Then there are the albums of photographs, the cups, glasses and cutlery, the menus and printed passenger lists, the vintage guidebooks, blueprints, the genuine 3000-year-old piece of ancient Egyptian statuary…

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Unfortunately, almost none of this material is laid out for public view, instead it is all housed in a garage-like storage unit from where it has to be retrieved by the company’s full-time archivist Paul Smith. Fortunately, he’s an amiable man who was willing to make endless trips back and forth across the car park to deliver up boxes of the raw material out of which my book was shaped. On the Nile could not have happened without the Thomas Cook archive or the assistance of its archivist. Thank you Paul.

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Then and Now: the National

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When it opened on 1 November 1905, the National hotel had accommodation for 250 guests, making it bigger than any other hotel in Cairo at the time save for Shepheard’s. It had a prominent on location on Suleyman Pasha Street (now Talaat Harb) and serious money was put into its promotion: witness the posters promoting the hotel’s imminent arrival, above and below, commissioned from the firm of Richter & Co of Napoli, which produced artwork for top hotels in Italy and Spain, and as far afield as Cape Town and Shanghai. (Why two variants of the poster, I don’t know.)

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The National was described soon after opening as providing excellent accommodation both to visitors and permanent residents of Cairo for, “unlike some of the more pretentious, establishments it is open all year round”. The hotel’s billiard room and bar were directly accessible from the street for access to non-hotel guests, another indicator that this was a far less snobbish establishment than the likes of Shepheard’s or the nearby Savoy. It offered suites for long-term stays and families, and dispensed with the requirement for evening dress in the dining room.

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All of which, combined with reasonable rates, made it attractive to colonial civil servants and members of the military on Cairo postings. So although the hotel rarely gets mentioned in travel books it crops up plenty in accounts of Cairo during the war years and in letters from soldiers. Australian war artist George Lambert (1873–1930) was at the National for about a month in April 1918 during which time he spent several days with the Imperial Camel Corps at Abbassia making studies of the camels and their gear: this is one of them, below:

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In the World War II memoirs of three pilots the place is described as the “lap of low-level luxury” full of non-combatant officers with ranks as high as general. Jewish-Italian double agent Renato Levi who worked for British intelligence and whose identity and career were revealed for the first time in the recently published Double Cross in Cairo, made the National his base for a time in 1941. Spy writer Philip Kerr uses the hotel in his novel One From the Other as the venue for a meeting with Adolf Eichmann.

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When it opened the hotel’s proprietor was Alsace-born PE Hergel who had previously been the manager of the Tewfik Palace hotel at Helwan but the name most closely associated with the place is that of George Calomiris. He took over the running of the National perhaps in the 1930s – he was certainly running it during the war years. He was very rich, rumoured to be one of Egypt’s numerous wartime millionaires. He owned the Kit Kat cabaret, where for a time the floorshow starred Hekmat Fahmy, the most rousing of all the Egyptian bellydancers. According to Major AW Samson’s I Spied Spies (Harrap & Co, 1965) Calomiris was a notorious homosexual who regularly fell foul of the British military authorities for offering large sums of money to young soldiers as an enticement to desert and shack up with him. Calomiris reportedly came to a sticky end, murdered in his room at the hotel.

The hotel was still in business in December 1974 when Steve Jobs’s biological father John Jandali accompanied a bunch of American university undergrads to Cairo on a study trip. A respected professor at the University of Puget Sound, Washington, Jandali had been running a course “Egypt Since the 1952 Revolution”. His party checked into the National, which was the last place the students saw Jandali as eleven days later he quietly checked out and fled the country having gambled away everyone’s money at a casino. It took intervention from the US embassy to settle the hotel bill so the abandoned students could get home.

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When the National stopped being a hotel I don’t know. It had definitely ceased functioning by the 1980s, by which time it had been turned over to commercial lets. In the 1990s half of the building was knocked down but oddly the northern half was left intact, as it still is today, on the corner of Talaat Harb and Abdel Khalek Sarwat streets.

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After many years lying empty the site next door was eventually filled, with this…

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My ship’s come in!

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I’m told that my book On the Nile has arrived in Egypt and is currently at Suez awaiting custom clearance before being trucked to the AUC Press warehouse and distributed. If you are in Egypt start looking for it in the shops around the end of this month (March). I’m guessing it should be available international, or via Amazon, some time in April. I hope to be in Egypt in May to do some press and maybe a signing or two. I can’t wait.

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It’s here!

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I have a copy of On the Nile. Just the one, mind. It’s an advance copy, couriered to me direct from the printing house in China. The bulk of the books are now making their way slowly by sea to Egypt from where they will distributed internationally. I’m not sure when they make land at Suez, but I think it’s probably early April, which means it should be in the bookshops later that month. Meanwhile, you can place advance orders on Amazon.

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The Alexandria Savoy

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Speaking of the Savoy (see last post), Egypt had no less than four hotels that borrowed the name of the original London establishment – which took its name from a palace that formerly stood on the site, founded by the royal Savoy family back in the 13th century. I’ve already posted about the Cairo Savoy and Aswan Savoy, and in passing the Luxor Savoy, but not yet written anything about the Alexandria Savoy, or more properly, the Savoy Palace Hotel. There’s good reason for this, which is that I really don’t know much about it.

The reason I don’t know much is because the life of the Alexandria Savoy, despite being the grandest of the city’s hotels when it opened, was a short one. That opening was on 23 February 1907. The previous day’s edition of The Egyptian Gazette carried a story on Alexandria’s new hotel: “It is a curious fact that although palatial and luxurious hotels are to be found throughout Egypt and even in the suburbs of Alexandria, the port itself is singularly deficient in similarly first-class houses of accommodation. But in the Savoy Palace Hotel, which opens its doors tomorrow, the public will find a hostelry which will compare most advantageously with the best of those in Cairo and Upper Egypt.­”

The address was 35 rue de la Porte de Rosette – now Tariq Horeyya – which was somewhere near the junction with An-Nabi Daniel; in other words just about as central as it was possible to get. The hotel occupied a building that had only been constructed three years previously, for a personage the Gazette identifies only as “Baron Cumbo”, an obviously ridiculously wealthy individual given that after a bit of structural rejigging the Savoy ran to 180 bedrooms. Some of this, it seems, was accommodated in two new wings that were added at the back, in what was the garden, with the space between the wings being covered with a high, glass-domed roof to create an enclosed winter garden. Off this, according to the Gazette, were reading and billiard rooms on the left, and, on the right, a restaurant described as having enormous gilt electroliers, a crimson carpet over the parquet floor and a high stand of palms in the centre of the room. There was a handsome marble staircase leading from the entrance hall to the upper floors, where the bedrooms were furnished by Maple & Co of London and Krieger of Paris. Which all sounds rather splendid.

And that, for the moment, is about the sum of knowledge on this hotel. There were some ads that ran in the press but they add nothing (while contradicting the Gazette’s count of 180 rooms).

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The best image of the hotel is the beautiful luggage label that heads this post, which is very rare, although one did pop up on eBay last month – the first I’ve seen in years – where it sold for $167. There are also a couple of postcards that show up in online searches, one of which was obviously used as the main source by the artist responsible for the luggage label.

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Archival material I’ve dug up online suggests the Alexandria Savoy, like its Cairo counterpart, was used by the British Army in Egypt as a temporary headquarters during World War I and there’s a mention elsewhere of a meeting that took place at the hotel in 1920. That, however, is the last reference I have come across to it. The hotel appears in Baedeker’s guides to Egypt for 1911 and 1914, but has disappeared by the next edition, in 1929. I suspect that like many hotels in Egypt – again, the Cairo Savoy included – the Alexandria Savoy was a victim of the Great War and the vacuum it created where tourism used to be, which wasn’t filled until the early 1920s. If anybody knows different or has any other information to add, I’d love to hear from you.

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Once grand, still grand

The River Front circa 1904,  by artist Harold Oakley

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to get to stay a night at the London Savoy. I was writing a story on it for Celebrated Living, the inflight magazine carried in the premium-class cabins of American Airlines. I have visited the hotel before but only to drink at the American Bar, plus once to attend an awards ceremony held in the ballroom, and once in 2007 when the whole place was thrown open for a viewing of lots in advance of the auction of around 3,000 pieces of the hotel’s furniture prior to it closing for three years of refurb. This then was my first visit since the Savoy reopened in 2010 after being taken over by the Fairmont chain.

Charlie Chaplin and wife Oona on the roof

Charlie Chaplin and wife Oona on the roof

Unlike the grand hotels of Egypt, where these days more than a little imagination is required to conjure up any glamour or opulence (or, for that matter, any life), the Savoy still buzzes. The American Bar remains one of the best bars in the world and the Savoy Grill, despite being operated by the group headed by the asinine Gordon Ramsay, remains a truly special restaurant. Fads and fashions hit London’s dining scene with the regularity of January rains but after more than a century in existence the Grill still feels like the place to be. I love that at around 10pm it receives a new rush of energy as a post theatre crowd turns up for a 400g rib-eye or sirloin and a decent bottle of red before bedtime.

Fred Astaire and sister Adele, also on the roof

Fred Astaire and sister Adele, also on the roof

Our room was a river suite, next door to the Monet suite, in fact, and if the view didn’t include the Pyramids or the Nile plus Theban Hills/First Cataract, there was at least Cleopatra’s Needle on the Thames Embankment below. The element of the Savoy I enjoyed most was the lifts, one red, one blue, one green; I don’t know if they are original but they are wooden and certainly old. The Savoy was the first hotel in England to install electric ‘ascending rooms’, which apparently used to take eight minutes to rise up seven floors, each with a lift boy offering cognac stiffeners to calm passengers’ nerves.

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Marilyn Monroe with Laurence Olivier at the Savoy for a press conference in 1956

There are a whole host of firsts associated withe Savoy, a hundred of which are listed out in an article on the hotel’s website, including the following:

* The Savoy was the first hotel to have its own artesian well, 420 ft deep.

* On an infamous evening in 1896, the Savoy was the where the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre became the first woman to smoke in public at the dinner table.

* The first ‘Gondola Party’ not in Venice was held in the Savoy in 1905; the courtyard floor was made watertight and flooded to a depth of 4 feet, scenery erected around the walls, and gondolas floated for a party hosted American millionaire George Kessler.

* The first flight within the hotel took place on New Year’s Eve, 1906, when on the stroke of midnight, an aero-mobile (a hybrid motor-car and aeroplane) set off on rails fitted to the roof of the foyer, landed and ran between the diners as two ladies on board showered party-goers with gifts.

The Savoy entrance, added in 1929 and still a beacon of elegance today

The Savoy entrance, added in 1929 and still a beacon of elegance today

Read the rest here.

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The steamboat Dikka?

I recently received an email from a dahabiya-owning couple with a query that I am unable to answer but maybe someone else can:

When my father, Ron, enlisted at the start of the 2nd World War and they discovered that he was a Chartered Accountant, they promoted him rapidly in the RAOC and sent him to India. He was later sent to the Middle East, Persia, Iraq and Egypt. He stayed at Luxor and had a houseboat on the Nile.

This may well be it in a picture taken of him on his Box Brownie.

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The question is, can anybody recognise the boat? It is not a house boat as such, but a small paddle steamer, possibly called Dikka. It has quite distinctive funnel markings. It apparently featured in a well-known Egyptian film. If anyone knows anything please email me and I’ll pass on the information.

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The new book (and a new name)

To reflect the fact that Grand Hotels of Egypt will soon by joined by On the Nile – which has now gone to print, although I don’t as yet have a publication date – I’ve changed the name of the site: you are now reading ‘Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel’. The website address stays the same though. I’ve also added a new page devoted to the forthcoming book, with a link posted up above: if you click there you’ll see some sample pages.

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To tell you a little more about On the Nile, or to give it its full title On the Nile in the Golden Age of Travel, the book traces the evolution of the Nile cruise business, starting in 1869 with the very first tour to Egypt led by Thomas Cook. One of the passengers on this maiden voyage was a Miss Riggs of Hampstead, England, whose unpublished diary survives and who serves as our guide from London Bridge to Calais via Paris and Turin to Brindisi and across the Mediterranean to Alexandria in Egypt. From there the party of 30, led by Cook himself, continues on to Cairo to board a pair of belching steamers leased from the khedive. And so they set off up river for Luxor and Aswan, sailing in the wake of the Prince and Princess of Wales, who coincidentally happen to be on the Nile at the same time (and are not at all happy at being pursued by ‘tourists’).

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The second chapter backtracks to the time before steam, and describes the passage of earlier travellers up the Nile aboard the graceful sailboats known as dahabiyas, an era when goats (for milk) and pianos (for evening entertainment) were considered essential bits of river kit.

We then jump forward again to Thomas Cook’s equally historic, second organised tour to Egypt, which was to the inaugural celebrations marking the opening of the Suez Canal. The book then charts the growth of Cook’s business in Egypt, to the point where, within ten years, his company – now managed by his son John – enjoyed a monopoly on all Nile passenger traffic and the subsequent temporary loss of that business as Cook’s fleet is diverted to the task of ferrying an Anglo-Egyptian army tens of thousands strong in an effort to rescue General Charles Gordon in Khartoum.

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Chapter five deals with the aftermath of the Sudan campaign, when Cook & Son set about building itself a fantastic new Nile fleet of (largely) Scottish-built steamers, finer than anything ever seen on the Nile before – ‘floating palaces’ is how they were described. A subsequent chapter explores what life was like aboard for those with money and leisure time enough to book a cabin. This is the period from the mid 1880s through to the first decade of the 20th century, when a three-week voyage from Cairo up to Aswan and back was just about the most exciting and luxurious thing imaginable. From the comfort of a wicker chair on the sun deck, passengers could observe a scrolling panorama of palm groves, desert, and mountains, not to mention the magnificent monuments of the ancient pharaohs, many of which were conveniently sited right on the banks of the river. And if one should tire of the landscapes, temples, tombs and donkey rides, there were always one’s fellow travelers to provide distraction and amusement.

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There was the interruption of the First World War but normal service resumed soon after when tourism to Egypt received a huge boost from the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The glamour and intrigue were heightened in the 1930s thanks to the role of the Nile steamer in Agatha Christie’s best-selling Death on the Nile.

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Although the Second World War and the turbulence in Egypt that followed brought to an end the era of the Nile steamer, there were survivors. The final chapter of the book discovers what happened to the boats when they were retired from regular service. Some became floating homes, others floating hotels; some were used in the Nubian Salvage Mission to aid in the rescue of ancient monuments from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, created by the construction of the Aswan dam in the 1960s. Many were left to decay on the banks of the river. Just one survives as a working passenger steamer.

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The very last section of the book is an appendix that takes the form of an A to Z (from Amasis to Zinat al-Nil) of all the boats there were at one time or another in the Nile fleets of Thomas Cook & Son and the Anglo-American Nile Company.

I’ve had great fun researching and writing the book, and my partner and collaborator Gadi Farfour has done a brilliant job of sourcing images. It contains a lot of never-before-published photography and some stunning illustrations. I can’t wait to see it in print.

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On the Nile, the final cover

Back in July I posted about my new book, On the Nile (in the Golden Age of Travel) and accompanied it with snapshot of the book’s cover. Well that was just a working cover, a dummy. It was a very fine image but it was based on a poster that we had already included as a full page in Grand Hotels and we felt we’d be shortchanging readers if we were to run it again. More significantly, it shows locals sailing in feluccas, whereas the book is all about foreign visitors cruising the Nile on steamers and dahabiyas, which is something entirely different. We (we being myself and the book’s designer, Gadi Farfour) were able to find several posters depicting steamers, but none of them quite worked as a cover. So we commissioned an illustrator to have a go at coming up with something suitable.

He was Ross Murray, a talented Kiwi who does a lot of work for the magazine-publishing company where I’m editorial director. One of the things he did earlier this year was a set of four illustrations (below) for a story on the romance of travel. One of these, as you can see, depicted a Nile cruise and Gadi and I thought that with some tweaks it would make a perfect cover for our new book.

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We sent Ross a photo of the cover of Grand Hotels and asked him to match the style, plus swap the sail for a steamer’s rail and replace the Pyramids (which feature on Grand Hotels) for a temple. This he did, along with plenty of changes of his own, and the resulting image is  amazing. I’m sure that anybody who didn’t know otherwise would assume the finished work is an original vintage poster.

The two books look fantastic together.

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Right now we’re playing around choosing the correct colour for the spine, back cover and flaps.

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These are the absolute final stages in the preparation of the book and it will be going off to print (in China) in about four weeks time. The publication date is now next March. I can’t wait.

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