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 One of the passengers on this maiden voyage was a Miss Riggs of Hampstead, England, whose unpublished diary survives and who serves as our guide from London Bridge to Calais via Paris and Turin to Brindisi and across the Mediterranean to Alexandria in Egypt.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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Shepheard’s of New York

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I recently saw the item above for sale. It’s a Shepheard’s ashtray but I’d never seen the design before. And even though it’s in an art deco style there’s also something quite modern about it. It’s a bit Sixties-ish. And so it turns out to be. After a bit of research it turns out that it is nothing to do with Cairo’s famed Shepheard’s hotel, either the original, which burned down in 1952, or the 1957 rebuild, but comes from Shepheard’s nightclub, which was part of the Drake hotel in New York.

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The Drake was one of New York’s grand old hotels, opened in 1926 on 21 floors. In the early 1960s, the hotel was acquired by entrepreneur William Zeckendorf, who added New York’s first ‘discotheque’, which he called Shepheard’s. Why Shepheard’s? Who knows, but it was obviously in homage to the Cairo hotel of that name because the interior was Egyptian themed; if you look at the cigarette ad below (click to enlarge), which depicts a scene at Shepheard’s disco, you can see the Mamluk-styled striped stonework through the doorway and a giant pharaonic head.

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According to a former manager of Drake’s, writing on the ‘Most Famous Hotels’ website, Shepheard’s was the hottest nightspot in Manhattan. It was open seven days a week for cocktails, dinner and supper with continuous dancing until 3am. The hotel printed a card entitled, ‘How to Do the Newest Discotheque Dances at Shepheard’s in New York’s Drake Hotel’ with step-by-step instructions to dance the Jerk, Watusi, Frug and the Monkey. Patrons apparently lined up on 56th Street and around the corner on Park Avenue. Maybe so, but it still doesn’t sound half as fun as the Cairo Shepheard’s in its 1920s heyday.

I don’t know how long the nightclub Shepheard’s lasted but the Drake hotel was demolished in 2007 and the site redeveloped as 432 Park Avenue, which is currently the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere.

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Garden City riverscape

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?

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Looking for the heirs of Samuel Shepheard

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?

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Marka Twain

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:

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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’.

 

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The other, other Savoy

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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.

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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.

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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)

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And we’re back…

On-the-Nile-new

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.

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Victor’s watch

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.

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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.

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Panorama of the past

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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