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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
* Towels and table-cloths
* Sheets, horse-hair mattress, pillows, and pillow-cases
* Two or three blankets
* Iron bedstead to fold up
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).
* 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]
* 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]
* 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]
* 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
* 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?
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.
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.
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.”
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)
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)
For On the Nile we wanted an old photo of tourists dining in a tomb, which, of course, was the only place to eat in mid 19th-century Egypt. We couldn’t find one so we had to do without. This morning, searching for something entirely unrelated I came across the image above, which is fabulous (click to enlarge). Just look at the amount of booze – four bottles of what looks like bubbly for six people. No wonder two are out cold and the guy at the back looks like he’s about to collapse face first into his companion’s lap.
And then there is also this image of tourists dining in a temple. Once again, the booze is to the forefront and there is some splendid headwear on show, particularly the elderly lady’s hat, which looks like a pigeon caught in a fishing net.
More delving through online photographic archives, this time over at the Australian War Memorial site. The riches to be found there are amazing and I’ll be posting a bunch of finds from the archives in the coming weeks. First though, a handful of random images that I’m posting for no better reason than they are lovely photographs. They are all from 1942 and show Australian nurses and soldiers off duty and relaxing in Cairo.
Rollerskating was hugely popular at this time and Cairo had several purpose-built rinks.
A pingback linking to this site alerted me to a fascinating post over at the Sydney Living Museums website. It concerns a new book containing correspondence between Dora Sheller and her son Leslie Walford, one of the leading figures in Australian interior design until his death in 2012. In 1929 Dora Walford, a glamorous Sydney socialite, set off on a honeymoon voyage to England, stopping off in Cairo from late December 1929 until the first week of January 1930. She was well-heeled enough to stay at the top hotels, notably Mena House and Shepheard’s. The photo below is Dora on the steps to the tea gardens at Mena House.
Dora spent Christmas at Shepheard’s and kept hold of the printed and tassel-corded menu for the Christmas Eve dinner at Shepheard’s Grill, with a beautiful cover showing a masqued ball in full swing.
The Sydney Living Museums post helpfully translates the belt-busting menu:
Blinis with caviar
Tomato soup (served in a cup)
Quail in puff pastry (named for the writer George Sand)
Chicken breast in a rich cream sauce ‘Russian style’
Indian salad (lettuce, cress; a dressing of red wine, vinegar, spices)
Mandarin sorbet with Chantilly cream;
‘Chocolate shoes’ – a novelty chocolate biscuit shaped like a shoe
Chocolate Yule log
A few days later Dora dined at the Mena House and, again, she kept the menu.
Consommé garnished with finely diced carrot, turnip, green beans, truffle &c;
Turbot with a tomato sauce
Roast premium cut of lamb cooked with sage
Bresse chicken in a very rich casserole sauce
Ice cream bombe
After getting through all that, you’d imagine Dora wouldn’t have to eat again until she reached England. However there was a trip into the desert – which may have just been across the road to the Pyramids – for which the Mena House provided a picnic that was transported on its own trolley, as seen in the photograph below, which shows Dora’s husband Eric Sheller and son Leslie.
All these items come from the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. You can read more here.
One of the strands that runs through my book On the Nile is the story of the various steamers that were built, or bought and refitted, especially for use on the Nile. Their heyday stretched from the late 1880s to the outbreak of World War I and then again for a short spell between the wars. Short because the Great Depression that came in the wake of 1929’s Wall Street Crash was very much felt in Egypt. Thomas Cook & Son, which operated the majority of the steamers, saw its Egyptian business drop by almost half as a result of the Crash. The company responded by selling off a large part of its fleet. A few years later the business came to a complete stop with the outbreak of war in North Africa. What remained of Cook’s Nile fleet was requisitioned by the British Army, as were the boats belonging to the Anglo-American Nile Company. Some of the boats were used for transport, several were used as floating officers’ clubs, moored at Cairo. At the time I was writing the book I looked for images of the boats in their new roles but failed to find anything other than the photograph above, which shows South African troops aboard Cook & Son’s Thebes down at Shellal. Then just last week, while searching the Imperial War Museum archive for something else altogether, I came across the images below.
The photo set is captioned “Luxury leave for the Navy in Cairo, 19 May 1943”. The pics show petty officers aboard two houseboats moored beside the Gezira Club, where all the amenities are at the officers’ disposal, including golf and the swimming pool. The boats are the Indiana and the Puritan, which were part of the Anglo-American fleet.
A couple of posts back I mentioned the Schindler publishing company of Egypt and the guides it produced to Cairo and Alexandria, covers above. These were put out in 1942/43 to take advantage of the tens of thousands of Allied soldiers that had flooded the city since the outbreak of World War II. So they are light on history and sightseeing and mostly concentrate on restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping and useful information like postal rates and train times. They are filled with ads for many of these businesses. In the case of Cairo, except for Groppi’s and the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop, the advertised businesses are all long gone. Not so with Alexandria – among the ads in that guide are many for bars and restaurants that still just about hang on today, including the Cap d’Or, Badrot, Santa Lucia and a few others. For all the lamenting that goes on for lost Alexandria, the city manages to cling on to its past far more securely than Cairo.