I know we are well past Christmas, but if there is anyone out there who feels they would like to buy me a late gift then I have just thing. Currently being offered on eBay by a seller in Australia is a set of seven solid silver forks bearing the stamp of the Anglo-American Nile Company (the actual wording is ‘ANGLO-AMERICAN LINE OF NILE STEAMERS’). They were likely deployed for dinners aboard the company’s steamers some time in the late 19th or early 20th century. The only trouble is my Ikea knives and spoons are going to look a little pathetic by comparison.
The Sir John Soane Museum is one of the most extraordinary places in London. It is not really a museum, it is the former home of a great Georgian architect and collector extraordinaire. It is actually three houses knocked into one – that does it an injustice, the houses are intricately interlinked – and all are filled with a cornucopia of antiques, painting, sculpture and architectural bric-a-brac. Rather than me try to describe it any further, take a look at these photographs:
Right now there is more reason than ever for anyone with an interest in Egypt to visit. Soane’s greatest acquisition was the sarcophagus of the pharaoh Seti I, which is on permanent display in the basement space. Running until April is a temporary exhibition on the background to the sarcophagus. It was removed by Belzoni from Seti I’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings and transported to England where it was first offered to the British Museum. When the museum declined to meet Belzoni’s asking price, Soane stepped forward. Getting the 3,000-year-old relic into the house involved knocking down a sizeable chunk of the back wall. When all was done, and the wall rebuilt, Soane then threw a three-day party to introduce London to his new prize possession.
This exhibition retells the story and also includes some of the wonderful watercolours made by Belzoni and his assistants in Seti’s tomb.
Even if you can’t make it for the exhibition, Sir John Soane’s home is worth a visit any time you are in London. And the sarcophagus will still be there.
So, more about that Parade cover I posted before Christmas. Or, more specifically, more about the person who drew it. Edward Ardizzone (1900–79) was once a hugely popular English artist and illustrator, revered in particular for his series of Little Tim children’s books. During World War II he worked as a war artist, documenting the experiences of soldiers and civilians in England and across Europe. While sketching the devastation caused by the ongoing Blitz in London he was arrested by the Home Guard as a spy. In 1942, the War Office sent Ardizzone to the Middle East. He arrived in Cairo in May during preparations for the Allied offensive at El Alamein. He was given lodgings in Garden City, in a room above the offices of the soldiers’ magazine Parade, for which he did illustrations and that special Christmas cover.
Even before I discovered his Cairo connection, I’d always been an Ardizzone fan. For me, it is his love of the intimate and ordinary, along with his humour. While in Egypt he went out into the desert, attached to the mechanized Second Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, and dutifully recorded scenes of warfare, but I suspect he was much more at home in Cairo. He followed the soldiers into the bazaars and drew them having their photographs taken or shopping for silks and other luxuries to send back home to England where such things were unavailable. In London he was an avid frequenter of pubs, which he celebrated in a wonderful little book called The Local, which is full of his drawings of humble public barrooms and their gossipy, boozy clientele. In Cairo he sought out similar places. He frequented places like Badia’s Casino, Groppi’s and the Gezira Club, which he drew, leaving us tantalizing sketches of the city’s wartime nightlife as experienced by off-duty British officers (all such places were off-limits to common soldiers, of course).
Ardizzone also drew a nightclub called Dolls. One of the posts on this site last year featured pages from Schindler’s Guide to Cairo, from 1942/43, and on one of those pages is an ad for ‘Dolls music hall and cabaret’. It’s not somewhere I know anything about but from the guide’s description it sounds quite a joint: on Sharia Malika Farida (these days Abdel Khalek Sarwat), it is described as one of Cairo’s leading cabarets, with a hundred tables and entertainment nightly by the “well-known” Black and White Band. When the cabaret began the dance floor was automatically raised to give everyone the best view.
Ardizzone was in Egypt for just a few months before moving on to Sicily, mainland Italy and Normandy before being discharged from the army in 1945. He lived until 1979 producing masses of work, mostly illustrations for books, but also pieces of commercial advertising and other odd commissions such as an altar piece. Sadly, he is very much out of fashion these days, although there was an excellent exhibition devoted to his work and life here in London last year and, to tie in with it, a superb book Edward Ardizzone: Artist and Illustrator by Alan Powers (Lund Humphries, £40).
The cover of Parade magazine, 19 December 1942, entitled “The Soldiers Dream” or “Christmas Eve at the Local” and drawn by Edward Ardizzone. Parade was published in Cairo and distributed to the Allied forces in Egypt and around the Mediterranean. More on Ardizzone and Egypt to come in the New Year. Meanwhile, my own compliments of the season to you.
George Warrington Steevens (1869–1900) was a British journalist, the most famous war correspondent of his time. He accompanied Kitchener to Khartoum and covered the Second Boer War in South Africa. En route to the latter he spent time enough in Egypt to toss off a state of the nation study, Egypt in 1898, published by Dodd, Mead & Co of New York, 1899. A veteran of the battlefield it was unlikely he was going to have much good to say about the lah-di-dah society of his fellow Englishmen in Cairo and, sure enough, he didn’t.
He certainly did not like the company at his hotel: “Inside Shepheard’s you will find just the Bel Alp in winter quarters. All the people who live in their boxes and grand hotels, who know all lands but no languages, who have been everywhere and done nothing, looked at everything and seen nothing, read everything and know nothing – who spoil the globe by trotting on it.”
He was in residence at Shepheard’s on 25 December: “I woke this morning in the usual cage of mosquito-gauze, rang the bell, and the usual brown face under a tarbush poked itself in at the door: ‘Good Christmas, sar,’ it said. By Jove! Yes, it was Christmas Day; and looking out of window I saw, for the first time in Egypt, a true English sky, heavy and yellow. It was chilly cold too; Egypt is not near so warm as it looks. Looking down from the window, I started. Was I still asleep, or did I really see that great white bird, stork-billed, duck-footed, waddling placidly up to the back-door of Shepheard’s? And then I remembered that a tame pelican of great dignity was wont to disport himself there; but that took all the Christmas out of my mouth.”
“When I got up I found the hotel full of bouquets of roses; a few people went out later, ostensibly to church; but otherwise the wandering English made Christmas Day much like any other day. No such luck for the British residents of Cairo. It seems that when they first came here, the society of Cairo was much concerned to find that they had no day for all going round calling on each other, as Continentals do on New Year’s Day, Levantine Christians on their New Year’s Day, and Mussulmans at Bairam. On consideration, the society of Cairo decided that the British ought to have such an anniversary, and fixed on Christmas Day as the most suitable. So the ladies sit at home all the afternoon dealing out tea, and the gentlemen go round, calling on everybody else, and Egyptian friends call on everybody after the same manner; so that the whole British colony, with native auxiliaries, rotates in a body round itself all Christmas afternoon. A stranger, I was called on for no such effort; so I went out peacefully to lunch.”
I assure you, I don’t spend all my time checking how my books are doing on Amazon. But earlier today a friend emailed to say I should take a look. A while ago Grand Hotels of Egypt sold out in hardback and is now only available in paperback. Of course, anything that’s scarce goes up in value, but take a look at this (click on the image to enlarge):
One hundred and thirteen pounds and nineteen pence! That’s crazy. But considerably less crazy than this:
I think the hardback originally sold at a full cover price of £30, so if these Amazon sellers are to be believed it has now increased in value to the tune of over 2000%. Not even central London property gives that sort of return. When we launched the book with a party in 2012, we sold 120 copies that night, which I am now severely regretting. If I’d kept all those books for myself and just sat on them, I’d be looking at a stash worth over £80,000. Instead, I only have two or three copies. Tell you what though, I’ll do you a deal, one could be yours for just a nice round £670.
I own a small grey-blue volume titled Usborne’s Guide to Egypt and the Levant. It is aged and worn, and really doesn’t look like much, but it’s a book that fascinates me. Published in 1840, it is, as far as I know, the earliest proper guidebook to Egypt. By ‘proper guidebook’ I mean not an account of a journey, but specifically a book of practical information compiled to help those who would travel in the author’s footsteps. The best-known such guides in the 19th century were those published by the firms of John Murray and Karl Baedeker, but the first Murray’s Handbook to Egypt would not be published until 1847 and the first Baedeker on Egypt didn’t appear until 1877. Which makes Usborne’s guide a real trailblazer – but also something of a mystery.
TH Usborne of St James’s Square, London, is the author not the publisher and that is the sum total of everything I know about him. (Ziad Morsi, a student at Southampton University, has succeeding in uncovering some solid biographical information – see the comments section.) As far as I’ve been able to discover, there are no other Usborne guides. The publisher is Cradock & Co (formerly Baldwin & Cradock) of Paternoster Row, London, a company about which little information exists, although a search on the internet throws up a handful of its other titles, including Guy’s British Spelling Book, A Manual of Music, The Flower Gardener’s Manual, The Fruit Gardener’s Manual, Domestic Brewing and The Steam Engine: Familiarly Described with a Brief Account of its History and Uses. All these were published in the 1840s and early 1850s, suggesting the company was short lived. The only other guidebook Cradock & Co seems to have published was Madeira: Its Climate and Scenery by Robert White.
Judging by his introduction to the Guide to Egypt and the Levant, Usborne appears to have been a bit of a chancer: ‘Without having decided on any particular course of travel, I left England in the winter of 1837, and betook myself to the shores of the Mediterranean,’ he writes. The lack of planning, he goes on to explain, caused him to spend both time and money unprofitably, and so he penned his guide to prevent others from repeating the worst of his mistakes. Usborne’s audience was not the leisure traveller but ‘East Indians’, who were the soldiers and civil servants of the British Empire enroute from England to postings in India. A sizeable number of pages are spent detailing the arrangements of mail-pioneer Mr Thomas Waghorn for processing transients on from Alexandria by boat up to Cairo and then, by either small spring cart (known as omnibuses), donkey litter or camel, across the Eastern Desert to Suez and a boat bound for Bombay.
Coverage of the sights of Cairo and Upper Egypt is offered as an add-on for anyone wishing to break their journey. Except, Usborne doesn’t think anyone should dally for too long. Of Cairo’s 300 mosques he declares only three are worth visiting. He highlights the slave market and dancing girls, and devotes several pages to a description of a extremely dull performance by a magician of dubious credentials. Out at the Pyramids, the great monument of Cheops gets four lines but there is close to a whole page on the nearby ovens used to aid the hatching of chicks.
Usborne’s knowledge of ancient Egypt is next to non-existent, so the monuments of Upper Egypt are covered in the skimpiest of fashion. It’s not that long since Henry Salt had engaged Belzoni to treasure hunt at Thebes and both these gentlemen feature in the guide, as their names probably meant more to readers at this time than the names of any pharaoh. One of the most detailed descriptions concerns ‘Belzoni’s Tomb’ (below, in an 1855 watercolour by George de General Sausmarez), better known these days as the tomb of Seti I. Usborne reached Aswan but went no further – he possibly never even saw Philae as it gets just a single sentence in his book. Abu Simbel does not feature at all.
With a profusion its timetables and lists of prices (although no maps), Usborne’s guide would have done a good job of getting the traveller to Egypt and beyond (it goes on to cover Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Andalusia) but it would not have helped them learn much along the way. In fact, the author’s love of a good yarn makes the guide positively disinformational – he describes a venomous tarantula found in Upper Egypt that derives its poison from feeding on the bodies of the dead.
I have never seen another copy of this rarest of Egypt guidebooks, although I’m told one came up for auction in London about ten years ago. If anybody knows anything at all about TH Usborne esq, please do get in touch.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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’.
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.
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’.
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.
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).
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.
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