The Oxford Pension

1990-Kaboria-Full

For a spell back at the end of the 80s/early 90s whenever I was walking around Downtown Cairo I used to have guys shout at me, “Hey! Kaboria!” The reference was to a hit film that was playing at the cinemas, staring Ahmed Zaki. In it, he sported a distinctive close-crop hair cut and, unasked for by me, my local barber had given me the same cut. Then the film finished its run and my hair grew out and that’s the last I heard of Kaboria, until last month.

It unexpectedly popped up again in British newspaper The Guardian in an interview with Cate Blanchett. Rehashing old history with the journalist, she explains how aged around 20, she was doing the Australian thing of travelling the world for a year. She was hanging out in Cairo when she was approached by some guy at her hostel and asked if she wanted to appear as an English-speaking extra in a local film. And so she went along and it turned out to be Kaboria. However, contrary to what sources on the internet say, Blanchett says it was so hot and boring she left and was never in the film.

CTIXN9iWsAAfG0F

The hostel where the future Elizabeth I and Galadriel was staying in Cairo was the Oxford pension. A “fleapit” she calls it. A fleapit? That’s not half the story. It was cockroach central. A fetid lice incubator. A rodent ranch. It had a rickety lift with the greater part of its back kicked out that carried guest up to the sixth-floor reception and which felt uncomfortable like an ascending coffin. It had nicotine-hued walls, showers that spouted only rusty trickles and rooms that weren’t rooms at all, just widenings in the corridor with a mattress on the floor.

But it had a prime location midway up Talaat Harb and it was cheap, cheap enough that it was always full of long-term boarders, paying just a few pounds a week for a place to flop. It had the added attraction of a reception area that was the place to score drugs, pick up work, sell a Walkman or a passport, buy a false student ID, or just to share Stellas and stories with like-minded warriors on the overland trail.

white-rabbit

I never stayed there – I valued my health too much – but I knew plenty who did. These memorably included a guy from Manchester who had to be medivaced out after catching hepatitis and an American who taught English up the street at a cowboy school where the pay didn’t allow for anything more than a bed at the Oxford. To brighten up his room the American bought some red cloth from Khan al-Khalili and draped the ceilings and walls. For company he bought a white rabbit from the butchers and named her Miss Fifi. When he left a few months later, the management at the Oxford left his room as it was and certain guests got given a room that looked like a brothel, complete with white rabbit and droppings.

Who said the golden age of travel ended with World War II?

Leave a Comment

Filed under Hotel tales

Grand Hotels now in revised paperback

I’ve yet to see a copy but I think Grand Hotels of Egypt is out in paperback. We updated the text earlier this summer, correcting a few typos and including new information that has come to light since the book’s original publication (more on that shortly). We also changed the spine colour to a lovely deep red. I can’t wait to see it. If you haven’t already bought a copy of the book, maybe put off by the price tag of the hardback, then the good news is the paperback is selling for just £10 on amazon in the UK.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Book reviews

Avoid crowds. Don’t let strangers talk to you

This is why I love old guidebooks. These pages are from a guide to Chicago published in 1888, but the paternalistic going on paranoid tone of the advice is familiar from guides to Egypt.

1-glDrmzIY1ykCWnt-KAm1Mg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1-UAYyHXr9FZsVgfA_UJvMjA

Leave a Comment

Filed under Early guidance

An American Express on the Nile

$_57

Americans had been vacationing on the Nile since the mid 19th century but in the first years of the 20th they were coming in ever greater numbers. The Hamburg-American Line increased its sailings to Alexandria to accommodate the growth. Meanwhile, on the Nile new cruise companies were setting up to challenge the monopoly of the English-owned Thomas Cook & Son. I’ve written before about the Anglo-American, established in the mid 1890s, and this was joined ten years later by another new venture, the Express Nile Steamer Company.

$_57-1

Boasting all-American management and operating on “the American plan”, it inaugurated services aboard its two purpose-built steamers, the America and the Virginia, in 1906. (The steamers, incidentally, were British built.) What the “American plan” was, I’m not sure, but the company’s particular selling point was speed. It claimed its boats were the fastest on the Nile, with an average speed upstream of 12 knots an hour. This enabled them to complete the journey to Aswan and back in eight days as opposed to Cook & Son’s standard twenty. In fact, by synchronising with the train that left Cairo at 6.30pm and arrived in Luxor at 9am the next morning, where a boat would leave at 10am arriving in Aswan at 11pm, the company could boast it could get the traveller from Cairo to Aswan in not much over 24 hours “and have a good view of some of the principal ruins on the way”.

$_57-2

$_57-3

Except tearing up and back down the Nile at breakneck speed was not the experience most tourists in Egypt were looking for and it seems the Express Nile Steamer Company did not remain in business long because very little evidence of it exists. I found just one or two mentions in archive issues of the daily Egyptian Gazette. Until, that is, this brochure came up recently on ebay (scans above and below). I’ve never seen any other material relating to the company, which might explain why this item went for a price far beyond my each.

$_57-4

$_57-11

If anybody has any more information about this company, I’d love to hear from you.

2 Comments

Filed under Nile steamers

On the Nile press coverage

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 10.23.05

There has been some welcome coverage of On the Nile in the UK press: travel mag Wanderlust featured it as one of its ‘8 summer reads’ in the August issue and there was a great half-page review (‘A sense of romance positively oozes from every page of this delightful book’) by explorer Robin Hanbury Tenison in the 29 July issue of Country Life. The online Telegraph ran a picture gallery linked to the book, as did the online travel section of the Daily Mail.

Geographical

UPDATE Also reviewed (a half page) in the September issue of Geographical:

Humphreys’ beautifully produced account of tourism’s golden age is largely the story of what became of Cook & Son, from its internal politics to its ties to government and the British Army – in 1884 all tourist activity was halted, as Cook’s steamers were commandeered by the Gordon Relief Expedition, a hiatus which was followed by the launching in 1888 of a fleet of ‘floating palaces’ so grand that bathrooms were included in the fare, instead of being optional extras.

3 Comments

Filed under Book reviews, Nile steamers

The still elusive Anglo-American

Vintage Advert of Cruise on Nile Steamer

Last March I was posting on this blog asking for information on the Anglo-American Nile Company, which for the first 40 years of the 20th century was Cook & Son’s main rival on the Nile. Despite the company’s longevity, I couldn’t discover too much about it. The most useful source of information I had was a pdf of the Anglo-American’s very first Nile brochure, kindly sent to me by Cornelius von Pilgrim of the Swiss Institut in Egypt. I have a couple of later brochures from the 1930s and between them, a few newspaper clippings and mentions in journals and travel accounts, I pieced together what I could.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 21.01.59

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 21.02.12

In short – there’s much more detail in On the Nile – it was set up in 1896 and by 1900 had a fleet of three first-class steamers in the Mayflower, Puritan, and Victoria; three smaller steamers (the Columbia, Indiana, and Niagara); two small launches (Courlis and Witch) and a small fleet of dahabiyas. The bigger steamers had triple decks that sat on top of a hull that was little more than a floating platform, which gave them an appearance that was top-heavy going on outright ugly. But this arrangement did mean they had a shallower draft than the Cook boats and were less prone to running aground.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 21.02.24

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 21.02.37

Like Cook & Son, the Anglo-American was able to offer weekly departures from Cairo during the season, with connecting departures to the Second Cataract and through bookings to Khartoum. Its boats were less luxurious but they were also considerably cheaper. The Anglo-American also went head-to-head with Cook & Son in the land-based hospitality business, opening its own hotel, the Savoy, on the northern tip of Elephantine Island at Aswan.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 21.02.50

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 21.03.12

The company was strengthened in 1906 by amalgamation with the transatlantic Hamburg-American Line, becoming in the process the Hamburg and Anglo-American Nile Company. Investment came in the form of two new, large steamers, the Germania and Nubia. The fleet now flew the German flag in addition to the Stars and Stripes. This business arrangement was severed around the time Germany found itself at war with Britain and eventually America. The company failed to survive the Second World War.

Now, wouldn’t you know it, since the publication of the book earlier this year, there has been a flood of Anglo-American brochures hitting eBay. The prices have mostly carried them out of my reach but I have managed to screen-grab some of the covers, which are lovely things. The image at the top of this post, by the way, is an advertising poster rather than a brochure.

$_57-2

AAN_1910_11

AAN_1924_25

AAN_1929_30

AAN_1933_34

AAN_1934_35

AAN_1935_36

AAN_1936_37

AAN_1936_37_02

AAN_1937_38

AAN_1937_38_02

If anyone has any more Anglo-American images and/or information, please do get in touch. There’s always the second printing.

1 Comment

Filed under Nile steamers

Now shipping

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 13.26.06

On the Nile is now available from Amazon.

2 Comments

Filed under Nile steamers

The Thomas Cook archive

4101_Cooks Nile Service

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).

8115_Cooks_Excursionist_1891_TCA

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.

Brochures

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.

3001_Arabia_blueprint

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…

24870

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Nile steamers

Then and Now: the National

National-hotel-Cairo Dg

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.)

001

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.

11-2807-3-p01

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:

127972

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.

cover_9781849547963_-_Copy

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.

National_Hotel

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.

DSCN5058

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

1 Comment

Filed under Hotels then and now

My ship’s come in!

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 16.51.44

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Nile steamers