It’s here!

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

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The Alexandria Savoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Once grand, still grand

The River Front circa 1904,  by artist Harold Oakley

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

Charlie Chaplin and wife Oona on the roof

Charlie Chaplin and wife Oona on the roof

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

Fred Astaire and sister Adele, also on the roof

Fred Astaire and sister Adele, also on the roof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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The steamboat Dikka?

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

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

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

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

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The new book (and a new name)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Nile, the final cover

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

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

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

The two books look fantastic together.

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

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

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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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