Poking around in the archives of the American University in Cairo the other week I came across a box labeled “Susan Weeks”. Susan was the wife of Egyptologist Kent Weeks, rediscoverer of the KV 5 tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Susan worked with Kent as part of the Theban Mapping Project, for which she was ceramics expert, registrar, headquarters supervisor, project archivist and chief architect until her tragically premature death in December 2009. The box contained some of her pencil and ink sketches and watercolours. If you’ve ever seen a copy of Kent’s book The Lost Tomb, then you will have seen Susan’s sketches, one of which heads each chapter. Unfortunately, the reproductions in the book are not very good – not in the paperback, anyway – so to see the original pieces is a thrill. Plus the book is in black and white and doesn’t have any colour pieces. Below is a selection of some of the work from the archive, only two of which feature in the book. It’s just a small sampling, pieces I particularly liked, and there is much, much more. It’s a shame the work is so little seen. Maybe one day we’ll get to see it published in a book.
Category Archives: Egyptologists and Egyptology
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.
If you find yourself anywhere near northwest England between now and next March, there is an exhibition well worth catching. It’s called ‘Adventures in Egypt: Mrs Goodison and Other Travellers’. I haven’t yet seen it but I did attend a talk this week here in London given by Egyptologist Tom Hardwick, who curated the show and who explained what it was all about.
Born in 1845, at the age of 22 Anne Padley married George Goodison of Waterloo, Liverpool. He was a successful civil engineer, who laid a sewerage system for which he had a road named after him, and when a football stadium was built on that road it too took his name, which it retains until today – Everton FC’s home ground of Goodison Park. We know precious little about Mrs Goodison except that she twice visited Egypt, in 1886–87 and 1890–91 and, while there, became an enthusiast for all things ancient and Egyptian. Back then, it was quite easy for the amateur enthusiast to acquire antiquities and using her husband’s wealth, Mrs Goodison amassed a sizeable trove of over a thousand artifacts. None of the pieces were outstanding in their own right, being mainly small pieces such as shaabti, bits of faience, beads, some textiles and some jewellery, but taken together they made a creditable collection. Her husband, however, was unimpressed and as soon as his wife died, in 1906, he sold the whole lot to the Bootle Museum in Liverpool. That museum closed in the 1970s and the collection eventually made its way to Southport and the Atkinson Museum, where it remains today and where the new exhibition on Mrs Goodison takes place.
It combines objects from her collection with some beautiful loan pieces from London’s British Museum, Petrie Museum and National Portrait Gallery, and New York’s Brooklyn Museum to evoke the Egyptian tourist scene of the 1890s and give context to the world of the Victorian-era collector of Egyptology. In addition to carved stones from Amarna, granite heads from the Temple of Mut at Karnak, watercolours by Howard Carter and cartoons by Egyptian satirist Abou Naddara, I am honoured to say that some of my vintage posters, luggage labels, guidebooks and brochures also feature in the exhibition.
If you have never been to Southport, a sedate seaside resort just north of Liverpool favoured by pensioners on mobility scooters and footballers out on the lash, it is a place for which local historians make some imaginative claims. When exiled Prince Louis Napoleon – the future Emperor Napoleon III – lived in Southport for a short time in 1838, it’s claimed he so admired its long, wide, straight, tree-lined main parade that he ordered his engineer Baron Hausmann to remodel Paris along similar lines. Hausmann’s Paris was, of course, the model for Ismail’s modern Cairo of the 1860s. So instead of ‘Paris on the Nile’, Downtown Cairo is really ‘Southport on the Nile’.
A few weeks ago a visitor to this site posted a comment in which he guessed that I would be familiar with Amelia Edward’s A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. I’ll say. Grand Hotels of Egypt begins with Amelia and her claim that she wound up in Egypt for no better reason than to escape the rain that was dampening her enthusiasm for Europe. Even if I don’t fully believe her, I still tip my hat to her show of nonchalance as she embarks on her grand adventure. Her account of a season on the Nile in a dahabiya remains an enthralling read and I reference it numerous times in my own book, On the Nile. So, yes, I know Ms Edwards.
Except it turns out I don’t, not really. I know the Amelia Edwards whose voyage up the Nile inspired her to become a tireless campaigner for the preservation and research of ancient Egypt, who co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882, and who bequeathed her collection of Egyptian antiquities to University College London, where it formed the basis of the University’s Egyptology Department. This is the Amelia Edwards commemorated with an English heritage blue plaque, unveiled on her former London home last March.
It was another visitor to this site who alerted me to another Amelia, the author of tales of the supernatural and a woman not afraid to assert her individuality. On his excellently eccentric blog greydogtales, John Linwood Grant writes, “Her private life seems to have been as lively as her professional one. Acquaintances said that she was involved with more than one other woman (in one case, she seemed to have formed a menage a trois).”
Long before she made the trip to Egypt that would alter the course of her life, Edwards (above) was also a highly successful novelist. Her Lord Brackenbury (1880) went to 15 editions. And she wrote short stories, ranging from tales of adventure to ghost stories. Her best known of the latter is “The Phantom Coach”, which is about (and I’m paraphrasing John Linwood Grant here because I haven’t read it myself yet) a young man struggling through the onset of a snowstorm. Finding temporary shelter, he is advised of a local coach that might take him back to his wife twenty miles away – but what will he meet on the road?
Edwards was acknowledged as one of the best ghost-story writers of her day and was one of the select band invited by Charles Dickens to contribute suitably chilling tales to the Christmas numbers of his magazine All the Year Round. I’ve just start reading a collection of her stories – I love a good Christmas ghost story – and they are excellent. You can still pick her up in print, with a collection called All Saint’s Eve available in a cheap Wordsworth Edition or, if you have a Kindle or a Kindle app on your phone, a similar collection titled The Phantom Coach is available on Amazon for not very much at all. As a bonus, it includes a piece by Edwards about “My Home Life” which offers an insight into the mind and life of one of the Victorian era’s most fascinating women.
If anybody talks about the properly historic hotels of Cairo, then invariably it’s Shepheard’s that gets mentioned. Rightly so – until it was destroyed in 1952 it had renown and a guestbook to rank with any hotel in the world. But there were hotels in Cairo before Shepheard’s, including the Orient, Giardano, Levick’s and the British Hotel, formerly Hill’s, which is where Samuel Shepheard got his start in the trade before he opened an establishment under his own name in 1851. Chief among the early hostelries, though, was the Hotel du Nil.
The du Nil was established in 1836 by the half-German, half-Italian Signor Friedmann. Like all the early hotels that came before Shepheard’s, it was buried in the alleyways of the medieval city, just off the Muski, one of the busiest commercial streets in Cairo at that time. It was a traditional and sizeable Arab house with striped stonework and mashrabiya, set around a large courtyard filled with palms, and banana and orange trees. Famously, it’s where Gustave Flaubert and companion Maxime du Camp stayed in late 1849 at the start of their voyage around Egypt. Du Camp photographed Flaubert wearing native dress in the garden.
At a later stage management added covered terraces and a large veranda, as well as a curious rooftop tower of scaffolding, known as the “belvedere of Cairo,” which provided guests with views over the city. From up here the then-owner, Cavaliere Battigelli, conducted observations that he published as a daily meteorological bulletin.
Before then, however, the hotel received William Howard Russell, an Irish reporter, who had previously covered the Crimean War, including the Charge of the Light Brigade; he passed through Cairo in 1868 and was not a fan of either the city or the Hotel du Nil:
In the dark, among the dogs, through lanes and alleys of infinite closeness, nastiness, and irregularity, we stumbled, the playthings of dragomans and donkey-boys, till some of us disappeared in one hole or other, were swallowed up in a gateway, or were absorbed round a corner. I and a few more ran to earth in a mansion apparently situated among quarries and lime-kilns. It was called the Hotel du Nil, and it well deserved the name, for we could get nothing to eat, not even a piece of bread, when we arrived. In a long, ill-lighted room, at a lanky table covered with a dirty cloth, sat three men smoking vigorously and talking in lingua Franca. One of whom told us, “Signori! Avete patienza e averete qualche cose subito”. Subito meant just two hours, at the end of which time the council of three resolved themselves into waiters, and appeared with the very smallest and moldiest chickens I ever beheld. These were supported by omelettes made of eggs, which were just about to make chickens … but our appetites were better than the food, and washing the meal down with copious draughts of a wine which tasted like writing fluid, we stretched ourselves on chairs, tables, and sofas, and sunk into a sleep which relieved the mosquitoes from the smallest anxiety of interference in their assiduous labours. My Diary in India, in the Year 1868-9 by William Howard Russell
Not all Englishmen were as sniffy about the place. Egyptologist Flinders Petrie was recommended the hotel when he first arrived in Egypt in 1880; for the next 11 years he stayed there whenever he was in Cairo.
The Hotel du Nil survived into the first decade of the 20th century but its facilities must have been hopelessly outdated, especially when measured against the offerings of the glut of new hotels that were appearing around this time.
The exact date of closure isn’t known, According to 11th edition of Murray’s Handbook, published in 1910, the hotel closed in 1906, although the garden and the tower were still accessible (thank you Susan J. Allen for this bit of information). Soon after, the Bristol Hotel on Khazinder Square, which had opened in 1894, was marketing itself as the Hotel Bristol et du Nil – it was common practice in Cairo at this time for a new hotel to absorb the name of a recently defunct old hotel in order to inherit its clientele.
So where exactly was the Hotel du Nil? Thanks to an amazing set of fire-plans of Cairo, drawn up in 1910 for insurance purposes, and now owned by architect Nick Warner, we can pinpoint its former location precisely:
It stood on the western edge of the Khalig al-Masri (the canal that once ran off the Nile north through the city) and just to the south of the Muski (coloured red on the map). The main approach to the hotel was originally from the Muski, but when the canal was filled in to become Port Said Street (orange) in 1900, that then became the main route to the hotel, as described in an article in the Egyptian Gazette of that year. The line in yellow on the map shows roughly the route of what is now Al-Azhar Street, which crashes through the site of the du Nil. However, Al-Azhar Street was only created in the 1920s and the du Nil disappeared long before then. The likelihood is that it was lost to a widening of Port Said Street, which since its creation had become one of the city’s busiest tram routes. Nick Warner’s map then must be one of the last recordings of the existence of the hotel.
Earlier this year I had a piece published in Canvas, the magazine of Middle Eastern art, about the Gayer-Anderson Museum in Cairo. It’s one of the most fantastic places I know and I go back every few years just to reassure myself that it really exists.
The museum is named for a British Army doctor who came to Cairo in 1906. From his lodgings at Shepheard’s Hotel, he set one day, accompanied by a dragoman, to see the sights and one of the places he visited was the great ninth-century mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun. As he approached he stopped to admire a fine stone-built house that stood either side of the passage leading to the main door of the mosque, its two parts connected by an aerial bridge. A woman leaned out of one of the latticed windows on the upper floor and called to him.
“What does she say?” he asked his dragoman.
“She’s inviting you to view the house.”
The Englishman declined and went on into the mosque. Despite remaining in Cairo for the rest of his working life, it would be almost a further 30 years before John Gayer-Anderson got round to venturing inside the house. When he did, he immediately fell love with the place, and within the year he’d taken possession of it and made it his home.
He only lived there for seven years (1935-42) but in that time he created something so unique that it has been preserved in his name ever since. To begin with the house – actually two houses – is extraordinary, medieval in origin and laid out like an interlocking puzzle, full of jogging corridors, split level chambers, winding staircases and disguised rooms. All this Gayer-Anderson meticulously restored. He had a passion for Egyptology and Oriental studies, and he purchased or otherwise obtained a vast array of art, crafts, furniture and fittings from around the Middle East, Near East and Far East, which he installed in his Cairo home. So you have a Damascus Room with walls and ceiling covered with painted wooden panels acquired from a 17th-century house in the Syrian capital. You have rooms full of pharaonic antiquities. The roof terrace has its edges fenced by mashrabiya screens rescued from demolished houses, while one wall is lined with Ottoman-era marble basins and sink backs. Elsewhere there are Coptic icons, Sufi crutches from the 19th century, galleries of bad art (the portrait of Gayer-Anderson at the head of this post is one of the better pieces), death masks of his family and, a personal favourite, an ostrich egg painted with topographical scenes of Egypt, which can be rotated by means of a little handle on top.
He collected what pleased him, more taken with novelty than value. The exception to this was one piece of real worth: this was a lifesize, regal-looking cat cast in bronze wearing gold earrings and a gold nose ring, discovered in the necropolis of Saqqara and dating back to around 600 BC. This he bequeathed to the British Museum in London, where these days it’s a prize exhibit – visitors can purchase ‘Gayer-Anderson cat’ T-shirts and necklaces, or a scale replica for the cool price of £450. Cairo’s Gayer-Anderson Museum, which receives fewer visitors in a year than the British Museum does in five minutes, also has to make do with a replica.
The photos here, which were taken to accompany my story in Canvas, are by Cairo-based photographer Barry Iverson.
The website for the Winter Palace, which I blogged about a couple of posts ago, says the hotel opened in 1886, a date commemorated in the name of the hotel’s high-end French 1886 Restaurant (jacket required, no jeans). What a shame then that the hotel actually opened in 1907. There’s no doubt about it: the Egyptian Gazette of Saturday 19 January 1907 describes the inaugural party that took place with a lunch in the Valley of the Kings followed by congratulatory speeches and the distribution of meat to the gangs of workers who had laboured on the building. The hotel makes its guidebook debut in the 1908 edition of Baedeker’s Egypt, below right (it wasn’t in the previous, 1902, edition, below left).
I don’t know where the disinformation began, but it could have something to do with the Luxor Hotel. This long-forgotten hotel – which still exists, sort of – has the distinction of being the first in the world to be commissioned by Thomas Cook & Son. The English company had begun leading parties of tourists to Egypt in 1870, but once south of Cairo there was nowhere to stay other than the Nile boat they travelled on. This was fine if the visitor was happy with a few days sightseeing before moving on, but increasingly many wanted to spend longer enjoying the hot dry climate of Upper Egypt, which was believed to be good for the health. So it was that an 1878 edition of the Thomas Cook newsletter carried the following notice: ‘For the special accommodation of invalids and others desirous of deriving the full benefit of the Upper Egyptian climate, an hotel or health resort has been established at Luxor’.
The hotel was launched at the start of the 1877-78 season, in other words around November or December of 1877. It was sited just inland of the ancient Luxor Temple, beside which was Cook’s riverboat landing stage. For the Luxor’s second season, the hotel added a new wing, doubling its capacity to about 45 bedrooms. Not long after, it was extended again and in the process completely remodelled to accommodate 120 people, essentially becoming a new hotel. It’s possible this took place in 1886 and this may be where the incorrect date for the Winter Palace – which was built adjacent to the Luxor Hotel – comes from. But I’m just guessing.
The Luxor didn’t remain the only hotel in town for long, but prior to the building of the Winter Palace, it remained the most well known and best run – it also offered cheaper rates for Egyptologists. While serving as chief inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service (1899-1905), Howard Carter frequently called by for lunch or afternoon tea. Another regular was Edward Frederick Benson, better known as EF Benson, author of the tales of Mapp and Lucia. Benson had a sister called Margaret who was an archaeologist and who, in 1895-97, had a concession to excavate the Temple of Mut at Karnak; brother, Fred, who was also a trained archaeologist with field experience in Greece, came out to help.
The Luxor Hotel was the Benson’s residence and where they spent their evenings playing games of cards and charades. It’s also where Margaret was treated for a near fatal case of pleurisy by the hotel doctor who had to tap the fluid around her lungs – not an operation you’d want carried out in your double with river view even today. Fred later used the hotel as a setting in a novel of the supernatural called The Image in the Sand, published in 1905:
The garden at the Luxor Hotel is a delectable place of palms. Sixty to eighty feet high they stand, slender, slim, and dusky-stemmed, and high up at the top of the trees stretch the glorious fern-like fronds of the foliage beneath which hang the clusters of yellowing dates. Here rises a thicket of bamboos, tremulous and quivering, even on the stillest and most windless nights, and a great cat-headed statue, wrought in black granite, and taken away from the neighbouring temple of Mut in Karnak, looks with steadfast gaze out and beyond over the Eastern horizon, with eyes focussed beyond material range, as if waiting for the dawn of the everlasting day.
The statue he mentions, of the ancient goddesses Sekhmet, was one of a pair (click on the photo above to enlarge and you can see them either side of the entrance), both of which were removed some time ago. The hotel itself, which was not only the first in Luxor but one of the earliest in Egypt, was still admitting guests until as recently as the 1980s. In the intervening century it had undergone great changes but the main façade, which resembles a sort of Indian colonial bungalow, would still be familiar to Fred and Maggie today.
When I visited a couple of months ago the building behind the façade had been gutted and reduced to a shell. This isn’t a demolition, however, but a rebuild. The plan, apparently, is to restore the Luxor Hotel to working order. I saw the skeletal concrete frame of a new garden annexe and a great hole in the ground that will eventually be a swimming pool, although work is currently on a go-slow thanks to the economically uncertain climate. If they ever do finish I’ll be curious to see what date any website gives for the building of the hotel and what they call any new restaurant.
For more on EF Benson in Egypt visit here.
UPDATE: May 2017
This afternoon I visited a retrospective of work by David Hockney at the Tate Britain in London. Among the work exhibited was this sketch:
It is the porch of the Luxor Hotel. I knew that Hockney visited Egypt on a couple of occasions, notably in 1978, which resulted in a book, David Hockney: Egyptian Journeys, (which I’ve never seen) but I didn’t realise he drew any hotels. You might have thought he could have afforded the Winter Palace.
The last two posts were about hotels that are now defunct, so this time around something a little more upbeat. In the book, we stop the story of the grand hotels of Egypt in 1952 with the burning of Shepheard’s. This means we don’t get to use any contemporary photography. So when we revisited the Winter Palace in Luxor last month we took a bunch of photographs. The hotel looks as beautiful as it ever did, particularly the façade, which, although it was built in 1906/7, looks almost art deco. Hardly surprising given that when art deco flourished in the 1920s it was heavily influenced by the same pharaonic motifs that inspired the architect of the Winter Palace.
It was Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun that popularised all things pharaonic and influenced the look of art deco. Carter, of course, was a regular at the Winter Palace. Even though he had his own house on the West Bank near the Valley of the Kings, he used the hotel as his personal business centre, the place where he met visiting VIPs, including his patron Lord Carnarvon, who kept a suite here. There’s a famous photograph of Carter and a couple of local dignitaries in conversation on the terrace of the hotel, below – look at the tiling of the floor and then look at the third picture above and you can see it’s the same tiling in place today.
The interior of the hotel is nowhere near as stylish. It’s formal Edwardian, with plenty of pomp (the corridors are ridiculously wide) but little in the way of splendour, although the curling decorative ironwork on the grand staircase balustrades is gorgeous. We were allocated the King Farouk room, up on the second floor. I doubt it’s where he stayed. Big though the room is, there are bigger suites, plus the room faces the gardens, when the prize view is of the Nile, which you see from the front-facing rooms. Nice old furniture though, and we slept observed by multiple portraits of the king.
We were two of just a handful of guests. The current uncertain political climate is keeping the tourists away. Last year, general manager Christian Ruge told us, was bad but this year is even worse. For the first time perhaps since the 1967 War, management considered closing for the summer. It seems they haven’t as the hotel website is still accepting bookings for July and August. This is good news because I’ll let you into a secret: right now if you book into the Winter Palace Pavilion, which is an unlovely modern garden annexe, you can get a double for under £50 on a travel site such as expedia.com, but with so few guests anyone booking into the Pavilion is being upgraded to the Winter Palace itself, to rooms that would normally cost three or four times that amount. Check out the excited comments on Tripadvisor.