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.