Category Archives: Travellers’ tales

Early travellers and other occasionally odd characters.

More Pyramideering

Pyramideering

The always interesting Nile Magazine has taken a post from this website on the history of Pyramid climbing and expanded it into a lavish photo feature. The piece isn’t online but you can pick up a copy of the latest issue of the magazine at WH Smiths in the UK or buy it online. You can find the original post here.

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The Oxford Pension

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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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Victor’s watch

Today I received another email from Peter Kuonen – who sent me the wonderful images of his grand-uncle Victor, who was concierge at the Winter Palace in its heyday (see here). Here’s the text of Peter’s email:

Much to my surprise, I found the gold watch which Victor received with a dedication from Charles Baehler for his excellent work during 30 years in Egypt. You surely wonder how and where I found it. In my research, I have of course spoken with many relatives. Thus, it happened that I was talking about this watch and then I held it in my hand. You cannot imagine how I felt. It was just great… like getting a reward for my work. The person that keeps this memorable piece is Toni Kuonen, a hotelier in Sierre, Switzerland. He received it from his father Richard, a son of Victor Kuonen.

And here is the watch, courtesy of photos from Peter.

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Incidentally, the Charles Baehler who Peter mentions in his email was the king of Egyptian hotels. A former accountant from Switzerland, he arrived in Egypt on 21 October 1889, aged eighteen. He went to work at Shepheard’s in a junior role but so impressed his employer with his confidence and knowledge of hotel administration that he was soon appointed manager. By 1905, he owned the hotel. By the time he died, in 1937, his companies not only owned every major hotel in Egypt (including the Winter Palace), but also 72 shops and 130 flats, a stable of race horses, a kennel of prize-winning St. Bernard dogs, and a museum-worthy collection of paintings and tapestries. He married three times and fathered three sons. His obituary in The New York Times on 28 September 1937 called him “one of the world’s greatest hotel men.”

Now if any of his descendents read this, I would love to hear from them.

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Strange tales from Shepheard’s part 2

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From the Dundee Courier of Tuesday 25 August 1936:

A dissected corpse has been discovered inside a truck which had been left on the pavement outside Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo.

The trunk was left by a well-dressed young Egyptian in European clothes who dove to the hotel in a cab.

With the cabman’s help, he lifted the trunk out and placed on the pavement. People standing on the balconies of a large building opposite noticed the incident.

The cabman was then paid, but before he drove away the Egyptian shook out the mat on which the trunk had stood. Those watching thought he was shaking out water. It was later found to be blood.

The young man stood for a few minutes beside the brown battered truck, and then walked away. The trunk remained on the pavement for an hour.

Then Head Constable Wellbeloved, an Englishman in the Cairo City Police, noticed a small crowd outside the hotel. He was shown the trunk. A trickle of blood was emerging from the corner.

He opened the trunk. The first thing he saw was a naked human leg. He shut the trunk and took it to a police station.

Further examination revealed the dissected remains of a naked male body wrapped in sacking. The dissection had apparently been skillfully carried out by someone with a knowledge of anatomy. The head was missing but a gold wedding ring on one of the fingers was inscribed “B. Guriguis, 28/3/34”. A further clue was a wristwatch.

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Strange tales from Shepheard’s part 1

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From the Yorkshire Evening Post of Saturday 4 June 1892:

There are strange chambermaids at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. A lady declares that the one who waited on her room and attended to all the duties of the calling, even to making the beds was a Frenchman, dressed as if for a dinner party, with white waistcoat and dresscoat, and having the air of a refined and educated gentlemen. It was really embarrassing to accept his services in such a capacity. One lady, arriving at the hotel, rang for the chambermaid, and this gentleman presented himself. Supposing him to be the proprietor, at the very least, she said, “I wish to see the chambermaid”. “Madam,” said he, politely, in his very best English, “Madam, she am I!”

It shows just how famous Shepheard’s was at this time that a regional paper in northern England would carry stories about the hotel and could assume that its readers would know the place they were writing about.

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The Fishing Fleet

Her first season

Before writing Grand Hotels of Egypt, I’d never come across the term ‘fishing fleet’ to mean anything other than the obvious. But as I discovered, it was also a term widely used in the 19th century to describe the boatloads of single women who arrived in Egypt each Season on the hunt for a husband. This is a forgotten bit of colonial history that’s now been put in the spotlight thanks to a book published last year, called The Fishing Fleet, and written by Anne De Courcy.

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De Courcy’s book doesn’t mention Egypt at all because it turns out the Fleet actually has its origins in India, 200 years previously. It existed from the late 17th century when the East India Company first shipped women out to Bombay as prospective brides for its officers out there. The Company was staffed by large numbers of young men sent out from Britain – they outnumbered the women four to one – who had little opportunity of finding a British bride, possibly not until until they retired and returned home. These men were well educated, well bred and well paid – in short, perfect husband material. The Company saw this as a business opportunity and charged British families desperate to make a match for unmarried daughters a fee to sail them out to India. There, they maintained the women for a year, during which time they were expected to find a mate. Women who failed to make a catch were sent back home and known as ‘Returned Empties’.

De Courcy doesn’t make success sound like much fun either. She quotes a Lady Canning who married and settled in Calcutta where her shoes turned ‘furry with mildew’ in a day and there were so many cockroaches that the wine glasses on the dinner table had to have lids to cover them. There’s a Waughesque account of a ball that suffered an invasion of blister-flies (earwig-like insects that could leave large and painful blisters on the skin): ‘Some crept up gentlemen’s sleeves, others concealed themselves in a jungle of whisker. One heard little else all evening but “Allow me, Sir, to take off this blister-fly that is disappearing into your neckcloth” or “Permit me, Ma’am, to remove this one from your arm”. This however did not stop the dancers and they polka’d and waltzed over countless myriads of insects that had been attracted to the white cloth on the floor, which was completely discoloured by their mangled bodies at the end of the evening.’

The Fishing Fleet began targeting Egypt after 1882, when Britain made the country a protectorate and flooded the place with civil service and soldiers (prior to this, India-bound husband-hunters had temporarily alighted at Port Said, where they stocked up on tropical supplies, like sun hats and fly whisks, at the large Simon Arzt store).

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Chaperoned by her mother, 19-year-old Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller came husband-hunting to Cairo for the 1910-1911 Season. The pair took up residence at the Gezira Palace. They went to five dances a week, and attended the races and polo games every afternoon at the neighbouring sports club. Her mother tried to broaden her mind by taking her to the Egyptian Museum, but when she suggested they should go up the Nile to see Luxor, the young girl protested passionately, saying that she was enjoying herself far too much to want to go and kick around dusty old monuments. Shortly after returning to England, she wrote a novel, which she called Snow Upon the Desert, which she set in Cairo and populated with characters modelled on people she’d seen at the Palace. It possibly wasn’t up to much because it never made it into print. Perhaps had she gone husband hunting in India rather than Cairo she might have had more colourful source material. Not that it mattered, because her next novel, written after she found herself a husband back in England, did considerably better, being published to some acclaim under her new married name of Agatha Christie.

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It’s just a flesh wound

Just posted on the always excellent boingboing.net:

The best opening paragraph on Wikipedia
Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO (5 May 1880–5 June 1963), was a British Army officer of Belgian and Irish descent. He served in the Boer War, First World War, and Second World War, was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear, survived a plane crash, tunneled out of a POW camp, and bit off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. He later said, “Frankly I had enjoyed the war”.

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This extraordinary character has strong links to Egypt. Although born into an aristocratic family in Brussels, at the age of six the household relocated to Cairo where Carton de Wiart’s father became a court magistrate and, later, a director of the Cairo Electric Railways, the company responsible for developing the suburb of Heliopolis. He dispatched his son back to England for schooling where, on graduating from Oxford, he joined the army and was sent off to fight in the Boer War, commencing his campaign to discard bits of his anatomy (by the end of World War I he was down his left hand, an eye and part of one ear). His mental faculties remained intact and he became a valued advisor to Churchill. In this capacity he was invited to attend the 1943 Cairo Conference, with Churchill, Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-Shek of the Republic of China, held at the residence of the American ambassador to Egypt, Alexander Kirk, near the Pyramids, and at the Mena House hotel. See, you knew there’d be a hotel link in there eventually.

Carton de Wiart is on the far right

Carton de Wiart is on the far right

Read the rest of the Carton de Wiart’s Wikipedia entry here.

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Ann Lees, former guest at Shepheard’s

My cousin Anthony, who lives on Alderney, called me recently to say that he’d lent his copy of Grand Hotels of Egypt to a friend of his on the island and that this person wanted to talk to me. I called her at the weekend. Her name is Ann Lees and I think she is possibly in her 80s. Her husband served in the Indian police until independence in 1947, and then went on to work as a British agent in Baghdad and Tehran. In 1949, Ann told me, they travelled out from the UK to the Middle East on the SS Canton, disembarking at Port Said and spent some time in Egypt. They stayed at Shepheard’s. Sixty-four years later Ann doesn’t really remember much about it except the bathrooms, which she says were “so big”, and also that there were numerous large vitrines in the corridors containing jewellery and objets d’art for sale. Her husband bought her a necklace, which she still has. She visited the Semiramis for dinner, where King Zog of Albania was in residence, and also the Mena House and Heliopolis Palace. Ann is only the second person I have spoken with who actually stayed at the original Shepheard’s – there can’t be too many people who did that are still around. Amazingly, Ann still has several mementoes of her Egypt trip (in addition to the necklace), which Anthony kindly photographed and which I’m posting below.

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Hollywood royalty in Egypt

Silent Couple

My last post mentioned in passing the fact that Hollywood golden couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had added their signatures to the Winter Palace Golden Book in November 1929. At the time they were just about two of the biggest names in cinema, partners with Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffiths in the founding of United Artists production studios, while in May of 1929 Fairbanks had been the host for the first ever Oscars ceremony. The Egyptian Gazette of 4 November 1929 reported on the pair’s visit to Egypt, noting that they were, “Better known and better loved than any other couple in the whole world”. They arrived in Alexandria on the SS Rashid of the Khedivial Mail Line and took a short tour of the town before they were driven to the station to catch the midday train to Cairo. Fairbanks told the waiting crowds at the station, “I’m just mad about Egypt”.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in Luxor with the manager of the Winter Palace, Anton Badrutt

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in Luxor with the manager of the Winter Palace, Anton Badrutt

They stayed at Shepheard’s where they were interviewed by a correspondent from the Gazette who asked what Fairbanks thought of the talkies: “The talkies are a wonderful invention,” he replied, “and have a great future but so far the talking has been exaggerated.” He then reportedly gave a demonstration in his room of how he leapt from the bough of a tree to a windowsill 30 feet away. In Cairo, they were shown round the Egyptian Museum by Howard Carter, before travelling up the Nile to Luxor. The paper says they were due to leave Egypt on 12 November bound for the next stop on their world tour, which was Colombo.

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