Monthly Archives: November 2017

Investing in Grand Hotels

I assure you, I don’t spend all my time checking how my books are doing on Amazon. But earlier today a friend emailed to say I should take a look. A while ago Grand Hotels of Egypt sold out in hardback and is now only available in paperback. Of course, anything that’s scarce goes up in value, but take a look at this (click on the image to enlarge):

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 13.50.57

One hundred and thirteen pounds and nineteen pence! That’s crazy. But considerably less crazy than this:

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 13.51.14

I think the hardback originally sold at a full cover price of £30, so if these Amazon sellers are to be believed it has now increased in value to the tune of over 2000%. Not even central London property gives that sort of return. When we launched the book with a party in 2012, we sold 120 copies that night, which I am now severely regretting. If I’d kept all those books for myself and just sat on them, I’d be looking at a stash worth over £80,000. Instead, I only have two or three copies. Tell you what though, I’ll do you a deal, one could be yours for just a nice round £670.

1 Comment

Filed under Book news

In the company of TH Usborne esq

USBORNECover

I own a small grey-blue volume titled Usborne’s Guide to Egypt and the Levant. It is aged and worn, and really doesn’t look like much, but it’s a book that fascinates me. Published in 1840, it is, as far as I know, the earliest proper guidebook to Egypt. By ‘proper guidebook’ I mean not an account of a journey, but specifically a book of practical information compiled to help those who would travel in the author’s footsteps. The best-known such guides in the 19th century were those published by the firms of John Murray and Karl Baedeker, but the first Murray’s Handbook to Egypt would not be published until 1847 and the first Baedeker on Egypt didn’t appear until 1877. Which makes Usborne’s guide a real trailblazer – but also something of a mystery.

USBORNEtitlepage

TH Usborne of St James’s Square, London, is the author not the publisher and that is the sum total of everything I know about him. (Ziad Morsi, a student at Southampton University, has succeeding in uncovering some solid biographical information – see the comments section.) As far as I’ve been able to discover, there are no other Usborne guides. The publisher is Cradock & Co (formerly Baldwin & Cradock) of Paternoster Row, London, a company about which little information exists, although a search on the internet throws up a handful of its other titles, including Guy’s British Spelling Book, A Manual of Music, The Flower Gardener’s Manual, The Fruit Gardener’s Manual, Domestic Brewing and The Steam Engine: Familiarly Described with a Brief Account of its History and Uses. All these were published in the 1840s and early 1850s, suggesting the company was short lived. The only other guidebook Cradock & Co seems to have published was Madeira: Its Climate and Scenery by Robert White.

Judging by his introduction to the Guide to Egypt and the Levant, Usborne appears to have been a bit of a chancer: ‘Without having decided on any particular course of travel, I left England in the winter of 1837, and betook myself to the shores of the Mediterranean,’ he writes. The lack of planning, he goes on to explain, caused him to spend both time and money unprofitably, and so he penned his guide to prevent others from repeating the worst of his mistakes. Usborne’s audience was not the leisure traveller but ‘East Indians’, who were the soldiers and civil servants of the British Empire enroute from England to postings in India. A sizeable number of pages are spent detailing the arrangements of mail-pioneer Mr Thomas Waghorn for processing transients on from Alexandria by boat up to Cairo and then, by either small spring cart (known as omnibuses), donkey litter or camel, across the Eastern Desert to Suez and a boat bound for Bombay.

DesertStation
One of Waghorn’s desert stations, from the Illustrated London News, 1857

Coverage of the sights of Cairo and Upper Egypt is offered as an add-on for anyone wishing to break their journey. Except, Usborne doesn’t think anyone should dally for too long. Of Cairo’s 300 mosques he declares only three are worth visiting. He highlights the slave market and dancing girls, and devotes several pages to a description of a extremely dull performance by a magician of dubious credentials. Out at the Pyramids, the great monument of Cheops gets four lines but there is close to a whole page on the nearby ovens used to aid the hatching of chicks.

Usborne’s knowledge of ancient Egypt is next to non-existent, so the monuments of Upper Egypt are covered in the skimpiest of fashion. It’s not that long since Henry Salt had engaged Belzoni to treasure hunt at Thebes and both these gentlemen feature in the guide, as their names probably meant more to readers at this time than the names of any pharaoh. One of the most detailed descriptions concerns ‘Belzoni’s Tomb’ (below, in an 1855 watercolour by George de General Sausmarez), better known these days as the tomb of Seti I. Usborne reached Aswan but went no further – he possibly never even saw Philae as it gets just a single sentence in his book. Abu Simbel does not feature at all.

2012FJ9843_jpg_l

With a profusion its timetables and lists of prices (although no maps), Usborne’s guide would have done a good job of getting the traveller to Egypt and beyond (it goes on to cover Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Andalusia) but it would not have helped them learn much along the way. In fact, the author’s love of a good yarn makes the guide positively disinformational – he describes a venomous tarantula found in Upper Egypt that derives its poison from feeding on the bodies of the dead.

I have never seen another copy of this rarest of Egypt guidebooks, although I’m told one came up for auction in London about ten years ago. If anybody knows anything at all about TH Usborne esq, please do get in touch.

1 Comment

Filed under Baedeker and other guides

For Sleeping Or ‘Purposes’

Plaque

I received an email last week with the above image attached. The sender bought the item in an antiques shop. It measures 137 by 97 mm and appears to be made of brass. The text seems to be advertising the hotel management’s ability to go way beyond the normal expectations of service in providing prostitutes and rent boys for those who should require them. The sender wanted to know if I knew anything about it and whether it was an original item. The short answer is I don’t know, but there was and, indeed, still is a Grand Hotel in Cairo. It’s Downtown, on 26th July Street at the junction with Talaat Harb. It’s not a particularly old establishment, dating back only to the 1940s or ’50s, as you can see in the images below.

10332964036_2807695b59_b

58857a5f44a9980974224622d0002b38--vintage-luggage-vintage-travel

Despite the name, I don’t think it was ever a salubrious establishment, not a place that would attract the better class of visitor. It probably, like many, second- and third-tier establishments catered for longer-term visitors – military, civil servants, business types, people that needed temporary lodgings for a few weeks or months. I guess such a sign as the one above might conceivably have hung at a hotel reception in the 1940s when the city was flooded with soldiers, but it is unlikely. It certainly would not have been displayed after the Revolution, when stricter morals prevailed. My feeling is given the generic nature of the hotel name and the design that this is a joke item. Having said that, I could be wrong – a sign in a favourite bar in Alexandria (sadly now closed) used to read ‘No service in pyjamas and no spitting on the floor’, and that was entirely genuine having hung in place since at least the 1960s. Anyway, if anyone knows anything about the plaque that is the subject of this post, do get in touch.

3 Comments

Filed under Grand hotels, Hotels then and now, Travellers' tales

The Nile Hilton Incident

3483629e55dc3d2ecc0f583cc15800c0

Cairo’s Zawya Cinema announced this week that Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident, which was set to screen as part of a festival programme, is not going to be shown after all. The cinema cited ‘involuntary circumstances’. In other words, state censorship. Shame. It’s a very good film. I saw it in Paris over summer – appropriately enough at the gorgeous Louxor cinema – where, as Le Caire confidentiel, it seemed to be doing well, enjoying extended runs all over town. The screening I attended was a sell-out.

The issue is almost certainly the film’s head-on depiction of police corruption. At the crime scene that gives the film its English title, the investigating officers sit around a hotel room with a young woman lying in a pool of blood at their feet, while they blithely use the toilet and have room service deliver food. It’s comical but also chilling – they aren’t just trashing a crime scene, they’re blatant in their disinterest in investigating this violent death. Somehow, it feels wholly believable.

Also believable is the film’s portrayal of an incendiary Cairo, immediately prior to the January 2011 Revolution, this even though Saleh shot most of the film in Casablanca, after he failed to secure a permit to shoot in Egypt. (Although the real Cairo features in some guerilla film-making, shot stealthily from a moving car.)

I’ve no idea where in Casablanca stands in for the Nile Hilton, location for the murder that kicks off the film, but, really, any anonymous interior would do. I have never been a fan of the hotel that was the Nile Hilton, and neither the passing of time (the building turned 58 this year) or the new love currently being shown for Brutalist architecture is likely to alter my view.

nile_hilton

The Hilton landed in Cairo in 1959, the first international hotel in the post-WWII Middle East and the second Hilton International after Istanbul’s (1955). It was a new form of sleek, all-mod-cons hotel for the nascent jet age. As the ad put it, ‘Modern as a TWA Jetstream’. The Hiltons were quite literally ‘little Americas’, constructed in key foreign cities, in Conrad Hilton’s own words, ‘to show the countries most exposed to Communism the other side of the coin’. With lawns, swimming pools, tennis courts, cocktail lounges, air-conditioning, international phone lines, iced water, cheeseburgers and soda fountains, they were adverts for a bountiful American way of life.

nileh

If the Nile Hilton wasn’t the first modernist structure in Cairo, it was certainly one of the first. It was one of three adjacent structures erected by Nasser’s government on the site of the former British Army barracks: the Arab League building, the hotel and the Cairo Municipality, which later became the NDP headquarters until it was set ablaze during the Revolution and subsequently demolished. In line with Hilton International policy, the hotel was constructed with Egyptian state funds and operated on a lease by the American hotel chain. Which is all well and good: why shouldn’t the new Egyptian government have a new shiny modern international hotel?

Hilton_and_cathedral1

My issue is that these hotels were deliberately designed to dominate the city – the Nile Hilton was Cairo’s tallest building on its completion – yet at the same time they stood in deliberation isolation. Earlier hotels, like the Continental-Savoy, Semiramis and Shepheard’s, may have been ‘grand’ but they were very much a part of the city, and they engaged with it. Their outdoor terraces provided a space from which hotel guests not only observed but interacted with life on the street. By contrast, the new Hilton was intended as a sealed bubble, protecting guests from the volatile and possibly hostile environment outside. Most of the 400 rooms on the 14 or so floors turned their backs on central Cairo and faced toward the distant Pyramids and desert. Visitors were encouraged to literally overlook modern Cairo in favour of its antique past. Helpfully, the Egyptian Museum was right next door. This was the start of a shift that now sees many new hotels now being built out near the Pyramids, with the Egyptian government obliging by siting the new Grand Egyptian Museum at the Giza Plateau. In the very near future no tourist will have any reason to visit central Cairo.

The Nile Hilton closed in 2009. Following extensive renovations it reopened in 2015 under new management as the Nile Ritz-Carlton. The rebranded hotel is even more remote from the city than it ever was. The semi-public shopping plaza that used to connect the Nile Hilton to Tahrir Square is gone. Now, once you pass through the security block there is just an empty expanse, devoid of people and life, to cross in order to reach the lobby. Few guests, you imagine, enter or leave this hotel on foot. Inside, the hotel has undergone a massive upgrade – the Ritz-Carlton is a far more upmarket proposition than a Hilton. With its marble and carpets, faux Oriental trimmings, chintzy art and OTT floral displays, it is less ‘little America’ than ‘wannabe Dubai’.

8635c2b5522350e8c64b15dcd45a39ed

Dubai is, of course, where the real-life case that inspired The Nile Hilton Incident occurred – the 2008 murder of Lebanese diva Suzanne Tamim by former police officer, Mohsen al-Sukkari, who was hired by Egyptian tycoon Hisham Talaat Moustafa for the sum of two million Egyptian pounds. Al-Sukkari was sentenced to 25 years in jail, Talaat Moustafa to 15. After serving just nine years of his sentence, Talaat Moustafa was released this June, pardoned by President Sisi.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Hotels then and now