Sirena’s creamy skin was wealed with lash marks, old and new!

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“Every city has its something. Rome has St Peter’s. Peking has its Summer Palace. Moscow has the Kremlin. In Madrid there’s the Prado. In New York there’s the Empire State. Constantinople has St Sophia. Cairo has Shepheard’s.”

If it seems like this site seems to bang on about Shepheard’s hotel a lot, maybe the quote above goes some way to explaining why. It comes from the 1945 novel London Belongs to Me, written by author Norman Collins, which is a gritty slice of wartime British realism. What it illustrates is how familiar British readers were with the glamorous, internationally renowned Cairo hotel – it suggests that as a shorthand for the city, Shepheard’s was maybe even more familiar than the Pyramids or the Egyptian Museum. I was reading another canonical English novel recently, Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, written in 1959, and Shepheard’s is namechecked in that, too.

The hotel’s fame and appeal to writers in the English language dates back far beyond the 1940s and ’50s. In 1893, a reporter named Richard Harding Davis in a book called The Rulers of the Mediterranean, noted, ‘Shepheard’s is so historical, and its terrace has been made the scene of so many novels [my italics], that all sorts of amusing people go there, from sultans to the last man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, and its terrace is like a private box at a mask ball.’

I’ve no idea what those 19th century novels were that featured Shepheard’s, they’re long gone, but there is a vintage genre of fiction in which Shepheard’s frequently cropped up that is still read, and that’s pulp.

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Cairo was rich pickings for pulp writers: labyrinthine souks, inhospitable deserts, mighty pharaohs and ancient gods, treasures buried deep beneath the sands… and remote enough from the average reader’s experience that a writer could get away with all kinds of distortions, exaggerations and stereotyping, not to mention outright racism. Weird tales writer HP Lovecraft took a swerve from his usual New England setting to collaborate with Harry Houdini on the story ‘Under the Pyramids’, which had the famous escapologist visiting Egypt and becoming imprisoned inside one of its most famous monuments, but not before a stop off at Shepheard’s:

“We stopped at Shepherd’s Hotel, reached in a taxi that sped along broad, smartly built-up streets; and amidst the perfect service of its restaurant, elevators, and generally Anglo-American luxuries the mysterious East and immemorial past seemed very far away.

The next day, however, precipitated us delightfully into the heart of the Arabian Nights atmosphere; and in the winding ways and exotic skyline of Cairo, the Bagdad of Haroun-al-Raschid seemed to live again. Guided by our Baedeker, we had struck east past the Ezbekiyeh Gardens along the Mouski in quest of the native quarter, and were soon in the hands of a clamorous cicerone who – notwithstanding later developments – was assuredly a master at his trade.”

Lovecraft never visited Egypt and, like the story’s protagonist, he probably gained all his information from a Baedeker, but not so other pulp writers, as reported in the Egyptian Gazette of 15 April 1929:

“There is an immense fascination about Egypt which never fails to appeal to imaginative folk and it is not surprising therefore that many well-known authors are constant visitors to this country. Just at the moment Mr Sax Rohmer, whose works include a number of stories with an Egyptian setting, is staying at Shepheard’s. Mr Robert Hichens, who is a very regular visitor to Egypt – one might almost call him a resident here – is staying at Mena House. Mr AEW Mason spent the greater part of the winter in Aswan and Cairo, and Mr Rudyard Kipling, who finds this country so much to his liking that he is engaged in writing a book about it, only left these shores a short time ago.”

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Kipling’s no pulp writer but Hichens wrote supernatural fiction and Mason turned out detective stories (as well as the novel The Four Feathers), while Rohmer is the pulpiest of the pulp, creator of the brilliantly over-the-top stories of master-criminal Fu Manchu. In 13 bestselling books and at least as many film adaptations, Fu Manchu plots to take over the world, only to be constantly thwarted (in the early books, at least) by the dogged colonial police commissioner Nayland Smith. Although Fu Manchu was Chinese, the orient was the orient and Rohmer’s stories freely mixed the eastern Asian with the Middle Eastern and North African. The wily Fu Manchu was as liable to pop up in Cairo as Shanghai or London’s Limehouse. Rohmer also wrote reams of stories and novels that did not feature Fu Manchu, and many of these were set in Egypt, a country with which he had a deep fascination.

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Apparently Shepheard’s was one of his favourite hotels; he once met Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, on its terrace, and it crops up numerous times in his novels (including in Brood of the Witch Queen, 1918, and Daughter of Fu Manchu, 1931) and short story collections (including Tales of Secret Egypt, 1918). There was even a short story called ‘A Date at Shepheard’s’ published in Blue Book magazine, a slight tale of a mysterious woman imprisoned in room 34B.

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Rohmer’s frequent namechecking of the hotel apparently paid off: in his author’s biography in the Blue Book, the editors claim that Rohmer (who died in 1959) never had to pay a bill at Shepheard’s. The practice of product placement has been around a lot longer than you imagined.

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KEMical warfare

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Found on ebay, this postcard depicting arrivals at Shepheard’s heading for reception past an intimidatingly large phalanx of tarboosh-topped staff (all of whom would be looking to squeeze as much baksheesh as they could from the newcomers during the course of their stay). It was posted from the hotel (the stamp on the reverse has a Shepheard’s Hotel frank) to an address in Paris in 1934.

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The cartoon is signed ‘Kem’; this was the pen-name of Kimon Evan Marengo, born in 1904 in Egypt, the son of Evangelos Marangos, a Greek cotton merchant. He grew up in Alexandria and from 1923 to 1931 he edited and contributed to a political weekly called Maalesh. In 1929 he moved to Paris and then in 1939 went to Oxford University, where his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war. He ended up working for the British Foreign Office as political adviser on the Middle East, producing cartoons, postcards, posters and other propaganda material, notably pin-cushions in which the pins were stuck into the backsides of Mussolini and Hitler. He also acted as a war correspondent and was later awarded the Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre. In 1956 his family lost everything when Nasser nationalised the Egyptian cotton industry and Marengo remained in the UK, dying in London in 1988.

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Fauvism comes to Shepheard’s

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The painting above is new to me – I stumbled across this image online only last week. It’s titled ‘At Shepheard’s Restaurant’ and it was painted in 1928 by Dutch-French artist Kees van Dongen. I’d only vaguely heard of van Dongen. I knew he was a Fauvist, part of that colourfully slapdash group that grasped the baton from Impressionism in France in the early years of the 20th century and whose leading light was Henri Matisse. What I didn’t know was that, like Matisse, who was majorly inspired by his travels in Morocco, van Dongen also went looking for inspiration in North Africa. Around the same time Matisse was in Tangier (1912–13), van Dongen was in Egypt. But whereas Matisse saw Morocco through Orientalist eyes, knocking out a series of bare-breasted odalisques, van Dongen carried with him his preoccupations from Paris, which notably included nightlife, partying, high society and pretty women. These he apparently found at Cairo’s hotels and also, it seems, cafes, judging by the painting below (titled ‘The Cairo Bar’).

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Van Dongen wasn’t totally immune to the temptations of Orientalism, however; he also produced a series of lurid illustrations for an edition of the Arabian Nights that would have titillated European readers with its significant nipple count.

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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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More light on Lance

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I’ve written about the artist Lance Thackeray before on this site – click on the link in the word cloud to the right. What I like about him – and, again, I have said this before – is not only was he a brilliantly talented draughtsman, but unlike most foreign visitors to Egypt in the early 20th century he seems refreshingly free of condescension toward the country and its people. Instead, he tended to poke fun at his fellow travellers, who in his drawings frequently appear as figures of ridicule, fat, out-of-breath, over-dressed, sunburnt, falling asleep in temples…

The man himself, though, has always been a bit of mystery. I managed to find out very little about him. That has recently changed a little with the appearance of a new book, Lance Thackeray: His Life & Art by historian Tom Askey.

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Askey’s interest is in Edwardian illustrators and the book is good at placing Thackeray in the context of his time. He was part of a busy London sketching-and-socialising scene that regularly met in upstairs rooms and boozed with ink brushes to hand. He was moderately successful, landing commissions to illustrate several books and being sent off to America by Tatler. How he ended up in Egypt isn’t quite explained but it may have something to do with the Orientalist painter Robert Talbot Kelly, who’d settled in Egypt in 1883 and published a book called Egypt Painted and Described in 1902. According to Askey, the two artists knew each other and it’s possible Talbot Kelly sold Thackeray on the idea of heading out to Cairo and doing a book of his own (that’s Lance, at the top of this post, sketching in Egypt). When Thackeray’s book, The Light Side of Egypt, appeared in 1907, it was with the same publisher that put out Talbot Kelly’s book.

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Askey’s book lacks any details of Thackeray’s time in Egypt. If the artist kept any journals, they haven’t survived. There are no letters, no diaries, no private papers. Thackeray never married and there are no descendants with any kind of archive. Askey has had to stitch together a life out of fragments scattered in public records and newspaper notices.

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One of his discoveries, though, was the catalogue to a July 1908 exhibition held at the Leicester Galleries on Leicester Square, London, shared between Thackeray and Talbot Kelly. Talbot Kelly had sixty watercolours in the show, Thackery had sixty-six. The catalogue lists the titles of the works and thirty-six of these paintings are included in The Light Side of Egypt. The other thirty are lost. It was a selling exhibition, so some of them could still be in private hands and may one day resurface. One of the pieces in the show, reproduced in the book, was a sketch of a mule throwing its guidebook-carrying rider, entitled ‘A Stopping Place on the Nile’. It turned up on ebay a few years ago. It now hangs above my desk.

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The Cataract aka the ‘Grand Hotel’

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Nice to see Aswan’s Cataract hotel enjoying plenty of screen-time as it takes the lead role in the ritzy Ramadan TV series Grand Hotel. I have only seen the first two episodes so far but there are lots of scenes in the hotel’s Nile-side gardens and some on the terrace with its views of the river and desert beyond. But it seems the production wasn’t given permission to film inside the hotel because the interiors – at least in the first two episodes – were definitely not shot at the Cataract.

In honour of the series, here are a few things you may or may not know about the Cataract.

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It was built by Cook & Son

The hotel was financed by the English travel company Thomas Cook & Son. The railway had arrived in Aswan in 1898, bringing far more visitors to the town than the existing hotels could cope with. For a few seasons Cook & Son had been accommodating some of these tourists on one of its Nile cruisers, which was permanently moored on the Corniche at Aswan as a floating hotel. In 1899, the company decided to address the problem by commissioning a grand new hotel.

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Mummies were harmed in the construction
Construction began in 1899 on nine feddans bought from the state. There was considerable controversy when Al-Ahram reported that workmen leveling the driveway to the hotel had come upon two hundred mummies which they then destroyed with their picks.

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It was an immediate hit
The hotel opened to guests on 8 January 1900. It was two storeys high with 120 rooms, the majority south-facing with balconies overlooking the Nile. Forty more bedrooms were added later that year but the following season the number of visitors was so great that tents had to be erected in the grounds to house the overflow. So in 1902, the hotel gained a third story with an additional sixty rooms, bringing the total number of rooms to 220.

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It was critically acclaimed
The architect of the hotel was an Englishman with the very un-English name of Henri Favarger. He was the same architect responsible for the Mena House out by the Pyramids in Cairo. The highlight of the Mena House was Favarger’s Moorish dining hall and at the Cataract he created an even more dramatic dining space, a great octagonal, double-height hall topped by a central dome seventy-five feet high. The press described it as “unmatched even in Europe”. You can still see Favarger’s name etched into a stone at the foot of one of the columns.

…but not by everybody
Not everyone was a fan of the hotel. French travel writer Pierre Loti, who was generally appalled by the Europeanisation of Egypt. “Cook & Son have even gone so far as to conceive the idea that it would be original to give to their establishment a certain cachet of Islam. And the dining-room reproduces the interior of one of the mosques of Stamboul. At the luncheon hour,” he wrote with dripping sarcasm, “it is one of the prettiest sights in the world to see, under this imitation holy cupola, all the little tables crowded with Cook’s tourists of both sexes, while a concealed orchestra strikes up the Mattchiche.” English travel writer Douglas Sladen was almost as scathing: he thought the hotel looked like a county asylum.

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There is no evidence Agatha Christie stayed at the Cataract
Despite the claims of the hotel – and everybody else taking these claims as fact – there is no evidence Agatha Christie ever stayed at the Cataract. She holidayed in Egypt twice in the early 1930s and passed through Aswan on a Nile cruise. Her descriptions of the hotel in her twenty-second novel, Death on the Nile, prove that she certainly visited the hotel but passengers on Nile cruises tended to sleep in their cabins on the boats while in Upper Egypt. I’m not saying categorically she did not take a room at the Cataract, simply that there is no evidence to say she did.

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It attracted repeat visitors
A Lord Benbrook, a regular guest at the hotel, once arrived at the terrace to find his favorite table taken and informed the seated party that the table was reserved. “Since when,” asked the occupant. “Since twenty years,” Benbrook replied. Another regular was regular was Sultan Muhammad Shah, better known as Aga Khan III. After his first stay in 1937, when he and his new bride honeymooned at the Cataract, he reserved a suite at the hotel every year during the winter months. Before his death in 1957, he requested to be buried in Aswan and his mausoleum faces the Cataract from the top of a sandy hill across on the far side of the Nile.

…and repeat offenders
Egyptian royalty, on occasion, also favored the Cataract. King Farouk visiting for the 1941–42 season took an entire floor. According to stories doing the rounds at the time, the King enjoyed taking potshots from his balcony at the little Nubian boys paddling their boats on the river below. True or not, it says a lot about Farouk that such a story was so widely circulated.

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There is a painting of it in a Cairo museum
Maybe because it is so far from Cairo, but the Cataract was never written about or photographed as much as most of Egypt’s other grand hotels. It is, though, the only hotel to feature in a Cairo museum. This is a painting done in 1948 by Shaaban Zaky, a self-taught artist and railway employee, who travelled Egypt with his easel and brushes, and you’ll find it in the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art on Gezira.

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Cairo in vintage photos

Joanne Woon just posted a comment on this site to alert me to an image of the Muski taken around 1900 that shows a street sign for the Hotel du Nil (click twice on the photo to enlarge). This hotel was rare among Cairo hotels in that it wasn’t in the modern city but hidden away in an alley deep in Islamic Cairo.

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It comes from a set of wonderful photos mostly taken in the 1930s sourced from the Library of Congress, which was an invaluable source when it came to finding images to include in Grand Hotels of Cairo (less so for On the Nile). Point your browser over that way and you could spend hours lost in its image archive.

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This could almost have been taken in taken in the last 20th century until you notice the guy at the far right in his Edwardian pith helmet.

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What really dates the photo above is how clean it is. I’ve certainly never seen it like that. The images in this post and several more can also all be found here.

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Shepheard’s in photographs

Although no physical trace of the original Shepheard’s hotel remains, it was well documented while it stood. It was the subject of several photo essays in international magazines including Life and, I think, Picture Post. The hotel’s earlier incarnation (before the 1890 rebuild) was captured by several of the pioneering Middle Eastern photographers including Bonfils and Sebah. When it came to selecting images for Grand Hotels, we were spoiled for choice, and we were only able to include the merest fraction of what was available. I thought I might post some of those images that did not make the cut here. This particular set, below, dates from 1948, so just four years before the hotel was burned down.

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The chap behind the counter here is bartender Joe Scialom: if you don’t know about Joe, then go here.

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A rare Richter poster

A chap named David Hopper added a comment on this site last week mentioning he had a poster that recycled one of the designs used on the cover of an Anglo-American Nile Company brochure. He kindly sent me an image with permission to post here:

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It’s a fabulous thing and, as far as I know, very rare – I’ve never seen a poster for the Anglo-American company. He tells me it’s 39 1/2 x 25 inches and going by the date on the brochure with which it shares a design, it probably dates from around 1929/1930.

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Also interesting is that it was designed and printed by the well known Richter & Co of Naples, a company responsible for designing and printing many of the fine luggage labels and advertising material put out by Egypt’s top hotels, including Shepheard’s, the Winter Palace and Cataract. The Anglo-American company spent years overshadowed by the more commercially successful Thomas Cook Nile services and subsequently largely vanished from history while the Thomas Cook name lives on. Thanks to Richter it can at least boast the better graphics.

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Wonderful things

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I mentioned a few posts back that there had been some amends made for the paperback edition of Grand Hotels. Chief of these was correcting a big mistake of mine, which was to attribute the design of the 1890 rebuild of Shepheard’s hotel to the English architect George Somers Clarke. I was repeating a claim published elsewhere without testing the truth of it. In my defence, information on the architects of hotels built in the 19th century was and is hard to come by.

You’d imagine that for an institution as famous as Shepheard’s, everything about it would be thoroughly documented but this is not the case. Not even the daily newspapers of the time, which reported at length on the remodeling and relaunch of the hotel, bothered to credit the architect. Hats off then to Tarek Ibrahim, a researcher at the Humboldt University of Berlin who has succeeded where I failed and managed to identify the real architect. A name in an old Shepheard’s brochure led him to a castle in Bavaria where he gained confirmation that the architect was a German named Johann Adam Rennebaum. This is not a well known name. In fact, I think few architectural historians that specialise in 19th-century Cairo have even heard of him. But apparently he was a long-term resident of Egypt, who designed villas for members of the German community in Alexandria and a number of buildings for Belgian enterprises in Cairo. It appears he was also involved in restorations of some of Cairo’s most important mosques including Ibn Tulun, Sultan Hassan and Al-Azhar.

But Tarek’s real find was in Bavaria. He discovered that Rennebaum’s ancestors still had a dusty tower room filled with their ancestor’s belongings (he died in 1937). These include sketchbooks, photographs, and plans and preparatory drawings for details of the décor in Shepheard’s, as well as items of furniture that may possibly have come from the hotel. Tarek told me he felt like Carter discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb. The pictures in this post were sent to me by Tarek.

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Tarek is now hoping to find sponsors to fund the restoration of the furniture, which is in a fairly bad way, with a possible view to a future exhibition. He’s also hoping to write a book on Rennebaum and Shepheard’s. It’s amazing news.

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