Tag Archives: Baedeker guides

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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The Winter Palace and Luxor Hotel: a case of mistaken identity?

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:

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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.

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Tut, tut! Miss Lucy!

I’ve just finished reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I’m a little late to the party, I know, but the sparkly chick-lit packaging of the UK edition put me off. It wasn’t until I found the US paperback with its more grown-up, Condé Nast archive photo on the cover that I felt able to buy the book. I’m glad I did. The plot’s thin (two girls meet boy in a Greenwich Village jazz club on New Year’s Eve 1937) but the evocation of the Manhattan high-life of the late Thirties is fantastic. The writing is whip-smart F Scott Fitzgerald meets Raymond Chandler: “I was just finishing a countersuit to be typed out in triplicate, getting ready to mope my way home, when out of the corner of my eye I saw Charlotte Sykes approaching from the washrooms. She had changed into high heels and a tangerine-coloured blouse that clashed with all her best intentions.

The verve and gutsiness of several of the women in the book reminds me of Lee Miller, who if you’ve read my earlier post you’ll know I hold in some esteem. And if you haven’t read my earlier post (Lee Miller invades the Long Bar) read it now and then this:

She pointed back up Seventh Street.

—I know a cute little place right up here. I’ll buy you a beer. We’ll catch up. It’ll be a gas.

The cute little place turned out to be an old Irish bar. Over the front door a sign read: GOOD ALE, RAW ONIONS, NO LADIES.

—I think that means us.

—Cmon, Fran said. Don’t be such a Patsy.

See what I mean?

This also delighted me:

—What’d you buy?

He didn’t know what she was referring to.

She pointed.

He’d forgotten that he still had the bookseller’s bag in his hand.

—A Baedeker’s, he said. I thought we might see some of the sights later.

I always get excited by the casual namedropping of a Victorian-era guidebook, and there’s no finer guidebook name to drop than that of Baedeker. EM Forster knew it too. In A Room with a View Lucy Honeychurch is directed around Italy by her little red guidebook – that is until she encounters the lady novelist Eleanor Lavish: “Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker,” says Ms Lavish and confiscates the guide to leave Lucy exposed and defenceless, with the result she’s led astray to ultimately elope with a young gentleman admirer. That’s what happens when you lose your Baedeker.

The Lonely Planets of their day, these guides were put out by Karl Baedeker, a German publisher, who after seeing some early Murray’s Handbooks (see my previous post) was inspired to copy them. (Karl Baedeker openly acknowledged the debt and became good friends with John Murray, although many years later the latter would accuse the former of plagiarism.) The first Baedeker guides were published in the 1830s, in German, and covered Rheinreisse (Travel along the Rhine), Moselreisse, and Holland, Belgium and Switzerland. The series sported distinctive red cloth covers and the books were the size of a portable Bible, printed on similarly thin, almost tissue-like paper (Murray’s Handbooks at this time all had brown covers but they later switched to a similar shade of blushing red to their competitors). After Karl’s death in 1859, his son Ernst took over and under his direction the company introduced editions in English, expanding coverage beyond the German hinterlands to Britain, the Mediterranean, Russia, America and the Near East: a guide to Lower Egypt was published in 1878, joined by a guide to Upper Egypt in 1892, before the two were combined in a single Egypt guide in 1898.

This new edition condensed the two previous volumes into a single book of about 600 tightly typed pages, including 22 maps, 55 plans, and 66 engraved views and vignettes. It’s a staggering piece of work, and one that for the most part holds up well today, if you can make allowances for sections such as that headed ‘Intercourse with Orientals’ in which the paternalism strays into outright condescension: “[The traveller] should bear in mind that many of the natives with whom he comes in contact are mere children, whose waywardness should excite compassion rather than anger”.

There’s a terrific essay on the Baedeker phenomenon by someone called Edward Mendelson, who at the time he wrote it was an English professor at Columbia, in which he describes Karl Baedeker as “Europe’s ideal parent”. He goes on to describe beautifully what Baedeker was about: “he did more for his readers than guide their way to agreeable hotels, picturesque churches, and sublime vistas. He also set an example of private and public virtues ranging from thrift to patriotism, comforted the timid and encouraged the daring, taught the proper response to courtesy or cunning, combined moral probity with practical wisdom, and even while warning his readers away from unseemly pleasures let slip the knowledge of where they might be found.” You can read the rest of it here.

Under a succession of sons and grandsons, the company continued to thrive. One of the innovations introduced was a star system, marking with an asterisk the points of interest that travellers in a hurry shouldn’t miss. Later a second asterisk was added for doubly unmissables. ‘To Baedeker’ became a verb meaning to travel. Such was the authority of the books that the Nazis employed them in 1942 when they threatened to bomb every two-star building in Baedeker’s guide to Britain. The British response came on the night of 3 December 1943, when the RAF obliterated large parts of Leipzig, and with it, all the stocks and practically all the records of the Baedeker publishing house.

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Never hurry a Murray

Apologies but this is going to be a wordy post. One of the reasons for creating this site was to provide a home for all the bits that didn’t make into the Grand Hotels book (for reasons of space – not because they were rubbish). One element that, with great reluctance, I had to jettison was an appendix I’d written on the wonderful old guidebooks of the 19th century, the Murray’s, Baedeker’s and Thomas Cook’s. So over the next few weeks in a series of posts I’m going to recycle that material here. It’s a bit hardcore and geeky, but then isn’t that what the internet is for?

Long before I started writing Grand Hotels I was a big fan of old 19th-century guidebooks. Hardly surprising, given that for several years I wrote guidebooks for a living. From 1993 onwards, I indulged a fetish for unloved regimes covering places like Kaliningrad, Siberia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran and Syria for Lonely Planet. When the basketcase countries ran out I returned to Egypt and did several editions of a guide to the country, as well as a spin-off stand-alone title on Cairo, which ran to two editions before it was shelved due to lack of interest. I developed a profound admiration for the work of those who trod this path before me. It was arduous enough researching a guidebook with planes, trains, air-con coaches, telephones and the internet at my disposal – how much more difficult must it have been to do the job 150 years earlier?

Some of the earliest guidebooks are, understandably, a bit suspect. The oldest one I’ve got is Usborne’s Guide to Egypt and the Levant, published in 1840, which blithely advises that although there are around 300 mosques in Cairo only three of these are really worth visiting, and warns travellers of tarantula spiders of a “very large size” which it says are extremely venomous and derive their poison from feeding on the bodies of the dead.

But the quality of the information quickly got a lot better. Just seven years later, the first proper dedicated guide to Egypt was published by John Murray of London (est 1768), pioneers in the field of guidebooks. John Murray III, grandson of the company founder, took a trip round the Continent in 1829. He travelled without a guidebook for the simple reason such a thing didn’t exist, an omission he set about righting on his return. “I set to work to collect for myself all the facts, information, statistics, &c … which an English tourist would be likely to require or find useful. I travelled thus, note-book in hand.” There were several exhaustive research trips, which Murray wrote up and then had friends go out and test his “Routes”. It wasn’t until 1836 that the finished book –Handbook for Travellers on the Continent – was ready. It was swiftly followed by “Handbooks” to Southern Germany (1837), Switzerland (1838) and Northern Europe: Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Russia (1839). Murray wrote the first two himself, but by the third had begun to recruit collaborators.

For Egypt he contracted John Gardner Wilkinson, who had spent the years 1821-1833 in Egypt, a stay that resulted in the seminal work of Egyptology Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, published in three volumes in 1837. For John Murray, Wilkinson returned to Egypt in 1842 and the first Handbook for Travellers in Egypt was published five years later. (For comparison, as a Lonely Planet writer I would get six months to research and write a new book.)

Between 1847 and 1907, Murray’s Egypt Handbook went through eleven editions. Wilkinson did the updates for the second and third editions, but with the fourth edition of 1873 the task of revisions was handed on – eventually falling for the ninth and tenth editions, in 1896 and 1900, to Miss Mary Broderick, one of the earliest of women Egyptologists. By this time, though, Murray’s handbook was no longer the most popular guidebook to Egypt in English, having been overtaken by the guides produced by Karl Baedeker, about whom I’ll post next time. Out-muscled in the guidebook market by their German publishing rivals (not just in Egypt, but everywhere), in 1915 John Murray sold the rights to their whole backlist of Handbooks, which were subsequently relaunched as the Blue Guides.

Meanwhile, if you fancy taking a look at the original 1847 Murray’s Handbook for Travellers to Egypt, then the whole thing has been scanned and posted up online here.

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