Tag Archives: Cataract

Pagnon and the Grand Hotel, Aswan

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A few days back a visitor to this site, Amina Niazi, posted a request for information on the Grand Hotel, which used to be on the Corniche at Aswan, so here’s what I know.

The story starts with Ferdinand Pagnon, who I haven’t written about before on this blog, which is a bit of an oversight given that he was the major hotelier in Upper Egypt at the tail end of the 19th century – so thank you Amina for the prompt.

Albert Ferdinand Pagnon was born on 1 January 1847 in Bourgoin, not far from Lyon in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in France. His family had a hotel there but it burned down the year of Ferdinand’s birth and so they moved to Marseille and then Egypt. The baby was left behind in France in care of an aunt, until at the age of 12 Ferdinand was sent to study in Malta. He returned to France to work in a bank in Romans until in 1868 his father died and the young man was called to Egypt to take his place running several hotels in Ismailia and Port Said. These almost certainly catered to engineers and company officials associated with the Suez Canal, which was then under construction and opened the following year.

Somehow Ferdinand also came to run the Hotel Victoria in Venice, which is where he met John Cook, son and heir of the international travel agent Thomas Cook. John made Pagnon the agent for the company’s growing Nile business in 1876. Pagnon was based down in Luxor, where Cook & Son built its first hotel, the Luxor Hotel, which opened in 1877 and was managed by Pagnon. Not long after, the company bought a second Luxor property, the Karnak Hotel, which I imagine was again managed by Pagnon. He later bought these two hotels from Cook.

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From Luxor, Cooks’ steamers continued south to Aswan, where they stayed for two days before heading back downriver to Cairo. There were no hotels at Aswan, so for passengers wanting to extend their stay the company maintained a permanently moored steamer, the Sethi (above), as a floating hotel. That was until 1894 when, with money borrowed from Cook & Son, Pagnon opened bought the Hotel Assouan, which had opened on the Corniche close to the wharf where the steamers moored a couple of seasons previously. At some later date this hotel would become the Grand Hotel d’Assouan and then just the Grand Hotel. It was not a particularly large property and when the rival Anglo-American Nile Company launched the far fancier Savoy on Elephantine Island, Cook & Son responded by building the Cataract, which opened in 1900.

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Initially, the Cataract was leased to Pagnon, but in 1904 it was sold to the Upper Egypt Hotels Co, a consortium headed up by Charles Baehler, owner of Shepheard’s in Cairo, but in which both John Cook and Pagnon also had stakes. The Upper Egypt Hotels Co also built the Winter Palace in 1907. Pagnon did not live long to enjoy his hotel empire – he caught a chill while boating on the Nile and died of pneumonia in 1909.

He left behind a wife, Kitty, and two daughters who returned to France to live in a farmhouse purchased by Ferdinand in Romans. There’s a small archive of correspondence between Pagnon and his wife held by the Municipal Archives of Romans, while the family property is now a health and therapy centre. A shrewd operator, while in Egypt Pagnon also amassed a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, which were left to his family and fetched decent prices when auctioned off at Christie’s in 1993.

As for the Grand Hotel at Aswan, it survived Pagnon by at least two decades because it was listed in the last Baedeker guide to Egypt, published in 1929. Beyond that, I don’t know. If anyone else has any information, please do drop me a line.

5 JUNE 2017
Some additional information comes courtesy of Dr Cornelius von Pilgrim of the Swiss Institute, Cairo:

Dear Andrew,
The later fate of the hotel goes as following: the Assouan Hotel was renamed some time around 1900 as the Grand Hotel Assouan before it was destroyed by fire on April 23rd 1903. In the summer of the same year it was newly built and reopened as the Grand Hotel that winter. It was a completely new building, with three floors, a fourth floor was added the following year. It burnt down again in summer 1985.

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Graphics before graphic designers

Although the term was not coined until 1920s, graphic design existed long before there were any graphic designers. The art of combining text and pictures for a range of printed material has been at the heart of the printer’s craft for hundreds of years. While the early pioneers of printers focused on books, others began using their presses for more humble uses, from handbills, signage, trade cards and timetables to popular reading material, games, advertisements and packaging. From Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman 1700–1914 by David Jury (Thames & Hudson, 2012)

The same printers that provided Egypt’s hotels with their fabulous posters and luggage labels, also designed some terrific letterheads and decorated envelopes (click and click again to enlarge).

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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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The other, other Savoy

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I’ve posted previously on Cairo’s Savoy hotel, at one time the flagship for George Nungovitch’s Egyptian hotel empire, here. I’ve also mentioned in passing the Luxor Savoy, here, which used to stand on the east bank, a little north of the Luxor Temple, and survived, albeit in a sorry state, until the 1970s when it was gutted by fire and subsequently demolished to make way for a shopping development. But there was a third Savoy. This was in Aswan and by all accounts was quite a grand affair. Here’s Amédée Baillot de Guerville writing in the first years of the 20th century: “At Assouan there are three excellent hotels, two of which are large modern houses. The Cataract, belonging to Cook, is admirably looked after by M. Pagnon (proprietor of the hotels at Luxor) … On the Elephantine Island, in the midst of a charming  garden, there is another palatial building, the Savoy Hotel, belonging to the Anglo-American Company, and which enjoys equal popularity with the Cataract.”

(The third hotel was the Grand, which was apparently misnamed.)

The Anglo-American was a recently formed Nile steamer company, which came into being toward the end of the 1880s and entered into direct competition with the well established Thomas Cook & Son passenger services. Naturally enough, having transported boatloads of tourists up the Nile, the last thing the new company wanted was to hand them over to its rival to accommodate, so the Anglo-American took to building hotels of its own. Its Savoy was a palatial, boomerang-shaped structure with accommodation for 80 guests and a riverfront setting among the palm groves at the northern tip of Elephantine. There was a magnificent dining hall, bar, ladies’s lounge and a billiard room. Any inconvenience arising from being separated from the town by water was more than made up for by a luscious terraced garden coloured with golden-plumed parkinsonia, crimson poinsettia, and bushes of chrysanthemums which had to be drowned every day to keep them alive; a long hedge of oleanders overhung the river.

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Officially opened on 20 January 1900, the hotel was affiliated to the Nungovich Hotel Company, which supplied its manager, a Mr Brey, formerly of the Savoy Hotel, Cairo, and handpicked the staff. In 1905, the hotel became part of the Upper Hotels Company, of which Nungovich was a founder board member and shareholder.

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Although I’ve never heard of anyone staying there, the Aswan Savoy survived until modern times, only being demolished in the 1970s. It was replaced by a new Oberoi hotel, notable for being the worst eyesore in the whole of Egypt (and that is a hotly contested title); it recently changed hands and is now the Mövenpick Resort Aswan, although it still looks as hideous. (With thanks to Cornelius Von Pilgrim)

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