Tag Archives: Douglas Sladen

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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In Luxor, 106 years ago today

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From the Egyptian Gazette, of 6 December 1907.

From Our Own Correspondent

Whatever the weather is elsewhere, no one can have any excuse for grumbling about it in Luxor; and no wonder that day by day fresh visitors are arriving from the North. Each day here is more beautiful than the last, from the rising up of the sun until the last moment of the fading away of its afterglow, there is no moment when Luxor is anything but gorgeous. The atmosphere is dry and invigorating, the temperature warm without being torrid, there is sight seeing and exercise for the healthy and energetic and the most luxurious dolce far-niente for the quasi invalid, and one of the finest and most complete hotels at the command of all.

It is less than a year ago that the Winter Palace Hotel was opened to the public* and indeed it seems but yesterday that the workmen were swarming through it night and day to finish it in time for the inauguration. The approach which we remember cumbered with heaps of broken bricks and debris is now adorned with grass and flower beds; the wide waste behind the hotel s now taking shape as an ample garden; and before many weeks are over will be verdant with grass and rich in flowers.

Already there are many guests at the hotel which has been open now for several weeks. Close upon a hundred covers were laid for dinner only yesterday, and many other arrivals are expected shortly. The old Luxor Hotel is to be re-opened shortly, and the Karnak on the river bank will again be sued as an annexe by both the Winter Palace and the Luxor. The Savoy Hotel formerly under the direction of Mr Runkovitz is to be reopened under new management this season. It has well established clientele, and certainly its situation overhanging the river and away from the town are attractive points in its favour.

The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire with their party on board the dahabeah ‘Serapis’ spent some time in the vicinity of Luxor on their way South. Mr Robert Hichens** is still here, living on board his dahabeah moored on the further side of the river; but often coming on shore and frequently taking his meals at the Winter Palace. It is said that he does not intend going further south this trip; but in all probability will leisurely find his way down river to Cairo, storing the while many valuable impressions for future use.

Mr Douglas Sladen*** is also gathering materials for a book on Egypt, for though a great traveler in other lands this is his first visit upon the Nile. He is on his way to Khartoum accompanied by his wife, and by Miss Norma Lorrimer (also an authoress) and Miss Potter. They intend returning to Cairo about the middle of January and will in all probability remain there for the rest of the season.

* And still the Winter Palace website persists in claiming the hotel was built in 1886.

** Author of Egypt and its Monuments, which would be published the following year with illustrations by Jules Guerin, who I blogged about here.

*** Who the following year would publish Egypt and the English, the first of a number of books about Egypt – I blogged about him here.

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The prolific Douglas Sladen and his overachieving friends

The scene in front of the terrace at the Continental Hotel complete with the boy with the crocodile on his head

What does a person have to do to make their mark on posterity? Douglas Sladen was an author and a journalist who was nothing if not prolific. Born in 1856, he turned out more than 60 books before his death in 1947. He was for a while the editor of Who’s Who, and also the literary editor of To-Day. He was at the centre of Edwardian London literary life and yet who now has ever heard of him?

I encountered him, figuratively speaking, in Egypt. He wrote a book called Oriental Cairo (1911) that contains some entertaining descriptions of what a tourist would have seen in that city back in the first decade of the 20th century. His second chapter is called ‘Street Life in Cairo as seen from the Continental Hotel’:

There is one great advantage in staying at the Continental Hotel for the two or three months of the Cairo season: you can see, without dressing to go out, the most roaring farce ever presented off the stage. The great hotel has a nice sunny terrace with a balustrade which looks out on the Street of the Camel—the Regent Street of Cairo—and the Eskebiya Gardens and a regular museum of touts. It is doubtful which could be satirised more successfully as a human Zoological Gardens, the people who sit on the terrace behind the railings, Americans chiefly, with a strong dash of Jews, Turks, and Infidels, which last name the Mohammedan applies to the Levantine—or the extraordinary collection of parasites in the street below.

Those of the parasites, who are not dragomans have something to sell, generally something that no sane person would want to buy. The street Arab who walks about with a stuffed crocodile on his head must by this time be convinced of its unsaleability. He exhorts you to buy it, but so soon afterwards, without a real bargainer’s delay, invites you to take his photograph with it for a shilling.

I have seen stuffed crocodiles offered often, and once at least a live boa-constrictor and a live leopard—not a very old one—in a cage. Pigs in cages are comparatively common, and, as weight presents no difficulty to the Egyptian educated as a porter, men carry round all sorts of furniture for sale. I have seen men with quite large tables and cabinets on their backs patiently waiting for purchasers. I once saw a man with a palm-tree fourteen feet high on his head. Strawberry sellers are insistent in February, in spite of the fact that every foreigner knows or believes that their Egyptian vendors moisten the strawberries in their mouths whenever they look dusty.

You can read the whole of Oriental Cairo online here.

I assumed Sladen must have spent a considerable time in Egypt because he wrote no less than three weighty travel books about the place (the other two being Egypt and the English, 1908, and Queer Things About Egypt, 1910), as well as two novels set in the country. In fact, he was there just six months.

Portrait of Douglas Sladen by René de l'Hôpital, which hangs in the Octagon Room at York House in Twickenham

I was curious to find out more about him. I discovered the existence of an archive of his personal papers and then was bowled over to learn that this was held in the local-history library in my own neighbourhood of Richmond, on the Thames in southwest London. It turns out that Sladen was my near neighbour – at a century’s remove – living on Richmond Green from 1911 to 1923. (He lived in the rather grand Avenue House, long since demolished.) I spent a few Saturday afternoons looking through the contents of several boxes from the archive relating to his time in Egypt. They didn’t yield much – most of what they contained were yellowing clippings of reviews of his books and typed exhortations to his publisher to do more to promote them. But there were also handwritten and signed letters from fellow authors to whom Sladen had sent copies of his books, and these include Arthur Conan Doyle, H Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling; the creators of Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quartermain and Mowgli – that is some impressive peer group. If only Sladen could have taken the Arab boy with the crocodile on his head and thought up some adventures for him, he could have been the most famous of the lot.

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