Tag Archives: Luxor Hotel

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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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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It’s called adaptive reuse

Some years back, well before the calamity that has befallen the country, I stayed at the Zenobia hotel at Palmyra in Syria. It has the most extraordinary location, away from the modern town and right on the edge of the Roman ruins. It is possible to sit up in bed and look out of the window of your room at grand colonnades silhouetted against the moonlight. It seems natural that pieces of antiquity should find their way into the hotel, and so in the garden the ancient carved capitals of columns serve as bases for tables. I think I remember something similar in the garden of the Palmyra hotel at Baalbek in Lebanon.

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An image kindly sent to me by Susan Allen reminds me it used to be like that in Egypt too. It shows the garden of the Hotel du Nil and, in it, two great stone sarcophagus lids.

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The terrace at Shepheard’s used to boast a pair of sphinxes, reputedly from Saqqara, while the Luxor Hotel in Luxor had two statues of Sekhmet in its garden, most likely brought over from Karnak. Probably nobody at the time thought this an inappropriate employment of Egypt’s archaeological heritage. What was contentious, though, and stirred up comment in the press of the time, was architect Henri Favarger’s usage of stones from the Pyramids to build the Mena House hotel. He didn’t deny it, but in an address given to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1892, claimed it was rubble gathered from the foot of the Pyramids that was collected, and only then with the approval and close supervision of the Egyptian museum authorities.

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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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Filed under Egyptologists and Egyptology, Grand hotels, Hotels then and now