A new novel that might be of interest to readers of this site is The Visitors by Sally Beauman. It’s set in Egypt in 1922, where a young English girl has been sent in care of a chaperone to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother. The opening chapters largely play out in the salons and on the terrace of Shepheard’s in Cairo, which is beautifully brought to life. The supporting cast of characters include familiar names such as Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert, Arthur Mace, Harry Burton, Pierre Lacau, James Breasted, Arthur Weigall and a host of other real-life people, all of whom were involved in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun – the event that provides the novel’s dramatic backdrop. Beauman does a good job of putting flesh on the biographical bones of her historical cast and succeeds in bringing the characters to life. How accurate and fair she is, I can’t say – it would take someone better read in Egyptology than me to comment. Her descriptions of Shepheard’s and Winter Palace are generally spot on though, right down to describing the bathrooms of the former as being vast and echoing, like mausoleums – one 19th century journalist said sitting in one of them was like being in a chamber at the centre of a pyramid. If I were being picky I might mention that the Continental hotel isn’t across the Ezbekiya Gardens from Shepheard’s but just up the street, and the Winter Palace is not designed in a Baroque style – far from it – but that’s minor stuff. A bigger problem, I found, is the voice of the protagonist, Lucy, whose inner thoughts run to things like, “In the fustian Cambridge circles in which I’d grown up, divorce equaled disgrace”. She’s supposed to be eleven years old, for god’s sake. I found this such a problem I gave up on the book a quarter of the way in. Now I’ll never know whether Howard Carter found that tomb or not.
Tag Archives: Winter Palace
I was recently contacted by Peter Kuonen of Urdorf in Switzerland, who wondered if I would be interested in seeing some photographs of his grand-uncle, Victor, who spent more than 20 years employed at Luxor’s Winter Palace, and before that Shepheard’s, in the early years of the 20th century. Of course I was interested. So Peter sent me the photographs and they are wonderful – he’s permitted me to post some of them, below. I also asked Peter if he could tell me a little about Victor, and he responded with the text that follows.
“Victor was born on May 4, 1875 in a small mountain village called Guttet in the picturesque canton of Wallis in Switzerland. He grew up together with five sisters and fourteen brothers. After completing his compulsory schooling he had to help to support the family. Therefore, he went to work in a hotel at the age of 16 years. As a young man, he already had jobs in different cities like San Remo, Basel and Lucerne. In 1897, aged 22, he travelled to Egypt for the first time. He sent back travel reports, which were published in a local Wallis newspaper Briger Anzeiger from February 1902 onwards. His first report described the trip from Switzerland via Genoa to Port Said. He not only wrote what he had experienced on the trip but also about the people and the land of Egypt. He continued to file reports right up until 1923 and his most interesting are now preserved in the archives of the Canton Valais.
“He found employment in Egypt in the first-class hotels, including Shepheard’s in Cairo and the Winter Palace in Luxor – both hotels owned by fellow Swiss Charles Baehler.
“Victor worked in Egypt during the winter (which was Egypt’s prime tourist season) and returned to Switzerland or Germany during the summer. In Switzerland, he worked in the Hotel Mont Cervin, Zermatt and in the Hotel Schweizerhof, Lucerne. In Germany, he was a concierge in the Hotel Europäischer Hof, Baden-Baden where he met his wife Sophie Mohl. They had three more sons and one daughter.
An illustration of Victor, presented to him as a gift. I can’t be sure but it looks like the work of Tony Binder, who I have posted about previously, here
“In 1927, after working 30 years for Charles Baehler, – during which time he was present in Luxor when Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered – Victor received a Diploma of the Swiss Hotelier Association and also a gold watch with a dedication from Baehler.
“Victor said good-bye to Egypt in 1931. He moved with his family to Algeria, where his second-oldest son, Oscar, had a job in a hotel. They settled in the coastal town of Bône (today called Annaba), where Victor opened a restaurant, Au Rosbif. The family ran this for about 10 years but then World War II came along and they packed up and returned to Switzerland. Back in his homeland, Victor bought the Hotel Mont Cervin in Visp/Wallis in 1941 and was a successful hotelier for the next 8 years until he died on October 13, 1949.”
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.
My last post mentioned in passing the fact that Hollywood golden couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had added their signatures to the Winter Palace Golden Book in November 1929. At the time they were just about two of the biggest names in cinema, partners with Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffiths in the founding of United Artists production studios, while in May of 1929 Fairbanks had been the host for the first ever Oscars ceremony. The Egyptian Gazette of 4 November 1929 reported on the pair’s visit to Egypt, noting that they were, “Better known and better loved than any other couple in the whole world”. They arrived in Alexandria on the SS Rashid of the Khedivial Mail Line and took a short tour of the town before they were driven to the station to catch the midday train to Cairo. Fairbanks told the waiting crowds at the station, “I’m just mad about Egypt”.
They stayed at Shepheard’s where they were interviewed by a correspondent from the Gazette who asked what Fairbanks thought of the talkies: “The talkies are a wonderful invention,” he replied, “and have a great future but so far the talking has been exaggerated.” He then reportedly gave a demonstration in his room of how he leapt from the bough of a tree to a windowsill 30 feet away. In Cairo, they were shown round the Egyptian Museum by Howard Carter, before travelling up the Nile to Luxor. The paper says they were due to leave Egypt on 12 November bound for the next stop on their world tour, which was Colombo.
When Shepheard’s went up in flames back in January 1952, one of the notable losses was the hotel’s set of Golden Books, the ledgers in which decades of distinguished guests had been invited to sign their names. It used to be common practice for hotels to keep VIP guestbooks and use the names they contained as marketing collateral, to be listed in ads and promotional booklets. But it’s not just Shepheard’s Golden Books that were lost, because I don’t know of any surviving examples from any of Egypt’s grand old hotels – except, that is, for one.
It comes from the Winter Palace and covers the years 1920-1935, an exciting time coinciding as it does with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the ten years of excavations that followed. I learned of the guestbook through an essay written by André Wiese, curator of the Egyptian Department at the Museum of Ancient Art and Ludwig Collection in Basel. He discovered the existence of the guestbook back in 1991 when he was preparing an exhibition devoted to Seti I. It was in the possession of Carmen Heusser, the daughter of Swiss hotelier Anton Badrutt, who managed the Winter Palace between 1920 and 1935.
Wiese was allowed to study the book and subsequently wrote a 22-page study (in German) that was published in an academic journal in 1998. He kindly sent me a copy, which I’ve translated. I’m not going to run the whole text because it’s 5,000 words long, but I will summarise it.
‘Bound in parchment and leather, here we truly have a piece of history in front of us!’ Wiese begins. Inside, the fly-leaf is decorated with a hand-painted image of a cheery Tutankhamun (above) done by Austrian artist Anton ‘Tony’ Binder. Binder (1868-1944) was an Orientalist painter, who lived in Alexandria but travelled around Egypt gathering material for his oils of Egyptian landscapes and interiors. Some of his work was also printed on postcards. In addition to the Tutankhamun drawing, the book also contains sketches by him of hotel guests Howard Carter and Bernard Shaw.
According to his daughter, Badrutt liked collecting autographs, so this guestbook was something of a personal affair. As well as signatures it also contains notes of thanks addressed to Badrutt in person, and a number of photographs, including several of Carnarvon and Carter dated ‘Winter 1922-23, Luxor’. One is the famous image of Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn on arrival at Luxor station on 23 November 1922, being met by Carter and the Governor of Qena, just three days before they breached the tomb.
Also slipped into the guestbook is a menu for Christmas dinner on 25 December 1923 decorated with a guardian figure from the tomb of Tutankhamun, depicted befoe and after the dinner, in the latter case with a huge fat belly and smoking a pipe.
Most of the space though is taken up with signatures, and it’s some collection. Wiese lists them: there are the statesmen, including former French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, Czech president Tomas Masaryk and ex-Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria – who were all in residence at the hotel at the same time; and the crowned heads, such as crown prince Edward of England, visiting in April 1930, who, six years later would be become king of England only to step down within the year, as well as the Belgian king and queen, Albert and Elizabeth, and the crown prince of Sweden, the future King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden.
There’s an entry in the guestbook on 8 March 1929 by Rudyard Kipling and signatures from November of that year of the American silent film star Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, the equally famous Mary Pickford (there’s also a photograph of the pair with Anton Badrutt). German novelist Thomas Mann, who spent 10 days at the hotel, signed the book on 6 March 1930 (and left a lengthy inscription, which I was unable to translate), while George Bernard Shaw wrote on 26 December 1932, “I cannot make up my mind whether Luxor is the hottest place on earth or the coldest”.
Other random names and the dates they signed the book include John D Rockefeller Jr (15 Feb 1929), Evangeline Lindbergh, mother of Charles (24 Jan 1929), Somerset Maugham (14 Dec 1929), Nelli Melba (18 Feb 1930) and World Champion Heavy weight boxer Gene Tunney (23 Feb 1931), who added the message: ‘The charm of this lovely Winter Palace is only equalled by that of its guiding spirit Mr AR Badrutt’.
Wiese includes a lot of background on Badrutt, but I’ll save that for a future post.
Recently, I thought I might travel to Basel to see this wonderful piece of history for myself, so I emailed André Wiese to ask if he could put me in touch with Ms Carmen Heusser. His reply was tragic:
Thanks for contacting me again. I have no good news. Unfortunately the lady suffers in the meantime heavily from dementia and the guestbook has disappeared recently when she moved to the home for old people. There exists only our digital copy in the museum.
And then there were none.
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:
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.
The last two posts were about hotels that are now defunct, so this time around something a little more upbeat. In the book, we stop the story of the grand hotels of Egypt in 1952 with the burning of Shepheard’s. This means we don’t get to use any contemporary photography. So when we revisited the Winter Palace in Luxor last month we took a bunch of photographs. The hotel looks as beautiful as it ever did, particularly the façade, which, although it was built in 1906/7, looks almost art deco. Hardly surprising given that when art deco flourished in the 1920s it was heavily influenced by the same pharaonic motifs that inspired the architect of the Winter Palace.
It was Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun that popularised all things pharaonic and influenced the look of art deco. Carter, of course, was a regular at the Winter Palace. Even though he had his own house on the West Bank near the Valley of the Kings, he used the hotel as his personal business centre, the place where he met visiting VIPs, including his patron Lord Carnarvon, who kept a suite here. There’s a famous photograph of Carter and a couple of local dignitaries in conversation on the terrace of the hotel, below – look at the tiling of the floor and then look at the third picture above and you can see it’s the same tiling in place today.
The interior of the hotel is nowhere near as stylish. It’s formal Edwardian, with plenty of pomp (the corridors are ridiculously wide) but little in the way of splendour, although the curling decorative ironwork on the grand staircase balustrades is gorgeous. We were allocated the King Farouk room, up on the second floor. I doubt it’s where he stayed. Big though the room is, there are bigger suites, plus the room faces the gardens, when the prize view is of the Nile, which you see from the front-facing rooms. Nice old furniture though, and we slept observed by multiple portraits of the king.
We were two of just a handful of guests. The current uncertain political climate is keeping the tourists away. Last year, general manager Christian Ruge told us, was bad but this year is even worse. For the first time perhaps since the 1967 War, management considered closing for the summer. It seems they haven’t as the hotel website is still accepting bookings for July and August. This is good news because I’ll let you into a secret: right now if you book into the Winter Palace Pavilion, which is an unlovely modern garden annexe, you can get a double for under £50 on a travel site such as expedia.com, but with so few guests anyone booking into the Pavilion is being upgraded to the Winter Palace itself, to rooms that would normally cost three or four times that amount. Check out the excited comments on Tripadvisor.
Sticking with the last post’s theme of London hotels, I’ve been rereading Andrew Rose’s book Scandal at the Savoy (Bloomsbury, 1991). It deals with an infamous murder case of the 1920s that took place at the London Savoy involving an Egyptian playboy who was shot dead by his French wife of six months.
Ali Fahmy, born in Cairo in 1900, was the sole male heir to a family fortune built on real estate and cotton. He came into his inheritance at the age of 16 and spread it around at the clubs and smart hotels of his hometown such as Shepheard’s, the Semiramis and Grand Continental. He bought a fleet of fast cars, imported from Europe, including two Rolls-Royces, and a 450-horsepower racing boat in which he’d tear up and down the Nile. Then in 1921 he saw something else he fancied. She was Madame Marguerite Laurent (pictured below), a fashionable Parisian woman 10 years his senior, who was staying at the Semiramis in the company of a rich businessman. He pursued his quarry back to France where he subjected her to a whirlwind courtship. Although he returned to Egypt alone, further persistent wooing by mail eventually paid off. On 20 November 1922, Marguerite disembarked from the SS Helouan onto the quayside at Alexandria and was whisked away to Ali’s seaside villa before transferring to his grand residence in the newly established Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek.
To cut a long story short, they got married in Cairo on 26 December 1922. It’s this bit of Rose’s book that appeals to me. The pre-wedding reception and dinner took place at Shepheard’s on Christmas Day 1922. The author has done his homework and he sets the scene beautifully. Just the previous month Howard Carter had announced to the world the finding of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Egypt’s hotels were packed with the international press and with wealthy rubberneckers who wanted to be on the spot when the tomb was opened early in the New Year. There must have been a huge sense of anticipation charging the conversation in the hotel lounges and restaurants, and provoking even greater animation in the dancers foxtrotting their way around the ballrooms.
Five nights after the civil marriage, Shepheard’s was packed with 1,200 diners celebrating the arrival of 1923. Drawing on a report in the following day’s Egyptian Gazette, Rose describes the scene: ‘There was barely room for dancing under the great chandelier, which had been decorated in “magnificent cascades of bougainvillea”. At midnight the lights were dimmed and two dozen white doves released from a balcony above the hotel foyer, an effect rather spoiled by the wags who lowered a squealing piglet on a rope from an upper fanlight. Bags of red and white confetti were emptied on the heads of the crowd, “everybody whistled and screeched, cushions were thrown about and a rugger scrum indulged in by the men”.’
A few weeks later Ali and Marguerite sailed up to Luxor, where they moored their boat across from the Winter Palace and gave lavish parties for the international jetset that had lately descended upon the sleepy Nileside town. Howard Carter attended one of the parties and Lord Carnarvon came over for lunch. But it was not a happy marriage and the two fought constantly – Rose paints Marguerite as a compulsive flirt and venal gold-digger, while Ali was attracted to young men and closer to his private secretary, Said, than he was to his wife. Onboard a steamer bound for Europe, escaping Egypt’s summer heat, the ship’s captain had to step in and keep the peace between the pair. In first Paris and then London the two traded blows in public. Ali appeared with scratches on his face, Marguerite sported livid bruises. She threatened to smash him over the head with a wine bottle over supper at the Savoy restaurant and he threatened to throw her in the river at a Thames-side garden party. It all came to a messy end at around 2.30am on a hot July night in a corridor outside suite 41 at the Savoy – Marguerite fired three shots in quick succession and killed Ali Fahmy. A night porter had just passed the room and he turned and ran back to see Marguerite throw down a large black handgun. When the assistant manager arrived minutes later she was cradling her husband’s head and repeating ‘Qu’est-ce que j’ai fait, mon cher?’ (What have I done, my dear?).
The shooting provoked a mass of publicity – it was the OJ Simpson case of its day. The papers were full of lurid details of sexual jealously, squandered riches and assorted vices – notably Ali’s alleged homosexuality, and Marguerite’s past as a serial mistress and likely prostitute. The trial was a sensation, the verdict a scandal – in a truly appalling exhibition of racism, Marguerite was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter and walked free.
Scandal at the Savoy (you can find it on eBay or abebooks.com) gives an excellent account of the courtroom drama, and provides a fascinating portrait of the sexual and racial attitudes of London society in the 1920s. For more on the antics that went on in the ballroom at Shepheard’s and other Cairo high-society hang-outs, that’s all in Grand Hotels of Egypt.