Tag Archives: Bristol Hotel

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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Filed under Memorabilia

Hotel du Nil


If anybody talks about the properly historic hotels of Cairo, then invariably it’s Shepheard’s that gets mentioned. Rightly so – until it was destroyed in 1952 it had renown and a guestbook to rank with any hotel in the world. But there were hotels in Cairo before Shepheard’s, including the Orient, Giardano, Levick’s and the British Hotel, formerly Hill’s, which is where Samuel Shepheard got his start in the trade before he opened an establishment under his own name in 1851. Chief among the early hostelries, though, was the Hotel du Nil.



The du Nil was established in 1836 by the half-German, half-Italian Signor Friedmann. Like all the early hotels that came before Shepheard’s, it was buried in the alleyways of the medieval city, just off the Muski, one of the busiest commercial streets in Cairo at that time. It was a traditional and sizeable Arab house with striped stonework and mashrabiya, set around a large courtyard filled with palms, and banana and orange trees. Famously, it’s where Gustave Flaubert and companion Maxime du Camp stayed in late 1849 at the start of their voyage around Egypt. Du Camp photographed Flaubert wearing native dress in the garden.

At a later stage management added covered terraces and a large veranda, as well as a curious rooftop tower of scaffolding, known as the “belvedere of Cairo,” which provided guests with views over the city. From up here the then-owner, Cavaliere Battigelli, conducted observations that he published as a daily meteorological bulletin.



Before then, however, the hotel received William Howard Russell, an Irish reporter, who had previously covered the Crimean War, including the Charge of the Light Brigade; he passed through Cairo in 1868 and was not a fan of either the city or the Hotel du Nil:

In the dark, among the dogs, through lanes and alleys of infinite closeness, nastiness, and irregularity, we stumbled, the playthings of dragomans and donkey-boys, till some of us disappeared in one hole or other, were swallowed up in a gateway, or were absorbed round a corner. I and a few more ran to earth in a mansion apparently situated among quarries and lime-kilns. It was called the Hotel du Nil, and it well deserved the name, for we could get nothing to eat, not even a piece of bread, when we arrived. In a long, ill-lighted room, at a lanky table covered with a dirty cloth, sat three men smoking vigorously and talking in lingua Franca. One of whom told us, “Signori! Avete patienza e averete qualche cose subito”. Subito meant just two hours, at the end of which time the council of three resolved themselves into waiters, and appeared with the very smallest and moldiest chickens I ever beheld. These were supported by omelettes made of eggs, which were just about to make chickens … but our appetites were better than the food, and washing the meal down with copious draughts of a wine which tasted like writing fluid, we stretched ourselves on chairs, tables, and sofas, and sunk into a sleep which relieved the mosquitoes from the smallest anxiety of interference in their assiduous labours. My Diary in India, in the Year 1868-9 by William Howard Russell

Not all Englishmen were as sniffy about the place. Egyptologist Flinders Petrie was recommended the hotel when he first arrived in Egypt in 1880; for the next 11 years he stayed there whenever he was in Cairo.


The Hotel du Nil survived into the first decade of the 20th century but its facilities must have been hopelessly outdated, especially when measured against the offerings of the glut of new hotels that were appearing around this time. The exact date of closure isn’t known, According to 11th edition of Murray’s Handbook, published in 1910, the hotel closed in 1906, although the garden and the tower were still accessible (thank you Susan J. Allen for this bit of information). Soon after, the Bristol Hotel on Khazinder Square, which had opened in 1894, was marketing itself as the Hotel Bristol et du Nil – it was common practice in Cairo at this time for a new hotel to absorb the name of a recently defunct old hotel in order to inherit its clientele.

So where exactly was the Hotel du Nil? Thanks to an amazing set of fire-plans of Cairo, drawn up in 1910 for insurance purposes, and now owned by architect Nick Warner, we can pinpoint its former location precisely:


It stood on the western edge of the Khalig al-Masri (the canal that once ran off the Nile north through the city) and just to the south of the Muski (coloured red on the map). The main approach to the hotel was originally from the Muski, but when the canal was filled in to become Port Said Street (orange) in 1900, that then became the main route to the hotel, as described in an article in the Egyptian Gazette of that year. The line in yellow on the map shows roughly the route of what is now Al-Azhar Street, which crashes through the site of the du Nil. However, Al-Azhar Street was only created in the 1920s and the du Nil disappeared long before then. The likelihood is that it was lost to a widening of Port Said Street, which since its creation had become one of the city’s busiest tram routes. Nick Warner’s map then must be one of the last recordings of the existence of the hotel.


Filed under Egyptologists and Egyptology, Grand hotels, Lost Egypt

The informal charms of the Bristol

When Evelyn Waugh stayed at Cairo’s Bristol Hotel in 1929 he was less than complimentary about the place (see here). However, when it opened 35 years previously, in December 1894, it was by all accounts a homely and comfortable sort of establishment. It wasn’t a top-tier hotel like nearby Shepheard’s, or the Gezira Palace or Mena House, with their frequently aristocratic, high-living clientele. Rather, it was one of several modest hotels clustered around the Place de la Bourse at the north-east corner of the Ezbekia Gardens, which catered to the more financially cautious traveller. A three- maybe four-star sort of place in today’s ratings. The author of a 1910 overview of Cairo society wrote that it was somewhere that would appeal to “people to whom the rigid observance of formalities is irksome” – by which the writer probably meant people who didn’t own a dinner suit (the Bristol advertised “evening dress for dinner optional”). But the place was not without its charms: almost all its 100 rooms were south facing with balconies, and the public rooms included a ladies’ room and a winter garden filled with exotic vegetation. The proprietor was the splendidly named Chevalier Aquilina, a Maltese who’d previously spent 25 years as an agent for Thomas Cook & Son in Alexandria.

Aquilina paid for a booklet to be produced by the Neapolitan company Richter & Co promoting the hotel. Dating from around 1900, it’s a lovely thing (cover above), containing a bit of background on the hotel and plenty of advice on what to see and do in Cairo and Egypt. Page 18 also contains the following Important Notice: ‘Some unscrupulous hotel keepers appoint during the Season, travelling agents between Alexandria & Cairo and Ismailia & Cairo, mostly with a view to carry on an undignified competition. To divert to their own houses Visitors who may be directed to the Bristol or other such first class establishments, they quote ridiculously cheap terms but passengers would do well to bear in mind that in the long run their interests will best be served by paying a reasonable price and get its full value.’

Now compare with this, which I wrote in 1997 for a Lonely Planet guide to Cairo: ‘On arrival at the airport, you may be approached by someone with an official-looking badge that says ‘Egyptian Chamber of Tourism’ or something similar. These people are not government tourism officials, they are hotel touts. They’ll ask where you’re staying and then tell you all sorts of porkies, like the hotel you want is full, too expensive or closed down. They will then steer you to an alternative, cheaper, better hotel, one that will pay them a very nice commission.’ It’s not just the Pyramids in Egypt that are timeless, the scams are too.

Sadly, the Bristol wasn’t so enduring. I don’t know exactly when it closed but I suspect in the 1940s – several hotels that were requisitioned by the British Army during World War II never reopened to guests afterwards, and the Bristol may have been one of them. The site, just to the left of the Sednaoui department store on Khazinder Square, is now occupied by a modern apartment block. The hotel is survived only by a couple of particularly gorgeous luggage labels.



Filed under Hotels then and now, Lost Egypt, Memorabilia