Tag Archives: William Howard Russell

Beaten by a head in the race


In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty.

Tuesday, 23 February
Left Edfou at 5 in the morning for Assouan, there by 4. Saw the Prince of Wales steamers and the one the Viceroy had conveyed the Prince in. He and his party had left that morning in dahabeahs for the 2nd Cataract, so we have missed them again – count Bismark was there – we started off at once across the deep sand for the bazaars; hardly repaid one. On the return most gorgeous sunset – sands deep gold and mountain deep violet-red – a colouring I had not seen before – suppose tropical in tint. Dinner at 7.

Egyptian boat above the First Cataract by Brierly, 24th February 1869

Egyptian boat above the First Cataract by Oswald Walters Brierly, 24th February 1869

Miss Riggs may have missed the Prince but some of his party remained in Aswan, including the scathing journalist William Howard Russell. “Cook’s tourists have also arrived!” he wrote. “Their steamers are just below us in the stream. The tourists are all over the place. Some are bathing off the banks; others, with eccentric head-dresses, are toiling through the deep sand. They are just beaten by a head in the race! Another day, and the Prince and Princess would have been at their mercy.”

The real issue here was not concern for the privacy of the Prince and Princess, but snobbery. Russell could not bear the thought that the Nile had to be shared with fellow countrymen (and women) of a lower status. “It is a nuisance to the ordinary traveller to have his peace broken,” he wrote, although by “ordinary” he clearly meant upper class. Cook aimed to democratize Nile tourism and in years to come, among a certain class of people, he would be despised for it.

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Filed under Art and artists, Nile steamers, Travellers' tales

Luxor at last


In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day twenty-six.

Friday, 19 February
Started at day-break and arrived at Thebes by 12 at noon. Ran aground often on our way – the river getting shallow at Keneh 2 miles from the shore. We saw pottery made with the wheel, very quickly and prettily. Dancing girls there which the gentlemen patronized. Luxor our aim and arrived at last – landed and proceeded en masse to the consul who spoke English very well. A low and roomy house facing the landing place. We were sorry to find that owing to our accident of paddle e had missed the grand illuminations at Karnak, which took place in honour of the Prince and Princess of Wales the evening before. Consul’s name Mustapha Aga – wrote all our names in his book and then read the entries of the Royal party.

The Prince and party had left this morning for Assouan, He enquired after our party and sorry we had met with an accident. Got saddles out of boat and proceeded to Karnak on donkeys – 2 miles ride, sandy and dusty.

Spent about 3 hours at Karnak and then returned on our donkeys getting to sunset – lovely sky. Backsheesh men very troublesome – with much struggling managed to get our saddles on board. Table d’hote pleasant – sit on deck.

I skipped the entry for Thursday, 18 February, which was minimal, because Miss Riggs and party spent all day not doing anything at all at Keneh. One of the paddlewheels on the Benha was broken and they had to wait around for it to be repaired. Why they didn’t use the time to pay a visit to the nearby temple at Dendara is a mystery.

Friday they push on to Luxor. The entry for that day includes pages of description at Karnak, which I am not transcribing because, as we established at Alexandria, Miss Riggs knows nothing of Egyptian history. Anything she writes must be cribbed from her guidebook.

What’s of more interest here is the further mention of the English royal party. Miss Riggs and company have a great interest in them. Understandably so. It must have been a huge source of excitement to discover that the other English party on the Nile at the time was the Prince and Princess of Wales. (Miss Riggs carefully copies into her diary the names of the Royal party as listed in Mustapha Aga’s book.) However, the joy was not mutual. Travelling as part of the Prince’s retinue was William Howard Russell, a war correspondent of some renown attached to the London Times. He afterwards reported that Cook’s party had been in “full cry up the river after the Prince and Princess”. He was scathing of Cook’s clients, who he considered had been inappropriately “thrown off their balances by the prospect of running the Prince and Princess of Wales to earth in a Pyramid, of driving them to bay in the Desert, of hunting them into the recesses of a ruin”.

Incidentally, also among those making up the Royal party was the watercolourist Oswald Walters Brierly, who was along to document the journey. He produced a series of paintings, several of which are below. The originals are part of the Royal Collection.

Pyramid of Meidun, 7 February 1869

Pyramid of Meidun, 7 February 1869

Beni Suef, 7 February 1869

Beni Suef, 7 February 1869

Near Girga, 13 February 1869

Near Girga, 13 February 1869

Girga, 14 February 1869

Girga, 14 February 1869

Royal arty visiting the Valley of the Kings, 17 February 1869

Royal party visiting the Valley of the Kings, 17 February 1869


Filed under Nile steamers, Travellers' tales

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