An Englishman’s fascination for Egypt’s grand hotels
Imagine luxury hotels during the bygone days when explorers, travelers, and foreign occupying forces mingled. Walk into the lavish lobbies and moonlit terraces of these “gilded refuges.” Mix with delighted high-society, dining and dancing while “wintering on the Nile.” Journalist, editor, and author Andrew Humphreys recreates this world with well-documented accounts, extracts, and anecdotes; vintage photography; and full-color illustrations of travel posters, luggage labels, postcards, decorated letterheads, menus, and invitations in Grand Hotels of Egypt: In the Golden Age of Travel. We sat down with Andrew Humphreys to discuss the glamorous guests, glorious architecture, and regrettable colonialism.
These grand hotels provided far more than just accommodation. In what way were these hotels products of colonialist need and conduct?
The first hotels appeared in Egypt long before the concept of tourism existed. They were there to facilitate the workings of the British Empire, to provide way stations for officials shuttling between England and its domains in India. Later they were bases for explorers and adventurers fanning out into Africa, indulging in the imperial obsession of mapping, collecting, categorizing and ‘civilizing’.
For the facts, The Egyptian Gazette. The British Library in London has an almost complete run from about 1882 onwards. I worked my way through year by year, piecing together what was built when and by who. The Winter Palace, for example, has always maintained that it was built in 1886 and it has a restaurant named for that date. But as I discovered, it was in fact inaugurated in January 1907. A correspondent from the Gazette attended the party and described the occasion in detail. For the color in the book, I’ve included plenty of extracts from accounts written by travelers to Egypt from the 1840s onwards. Later on, particularly in the first decades of the twentieth century, there were a bunch of useful memoirs written by foreign residents who typically worked in the civil service — despite living here they were frequent visitors to the hotels, which all held weekly dances and balls, and pretty much provided a social life for many foreigners resident in Egypt.
How did you find all the period photographs and images?
The difficulty with the image selection was one of imbalance. We could have filled a whole book with images of Shepheard’s, which seems to have been a very popular subject for photographers in the early 20th century, but for somewhere like the Windsor Hotel in Cairo there’s nothing. Well, not quite nothing — there is one beautiful vintage photo, which hangs on the wall in the hotel’s lounge. We had to ask the hotel owners for permission to borrow it for a few hours to get it scanned so it could appear in the book. Many of the other images we found at auctions and antiquarian stores, plus a number of collectors were kind enough to allow us reproduce some of the things they had. Very few of the images in the book have ever been published before.
Was it travelers or occupying (British, French) forces that had more of an impact on the way these grand historic hotels in Egypt back then were run and how they catered to foreigners?
It was both. The hotels were where the two groups met. The tourists valued the company of the local residents because they hoped to hobnob with the grandees of Cairo society; the residents viewed the annual influx of tourists as a welcome change from the same old faces. The tourists filled the bedrooms but it was local custom that kept the restaurants, bars and ballrooms busy (which, incidentally, was where the money was made).
Do you have a favorite grand hotel, whether the Cecil, Shepheard’s Mena House, Gezira Palace, Semiramis, Winter Palace, or Cataract?
By far the most significant was Shepheard’s, nothing to do with the Shepheard’s that now stands on the Corniche. This is the Shepheard’s that once stood on what’s now Gomhurriya Street overlooking the Ezbekiyya Gardens until it was burnt down in January 1952. It was in existence for 101 years exactly and at its height it was one of the most famous hotels in the world, on a par with the Paris Ritz and London Savoy. Internationally it was as emblematic of Egypt as the Pyramids. But what I particularly love is that it was a hotel known for its vitality. Royalty and heads of state kept away – they favored the more exclusive Savoy, Semiramis and Mena House. Instead, Shepheard’s attracted movie stars and writers, raffish aristocrats and fortune hunters (of the male and female kind). It was, by all accounts, a fun place to stay. The fact that the hotel has so completely vanished with nothing on the site to mark that it ever existed only adds to the mystique.
A number of illustrious people stayed in these grand hotels, from Amelia Edwards, Lucie Duff Gordon and Florence Nightingale to Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, Winston Churchill, and T.E. Lawrence. Whom would you have liked to meet in the lobby?
The person I would really have liked to have met wasn’t a guest but an employee. From 1937 Joe Scialom presided over the Long Bar at Shepheard’s. He worked in white jacket and black bowtie, spoke eight languages, and acted as banker, adviser, umpire and father confessor to his clients. During his tenure the Long Bar was known as St Joe’s Parish and he ministered according to a philosophy of “Mix well, but shake politics”. He invented the Suffering Bastard, a potent mix that continues to be included in all good cocktail manuals. He served throughout World War II and the stories he could tell would really have made my book worth reading. Joe was tending the bar on that Saturday in 1952 when the hotel was burned down. He escaped the inferno “slightly ruffled and really annoyed” (his words to a reporter). He left Egypt in 1956 and continued working as a barman. His final job was at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center before he finally retired to Florida. He passed away as recently as 2004, but I only came to know of Joe in the last couple of years and so never got to meet him.
You argue that the prestige of these hotels rested not only on the people who frequented them but the men like Samuel Shepheard and Albert Metzger who founded them. How does this differ with the new hotels that are built in Egypt today?
When Shepheard’s was burned down in 1952 it was the end of an era. When Egypt began to rebuild its tourism industry in the wake of the Revolution the new generation of big hotels were state-owned structures that were leased to foreign multinational corporations to manage. The flagship was the Nile Hilton in 1959, and since then it has been all Sheratons, Ramadas, Marriotts and their ilk. Fine if what you expect from a hotel is a room that exactly resembles the one you stayed in in Seattle or Frankfurt or Seoul, but I can’t imagine anyone being sufficiently excited in 50 years time to write a history of Egypt’s hotels in the second half of the twentieth century.
What is it about the hotel life of Egypt’s golden age of travel that fascinates so?
We’re all suckers for nostalgia and the stories of these hotels represent something we’ve lost. They embody the notion of travel as adventure, intrepidly going places other people haven’t been, and witnessing things seen by few others. We imagine travel back then was like one big, freewheeling Indiana Jones movie. Perhaps for some it even was. But what we forget is that travel 100 years ago was also something only the wealthy could afford to indulge in. These old hotels looked like palaces because the people they were built for tended to live in pretty palatial residences back home. So when we read stories of the golden age of travel we’re not only indulging in nostalgia but also in a bit of wish fulfillment, imaging ourselves living out the lives of the historically rich and sometimes famous.
Andrew Humphreys is the author of The Grand Hotels of Egypt: In the Golden Age of Travel. He first traveled to Egypt from England in 1988 and liked it so much he decided not to go home. He found the city’s hotels an appealing mix of the practical and the peculiar. An appreciation of contemporary hotel life led to a fascination with the hotel life of the past, and to this book. Andrew, a journalist and editor, now lives in London but remains a frequent visitor to Egypt and an avid frequenter of its grand (and not so grand) hotels. He is the author of National Geographic Traveler, as well as guidebooks to both Egypt and Cairo for Lonely Planet and Dorling Kindersley. He has worked for a variety of publications including The Wall Street Journal and National Geographic, and his journalism has also appeared in The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, Time Out, Canvas, and Conde Nast Traveller. In 1997 he co-founded The Cairo Times, a leading English-language Cairo newspaper.