An Englishman’s fascination for Egypt’s grand hotels

Andrew Humphreys’s Grand Hotels of Egypt: In the Golden Age of Travel (forthcoming, late February 2012) tells of the country’s luxury hotels during the bygone days when explorers, travelers, and foreign occupying forces mingled in the lavish lobbies and al fresco on the moonlit terraces of these “gilded refuges,” also delighting in high-society dining and dancing, while “wintering on the Nile.” Grand Hotels of Egypt is a very visual book, combining well-documented accounts, extracts, and anecdotes, vintage photography, and full-color illustrations of travel posters, luggage labels, postcards, decorated letterheads, menus, and invitations.

The AUC Press will be celebrating this new publication on Sunday, March 4, at 6:00 pm at Cairo's Windsor Hotel. For the invitation, click here. For the map to the Windsor Hotel, click here.

Humphreys, who lives in London, but remains a frequent visitor to Egypt, is also the author of National Geographic Traveler Egypt (AUC Press, 2009). In this recent interview, he talks about his fascination for Egypt’s grand hotels of the past and the making of his book.

AUC Press: How did the idea come about to do a book on the Grand Hotels of Egypt?

AH: It was a book I wanted to read. I’d stayed at places like the Cataract in Aswan, the Winter Palace in Luxor, the Cecil in Alexandria and Cairo’s Windsor Hotel and I wanted to know more about them. But nobody had written anything so I began digging around, doing some research and when it became apparent just what a lot of great material I had on my hands I decided I had to write the book myself.

AUC Press: You suggest in your book that these grand hotels provided far more than just accommodation. You write “From these colonial bridgeheads, foreign visitors could venture forth to experience the sights, smells, and noise of the Orient safe in the knowledge that when it all got too much there was a gilded refuge from the heat, dust, and intensity outside.” In what way were these hotels products of colonialist need and conduct?

AH:
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’.

 

 AUC Press: What sources did you use for the book?

AH:
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 colour 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.


AUC Press:
There are 274 illustrations in this book. How difficult was it to narrow down the selection of photographs and get permission to use them?

AH:
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.


AUC Press:
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?

AH:
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).


AUC Press:
Your book tells stories about Egypt’s grand hotels, including the Cecil, Shepheard’s Mena House, Gezira Palace, Semiramis, Winter Palace, and Cataract. Do you have a favorite among these and what aspect(s) of that particular establishment determine(s) your choice?

AH:
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 favoured 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.


AUC Press:
The book also enumerates the list of illustrious people that 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 from that era would you have liked to meet in the lobby?

AH:
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.


AUC Press:
You also 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.

AH:
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.


AUC Press:
What is it about the hotel life of Egypt’s golden age of travel that fascinates so?

AH:
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 fulfilment, imaging ourselves living out the lives of the historically rich and sometimes famous.

 

To read more about the book and order it, click here.

To read the author's blog of the Grand Hotels of Egypt, click here.

To browse images from the Grand Hotels of Egypt, click here.

To download the invitation to the AUC Press event for this book, on March 4, at Cairo's Windsor Hotel, click here. For a map to the Windsor Hotel, click here.


February 2012

 

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