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06.08.2015
A chap named David Hopper added a comment on this site last week mentioning he had a poster that recycled one of the designs used on the cover of an Anglo-American Nile Company brochure.
I mentioned a few posts back that there had been some amends made for the paperback edition of Grand Hotels.
You’d imagine that for an institution as famous as Shepheard’s, everything about it would be thoroughly documented but this is not the case. Tarek is now hoping to find sponsors to fund the restoration of the furniture, which is in a fairly bad way, with a possible view to a future exhibition.
It’s been out for a while now but I only recently got to see it for myself – the paperback edition of Grand Hotels of Egypt. It unexpectedly popped up again in British newspaper The Guardian in an interview with Cate Blanchett. The hostel where the future Elizabeth I and Galadriel was staying in Cairo was the Oxford pension. But it had a prime location midway up Talaat Harb and it was cheap, cheap enough that it was always full of long-term boarders, paying just a few pounds a week for a place to flop.
Americans had been vacationing on the Nile since the mid 19th century but in the first years of the 20th they were coming in ever greater numbers.
Except tearing up and back down the Nile at breakneck speed was not the experience most tourists in Egypt were looking for and it seems the Express Nile Steamer Company did not remain in business long because very little evidence of it exists. Humphreys’ beautifully produced account of tourism’s golden age is largely the story of what became of Cook & Son, from its internal politics to its ties to government and the British Army – in 1884 all tourist activity was halted, as Cook’s steamers were commandeered by the Gordon Relief Expedition, a hiatus which was followed by the launching in 1888 of a fleet of ‘floating palaces’ so grand that bathrooms were included in the fare, instead of being optional extras. Like Cook & Son, the Anglo-American was able to offer weekly departures from Cairo during the season, with connecting departures to the Second Cataract and through bookings to Khartoum. The company was strengthened in 1906 by amalgamation with the transatlantic Hamburg-American Line, becoming in the process the Hamburg and Anglo-American Nile Company. Now, wouldn’t you know it, since the publication of the book earlier this year, there has been a flood of Anglo-American brochures hitting eBay. Grand Hotels of Egypt and On the Nile are published by the American University in Cairo Press. The Anglo-American company spent years overshadowed by the more commercially successful Thomas Cook Nile services and subsequently largely vanished from history while the Thomas Cook name lives on, but thanks to Richter it can at least boast the better graphics.
Chief of these was correcting a big mistake of mine, which was to attribute the design of the 1890 rebuild of Shepheard’s hotel to the English architect George Somers Clarke. Not even the daily newspapers of the time, which reported at length on the remodeling and relaunch of the hotel, bothered to credit the architect.
He discovered that Rennebaum’s ancestors still had a dusty tower room filled with their ancestor’s belongings (he died in 1937). Kaboria!” The reference was to a hit film that was playing at the cinemas, staring Ahmed Zaki.
Rehashing old history with the journalist, she explains how aged around 20, she was doing the Australian thing of travelling the world for a year. It had the added attraction of a reception area that was the place to score drugs, pick up work, sell a Walkman or a passport, buy a false student ID, or just to share Stellas and stories with like-minded warriors on the overland trail. These memorably included a guy from Manchester who had to be medivaced out after catching hepatitis and an American who taught English up the street at a cowboy school where the pay didn’t allow for anything more than a bed at the Oxford. We updated the text earlier this summer, correcting a few typos and including new information that has come to light since the book’s original publication (more on that shortly).
These pages are from a guide to Chicago published in 1888, but the paternalistic going on paranoid tone of the advice is familiar from guides to Egypt. The online Telegraph ran a picture gallery linked to the book, as did the online travel section of the Daily Mail. The bigger steamers had triple decks that sat on top of a hull that was little more than a floating platform, which gave them an appearance that was top-heavy going on outright ugly. The prices have mostly carried them out of my reach but I have managed to screen-grab some of the covers, which are lovely things. Hats off then to Tarek Ibrahim, a researcher at the Humboldt University of Berlin who has succeeded where I failed and managed to identify the real architect.
These include sketchbooks, photographs, and plans and preparatory drawings for details of the decor in Shepheard’s, as well as items of furniture that may possibly have come from the hotel. In it, he sported a distinctive close-crop hair cut and, unasked for by me, my local barber had given me the same cut. She was hanging out in Cairo when she was approached by some guy at her hostel and asked if she wanted to appear as an English-speaking extra in a local film.
To brighten up his room the American bought some red cloth from Khan al-Khalili and draped the ceilings and walls. Meanwhile, on the Nile new cruise companies were setting up to challenge the monopoly of the English-owned Thomas Cook & Son. It claimed its boats were the fastest on the Nile, with an average speed upstream of 12 knots an hour. The most useful source of information I had was a pdf of the Anglo-American’s very first Nile brochure, kindly sent to me by Cornelius von Pilgrim of the Swiss Institut in Egypt. But this arrangement did mean they had a shallower draft than the Cook boats and were less prone to running aground.
The Anglo-American also went head-to-head with Cook & Son in the land-based hospitality business, opening its own hotel, the Savoy, on the northern tip of Elephantine Island at Aswan. The image at the top of this post, by the way, is an advertising poster rather than a brochure.
In my defence, information on the architects of hotels built in the 19th century was and is hard to come by. A name in an old Shepheard’s brochure led him to a castle in Bavaria where he gained confirmation that the architect was a German named Johann Adam Rennebaum. Then the film finished its run and my hair grew out and that’s the last I heard of Kaboria, until last month.
I’ve written before about the Anglo-American, established in the mid 1890s, and this was joined ten years later by another new venture, the Express Nile Steamer Company. This enabled them to complete the journey to Aswan and back in eight days as opposed to Cook & Son’s standard twenty. I’ve never seen any other material relating to the company, which might explain why this item went for a price far beyond my each. I have a couple of later brochures from the 1930s and between them, a few newspaper clippings and mentions in journals and travel accounts, I pieced together what I could. This business arrangement was severed around the time Germany found itself at war with Britain and eventually America. However, contrary to what sources on the internet say, Blanchett says it was so hot and boring she left and was never in the film. When he left a few months later, the management at the Oxford left his room as it was and certain guests got given a room that looked like a brothel, complete with white rabbit and droppings. If you haven’t already bought a copy of the book, maybe put off by the price tag of the hardback, then the good news is the paperback is selling for just ?10 on amazon in the UK. In fact, I think few architectural historians that specialise in 19th-century Cairo have even heard of him. But apparently he was a long-term resident of Egypt, who designed villas for members of the German community in Alexandria and a number of buildings for Belgian enterprises in Cairo. It appears he was also involved in restorations of some of Cairo’s most important mosques including Ibn Tulun, Sultan Hassan and Al-Azhar.
It had a rickety lift with the greater part of its back kicked out that carried guest up to the sixth-floor reception and which felt uncomfortable like an ascending coffin. It had nicotine-hued walls, showers that spouted only rusty trickles and rooms that weren’t rooms at all, just widenings in the corridor with a mattress on the floor.



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