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Andrew Humphreys: Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel
There is nothing more exciting than getting out of your country and exploring other parts of the world. A hundred years ago, travelling was a luxury affair only affordable for the rich and famous. It wasn’t just about the destination, the journey to your destination was also considered to be an important part of the trip. Back in the day people would get aboard a luxurious steam vessel and dock in Alexandria from where you could go to Cairo, getting the chance to visit this great city.
Grand Hotels of Egypt is written by Andrew Humphreys, who has had a long time obsession with Egypt’s former grand hotels, and the design is done by Gadi Farfour. Together they are responsible for creating perhaps one of the most interesting books we have seen in a long time; with most of the information collected by reading old travel journals and interviewing people.
Egypt has always been a popular travel destination for tourists. Halfway into the nineteenth century it became even more popular because it served as a stop en route to India. The entire British high society came to holiday in Egypt first before heading off to India. Some of them however preferred to stay in Egypt and in order to cater to their high demands luxury hotels were erected all over Alexandria and Cairo.
The book takes you back in time to an Egypt we would hardly recognize. Humphreys’ book isn’t just a boring collection of former hotels, but it gives further insight of Egypt in those days. Apart from describing the hotels he also gives details about the clientele, the city culture and every once in a while offers some juicy gossip from back then. The book starts in Alexandria with hotels like the San Stefano and Hotel Cecil, and then moves onto Cairo. Of course all the famous Cairo hotels such as Shepheard’s, Mena House and Semiramis feature; there is also a chapter about the Continental-Savoy and about the still existing Windsor hotel. After that, the book goes to the Winter Palace in Luxor and the first Nile cruise; it completes this area with the Cataract Hotel in Aswan. Throughout the book, substantial attention is drawn to Port Said because it used to be such an affluent city. All the chapters are extremely entertaining and well written, accompanied by terrific pictures, original drawings and advertisements. This book is worth browsing through just for the aesthetic quality alone.
As well as the hotels, there is also a lot of information about the histories of the cities. Cairo for instance used to have a lake where one could go on a felucca ride. It was apparently also possible to have a picnic on top of Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria, and on top of the smaller step-pyramids in Giza. Aswan was considered the Côte d’Azur of Egypt because of its healthy climate that attracted many tourists in the winter for healing purposes.
Grand Hotels of Egypt is a remarkable and entertaining book but it’s a bulk of information so it might take some time before you are able to finish. The book costs 200LE and is available at all well-known bookshops.
Hitchens has no time for self-pity because, as he states, “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
For a book that’s subject is so inherently sad, you do find yourself laughing out loud an awful lot. His description of his “firm deportation […] from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of the malady” is remarkably objective and humorous.
Any observer today would see Ghosh’s description of the villagers as weak, unassuming and orientalist; but at the same time there is a sense of sincerity in his writing that alleviates much of these concerns. He is, after all, writing for a Western audience who presumably love the stories of quirky, simple village folk.
In the end, the journey is what we care about. Even for those who are Egyptian or who have lived in this country for some time, the book relays the excitement of discovering something new. Ghosh seems to be taunting the reader with this forgotten world, driving home the point that nobody, in reality, gives time for the forgotten village life in today’s modern urban culture.
Ghosh succeeds in his creation of a world far stranger than the one that currently exists, be it in Egypt or abroad. He is met with locals who are open and willing to discuss matters without concern for who listens. In these same villages today, it is a much different story, as workers now struggle to make ends meet and are weary of the government’s gaze. It is a world we all avoid, one with which we are unfamiliar with and one that Ghosh has expertly described.
It might not have been Ghosh’s intention, but he shows an Egypt far different than most Western media and pundits describe. It is worth a glance, if only to see a world so different from our own.