Grand Hotels: Reminiscing Over a Lost Colonial Age

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Western visitors flocked to Egypt's "grand hotels" to observe the "mystical" Orient from a comfortable distance. (Illustration: International Poster)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book Review: Grand Hotels of Egypt: In the Golden Age of Travel, Andrew Humphreys, 2011, The American University in Cairo Press

In Andrew Humphreys’ Grand Hotels of Egypt, the lifespan of Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo seems to aptly capture the spirit of the “golden age” of travel in Egypt.

After British sailor Samuel Shepheard opened his hotel in 1848, Westerners used it as a base from which to set out on “adventures” in Egypt. Humphreys describes it as the type of place where movie stars brushed shoulders with “explorers,” and that writers used as inspiration for their novels.

The hotel went through several incarnations during its century of existence, but its longest-lasting structure was a 1890s Italianate behemoth located on Kamal Pasha street. Its front entrance was flanked with authentic stone sphinxes, while its inside was decorated with imitation Egyptian friezes and Pharaonic statues, as well as a Moorish-themed ballroom. Despite the lavish interior, the biggest draw for Western tourists was the terrace.

Chairs and tables lined the busy avenue where tourists watched the “street circus” below. Humphreys writes, “The terrace served as both stage and auditorium, where guests could observe the street life of Cairo and the street life of Cairo could gaze back.”

Over the years, Shepheard’s became known as the “epitome of imperialism and foreign influence in Egypt” and during the 1952 revolution, it was burned to the ground in an anti-British revolt. Only the Moorish ballroom remained standing. Decades later, a new “Shepheard” hotel – with no ties to the original – was built. The featureless concrete structure sits facing the Nile with little to distinguish itself from its corporate hotel neighbors.

In this glossy, color-illustrated book, Humphreys documents the rise and fall of Egypt’s grand hotels – Shepheard’s being just one of the many resorts that flourished during the so-called “golden age” of travel in the mid-19th to early 20th century. Revisiting the grand hotels of Egypt would seem to be an opportunity for colonialist reminiscing over a long-lost period of glamour, but Humphreys – for the most part – keeps any longing in check.

Through journal entries and guidebook texts, Humphreys acknowledges the condescending and racist attitudes of travelers, but he often leans heavily on the tropes of a cosmopolitan age to amplify hotels as spaces of timeless intrigue and cross-cultural mingling. This is somewhat tempered with the documentation of the boom of the official tourist industry in Egypt. Companies like the British Thomas Cook & Son brought in thousands of tourists on guided tours by the late 19th century. Then, by the turn of the 20th century, the majority of luxury hotels in Cairo were owned by a single company, Egyptian Hotels Ltd. It is difficult to weave a “mystery of the Orient” tale when most of the country’s visitors were sight-seeing tourists, not “adventurers” or novelists.

For Humphreys, the story of Egypt during this period was one of “the meeting of West and East,” and “some of the main places in which such meetings occurred were the country’s various grand hotels.” Though a critical analysis is not the book’s stated objective, this “meeting” of East and West sounds too innocuous to include a British occupation, revolutions, and finally, a state of post-colonial independence. In this way, Grand Hotels of Egypt – even though it nods to the hotels’ situational contexts – is more a look at the individual hotel’s histories and doesn’t critically question how their presence represented more of a divide than a “meeting.”

Sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod noted in her 1965 essay Tale of Two Cities: The Origins of Modern Cairo, that Western travelers at the turn of the century were already referring to a “European Cairo” and an “Egyptian Cairo.” While much of this was bolstered by infrastructural plans implemented by Egyptian Khedive Ismail Pasha, it could be said that the hotels were spatial markers of this divide. The observation deck at Shepheard’s perhaps best highlights this insular world of Westerners, but the city of Alexandria was also the site of many Western imaginings.

With its coastal location, Alexandria was home to several beach resorts and hotels, which, for many Western writers like E.M. Forster, were symbols of the city’s “golden age.” Later on, Western writers would lament the “decline” of the city. Historian Khaled Fahmy nicely sums up the consequences of idealizing certain periods of history as “golden” in the context of Egypt and Alexandria in particular. In his recent essay The Essence of Alexandria, he writes:

“Idealizing the cosmopolitanism that is seen to have infused life in the city in its modern golden age (c. 1860–1960), novelists, poets, literary critics, travel writers and others typically turn with disgust and repugnance to the natives who are implicitly (and at times, explicitly) blamed for the city’s fall, and who are referred to in what is supposed to be a pejorative term: ‘Arabs.’”

Humphreys provides clues to the physical past of this period in Alexandria, but does not question the Western perspectives of Alexandria, nor the legacy of the writers and artists who would later write about Egypt. Instead, writers like Forster are fixtures that amplify the glamour of Alexandria.

Naturally, a book about the grand hotels of Egypt is going to be centered on Westerners and their experiences. Yet the persistence of a memory of a “golden” age of travel is too often allowed to pass by without question.

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