Historic Hotels of Egypt
The Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, built in 1899, stands at the site of the first cataract, or waterfall, of the Nile. Elevated on a pink granite plateau, the hotel occupies the site of the Old Kingdom quarry that supplied the Pharaohs with granite. The Old Cataract was built on a bed of Nile alluvium that accumulated on the site since the quarry was abandoned the over 4,000 years ago.
It was the world's first tour operator, Thomas Cook, who had the hotel constructed. His popular cruises and tours of the Nile at the end of the 19th century needed a base and lodgings that would make the tourists feel at home. Unlike many other historic hotels in Egypt, it was never a royal palace or lodge but has been throughout its existence an operational hotel.
The exterior is in typical late Victorian style, the arabesque influences and designs preserved for the interior. The hotel, with its magnificent view of the Nile and Elephantine Island, was always a favorite of the aristocracy during Egypt's British colonial period.
Past guests include Howard Carter, discoverer of Tutankhamen's tomb, British statesman Sir Winston Churchill, author Agatha Christie, Czar Nicolas II, Lady Diana, and American president Jimmy Carter. It also featured prominently in the 1978 movie based on Agatha Christie's novel Death on the Nile.
The Eastern styles flourish in the complex interior design of the building, with a multitude of low, rounded arches made of alternating black and white stones.
As was the Victorian style, furniture was made in the darkest wood available, dark mahogany with a reddish tinge. Much of the furniture is monumental in its Moorish style, abundantly decorated with woodcarvings skillfully executed, but revealing an indifference to comfort.
Marble floors and Islamic textiles and tiles embrace the public areas. Designed as a Moorish hall, the domed "1902" restaurant features four red-and-white traditional arches decorated with stained glass.
Built in 1886, the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor attracted the nobility of Europe who wanted to see firsthand the glorious empire of ancient Egypt. It was on its lobby bulletin board that guests were informed of Howard Carter's great discovery. The famous Egyptologist was residing at the hotel when he made his discovery in 1922 and continued to return to the hotel until his death.
The exterior is built like a fashionable 19th century European hotel. The steps leading up the entrance look elegant and graceful. Walking into the lobby, one is met with a mixture of Moorish fittings and Victorian interior design; the square pillars are adorned with Baroque motifs.
Typical Middle Eastern tiles embellish the floors. The steps leading up to the upper floors are monumental and dominate the lobby. The atmosphere in the lobby is subdued, and detailed ironwork and two grand chandeliers create an air of continental Victorian.
Each guest room is different, with high ceilings, Egyptian decor mixed with modern fixtures and amenities. Like its sister hotel the Old Cataract, the five-star Winter Palace is today operated by the international hotel chain Sofitel.
The Windsor Hotel in Cairo was originally built as a Turkish bath house for the royal families in Cairo. Compared to the Winter Palace Hotel and the Old Cataract, the Windsor is a relic that thrives on its faded, rundown image.
The small lobby is dark and unwelcoming. The manually operated elevator — reputedly the oldest in Egypt — reeks of rotten wood and grease. Throughout the hotel, Art Deco travel posters adorn the walls; the carpets are torn and threadbare.
In the early days of the British presence in Cairo, the most famous hotel was the Shepheards. However, it was destroyed in a fire in 1952, leaving that honor to the next-door Windsor Hotel. A damaged painting from the fire still hangs in the Windsor dining room.
For half a century the Windsor was the British officers' club; relics of this can be seen all over the hotel especially in the bar where trophy animals shot by the officers hang on the walls.
The chairs in the bar are made from wooden barrels and date from the early 1900s. The rooms are simple, decorated with furniture that has seen better times. The sink and bathroom still have fittings from the 20s; this is not a hotel for the faint hearted.
The Cecil Hotel
The Cecil Hotel in Alexandria is newer than its counterparts in the rest of Egypt. Established in 1929, it has always been a romantic hotel. Author Somerset Maugham stayed here, as did Winston Churchill, and the British Secret Service maintained a suite for their operations.
Today the interior has been completely renovated and modernized, leaving nothing from its past glory. Only the lavish exterior hints at its historic significance: lancet arches of the top-floor windows, Islamic ogee arch shapes of the bottom-floor windows, Moorish style balconies, and the distinctly Art Deco entrance.
The historic hotels of Egypt stand not only as structures from a bygone era, but also as active, functioning entities. Time has not stood still so much as it has taken a break.
Steven Allan is a freelance photographer and writer born in London, currently living in Tel-Aviv.