Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo: a little piece of England

Shepheard's Hotel, Gazira Palace Uni of Chicago library
Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo, 1899 source: University of Chicago Library

In the mid to late nineteenth century, if you were British and travelling through the Orient on your way to India, or exploring the Nile or the antiquities of Egypt, chances are you would have stayed in the shabbily grand, quintessentially imperial, Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo.

Prior to 1869 whenThomas Cook began his organised tours up the Nile, travel in the Orient was fraught with various dangers and frustrations. There was always the fear of bandits and disease, and the discomfort of culture shock, heat and insects. In Cairo at least, there was Shepheard’s Hotel for weary travellers. Situated on the boundary between the European and Arab quarters and overlooking the busy Ibrahim Pasha Street, the hotel was in an ideal location for English travellers.

Originally known as the Hotel des Anglais and later named after its owner, Samuel Shepheard, the hotel made up in charm and slightly risque reputation what it may have lacked in high-class luxury. British travellers, “wanted Shepherd’s to be a little piece of England, like the British Consulate. In the end it did become a cocoon for them in the heart of Cairo…” [1]

The comfortable dining room with English-style food and guest accommodation with full-length baths became home away from home to British and European explorers, travellers, artists, writers, scientists, and later the civil servants, traders and  tourists  that flooded to Egypt as it became more accessible. British army officers of the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Boer and both World Wars helped to give  Shepheard’s long bar its legendary status. The explorers Richard Burton and Henry Morton Stanley were guests, so was Kitchener, Churchill, T.E.Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and the writers Mark Sawyer, Lance Thackeray and Agatha Christie.

But the real hub of the hotel, the best place to discuss politics and military tactics, to exchange stories about trips up the Nile or being fleeced by local dragomans, to socialise, gossip or to simply see and be seen, was the famous terrace.

Amelia Edwards wrote about walking into the packed dining room at Shepheard’s after the long dusty journey from Alexandria (see post Thankyou dear Amelia Edwards) but the terrace was the epicentre  for people watching.

“As diversified amusement nothing quite takes the place of “the Terrace” at Shepheard’s in the height of the season,” wrote Blanche McManus in 1911 in her book  An American Woman abroad, “say about February, when the chairs before the little wicker tables under the gay Oriental hangings are all taken, and a crowd, clothed in all colours, and of all degrees of brilliance, is gathered to hear the band play, gossip and watch the multi-coloured population of this most cosmopolitan of Oriental cities drift ceaselessly past…”

luggage label of the hotel and scene from the street below the terrace

Many of the women artists of my study stayed at Shepheard’s and would have spent  hours on its terrace watching the world go by, talking with companions, planning their travels, perhaps recovering their health, negotiating their next adventure and in several cases sketching what they saw before them.

[1] Sattin, Lifting the Veil : British Society in Egypt, 1768-1956, 180.