EXPERIENCES: Travel in Christie's footsteps: CAIRO
Updated: Oct 17, 2020
“Cairo, from the point of view of a girl, was a dream of delight” Agatha Christie, An Autobiography, Part IV.
One of our themes at "Collecting Christie" has been to 'collect experiences', such as travelling in Christie's footsteps. When one thinks of Christie in Egypt one generally envisions steaming on the Nile aboard the SS Sudan, visiting Abu Simbel or staying at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. However, before Christie visited any of these Nile sights that inspired her, she first visited Cairo as a 19-year old. Chaperoned by her mother, the young Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller visited Cairo supposedly for the 1910-1911 social season. However, there is evidence from the family archivist that Christie may have got the dates wrong and she was actually there in 1908 (either 1907-08, or 1908-09).
They took up residence at the Gezira Palace Hotel in the heart of Cairo for three months. They went to five dances a week, attended horse races and went to polo games every afternoon at the neighbouring sports club. While the Egyptian Museum was directly across from them on the bank of the Nile, it was not appealing to Agatha. Despite her lack of interest, her mother was able to take her there periodically to expose Agatha to some of Egypt’s antiquities. However, a trip up the Nile to Luxor was not on the cards. Agatha later wrote that she was glad she didn’t spoil the wonders of Egypt by seeing them with unappreciative eyes.
“Mother tried to broaden my mind by taking me occasionally to the Museum, and also suggested we should go up the Nile and see the glories of Luxor. I protested passionately, with tears in my eyes, ‘Oh no, mother, oh no, don’t let’s go away now. There’s the fancy dress dance on Monday, and I promised to go on a picnic to Sakkara on Tuesday…’ and so on and so forth. The wonders of antiquity were the last thing I cared to see, and I am very glad she did not take me. Luxor, Karnak, the beauties of Egypt, were to come upon me with wonderful impact about twenty years later. How it would have spoilt them for me if I had seen them then with unappreciative eyes.” Agatha Christie, An Autobiography, Part IV.
The Gezira Palace Hotel: Originally an ornate 19th-century Islamic palace built by Khedive Ismail of Egypt in 1869 – Khedive was the title of the Viceroy of Egypt while under Turkish rule (1867-1914), it was built to host the French Empress Eugenie who was invited by the Khedive to attend the opening ceremony of the Suez Canal.
Images of some of the original rooms for guests at the hotel.
In 1889 Ismail sold the Palace into private hands that later became the Gezirah Land Company, and then later still the Egyptian Hotels Company. In 1894, the Palace was leased to the Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hotels (CIGH) to operate it. They remodeled the property and in October 1894, the Gezira Palace Hotel opened to guests. Of note, CIGH was a subsidiary of the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits (CWL), operator of the Orient Express and other luxury train services.
The Palace’s design & layout: Located on an island in the center of Cairo, the Palace’s first iteration included lush gardens and buildings with lavish ornamentation, such that it was often compared to the Alhambra in Spain. The Palace consisted of a haremlik (domestic heart / inner domestic courtyard) and a salamlik (public reception area / public courtyard) along with several annexes. Behind the U-shaped building were the extensive khedivial gardens with twin lakes overlooked by the Kiosque, a large free-standing pavilion that was originally used as guest accommodation, but later became function rooms and a casino.
The Sports Facilities: South of the ornamental gardens, the Khedive’s private park was already a sports and recreation ground for polo and horse riding by the time the hotel was opened. The scale of the property was such that when Christie stayed here the Gezirah Palace and its annexes occupied most of the central part of the island.
The Hotel Today: The surviving building still overlooks the Nile, sometimes described in period books as the Palais des Fetes. Today it houses the current hotel's reception, casino, and function rooms. The original historic entrance, while still present, is not used to welcome guests but can be visited. Other parts of the interior are quite original and provide a feel as to the splendor of the earlier periods. Authentic features also include a few of the grand paintings and many of the antiques. For those interested in staying here, the hotel is now operated as the Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino. The two modern tower blocks of rooms on either side of the original building make this a very large hotel today with over 1000 rooms. Try to arrange a tour to see many of the original items and areas.
The Environs Today: Most of the land around the former Palace has been developed. The Salamlik (public reception area) to the rear of the original Palace was mostly destroyed by fire in 1955 while hosting a tourism art exhibition, it is now the site of All Saints Cathedral and a few other buildings. The sports fields that hosted polo matches and horse racing in Christie’s day still exist but are now part of the Gezirah Sporting Club. Most of this space has become golf courses with a number of sports fields. Part of the gardens remain but have become the quite odd “Aquarium Grotto Garden”.
The Unpublished Novel: Shortly after returning to England, Agatha Christie wrote a novel, which she called Snow Upon the Desert. She set the book in Cairo and populated it with characters modelled on people she’d seen at the Palace and the affiliated social functions. While she tried numerous times to get it published, it never made it into print. A copy must exist as it has been referenced in a few works, though it is unseen by almost all. Hopefully, one day it will be made available to devotees who would love to gain more insight into these formative years of Christie’s life.
Travel to Egypt: As of October 2020, travel to Egypt is broadly possible from most of the world. Egypt has a very low COVID level and is welcoming tourists. Travellers from the UK, USA and most of the world will be required to have a PCR test within 72 hours of arrival. All entry requirements, which likely may change often, can be found on the relevant governmental websites. But for those who want to move forward with their travel adventures, Egypt can be on your list. There are other articles on Collecting Christie, including on our Facebook page, about travelling in Egypt in the footsteps of Christie.