Journal: Wednesday 13 November 1996
Named after the first Nile cataract, the rocky un-navigable part of the river, the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan is probably most famous to the English as the place which is said to have inspired Agatha Christie to write her novel ‘Death on the Nile’ in the 1930s. Later the early scenes from the movie starring Peter Ustinov were filmed here. We had been told that having tea on the terrace overlooking the Nile is a must-do when in Aswan, so I decided to visit it with a couple from the cruise boat. We took a caleche along the Corniche and arrived at the palm-lined drive of the hotel, to be greeted by a doorman wearing an elaborate embroidered red uniform and a fez. The extensive gardens were very beautiful and the long curved building itself is a colourful pinkish-orange decorated with white contrasting paintwork. Stepping into the hotel was like walking back in time to an Edwardian era where I felt like a colonial traveller entering a sultan’s palace.
The hotel was constructed for Thomas Cook, who had recently introduced his grand Nile cruises. Opening in 1899 at the heyday of British imperialism, with a ceremony attended by the Khedive of Egypt, Winston Churchill and Lord and Lady Cromer, it quickly became a favourite of British and European upper classes, royal families and other world dignitaries. Over the next two centuries many important people have spent their leisure time at the Old Cataract, including the Egyptian King Farouk and some even have suites named after them. Howard Carter also stayed here after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. We were given a brief tour of the hotel, stopping at the suite where Agatha Christie had stayed, and peeping into the legendary ‘1902 Restaurant’, a former domed ballroom decorated in Moorish style. I preferred the foyer however, with its marble floors, key-shaped arched doorways, velvet drapes and antique furniture. It was almost like visiting a museum, the old-world atmosphere seeped from every corner, though I have to say it didn‘t feel quite Egyptian, rather an Englishman‘s idea of oriental décor. Though dressed reasonably smartly, I felt I should have worn a tea-gown as we stepped out onto the terrace at last. To one side a small band of musicians played soft Egyptian music to the accompaniment of the water lapping against the rounded boulders below the terrace. It was such a perfect and romantic setting. We sat and watched the large white-sailed feluccas tacking in the strong breeze backwards and forwards between the hotel and Elephantine Island, which is directly opposite the hotel. I felt I could almost reach out and touch the ruins on opposite bank. We drank our tea, served in white china cups and lingered to watch the sun slide down towards the golden dunes on the West Bank. The granite boulders of Elephantine had begun to turn red and the feluccas were heading homewards as we left the hotel to walk back to our boat. I felt as though I had stepped out of time for those couple of hours of pampered luxury. An experience I will not forget.