At the height of the golden age of travel in Egypt, Cairo had The Mena House and Shepheard’s Hotel, Aswan had The Old Cataract and Luxor had The Winter Palace.
Opened in January of 1907, the inauguration of the hotel was marked by a picnic in the Valley of The Kings, followed by dinner back at the hotel with speeches, games of bridge and conversation on the grand horseshoe terrace overlooking the Nile. And while the hotel played host to many a distinguished guest from Egyptian royalty, Comtes and Bishops in those first few years, it would not be until sixteen years later in 1923, that the Winter Palace would truly make a name for itself and become one of the most famous hotels in the world.
What started off as a gathering place for a certain class of traveler in the early 1900s, “splendid specimens of young Englishmen” and ” delicious and deliciously dressed English girls”, as one travel writer of the time would described them.
“At Luxor nearly everyone who can afford it goes to the Winter Palace. The winding white terraces stretching out in front of it, as they do in front of the Chateaux of French kings, are such fascinating places for tete-a-tete teas, and strolling in the moonlight, or the after-breakfast sunshine, on the rare days when you can spare the cool of the morning for anything but expeditions. While you are at tea, you look across the Nile to see the sun setting on the ruins of Thebes, and the afterglow firing the Sahara. In the moonlight you look at the silver mirror of the immortal river, the transparent silver of the Theban hills, the black ghosts of Arabs on the land, and gyassas on the face of the waters.”Douglas Sladen – Queer Things About Egypt 1911
The hotel also soon found itself becoming the home base for many of the all-nations corps of Egyptologists excavating across the Nile on the West Bank, whose visits to the hotel helped fortify them against the loneliness of their work at their dry and dusty dig sites.
Among these excavators to set up a home base at the Winter Palace was a man named George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (you may know him better simply as Lord Carnarvon), whom happened to be granted a special permit to excavate in the Valley of the Kings the same year the Winter Palace was opened.
After setting up his base of operation at the Winter Palace and toiling away in the Valley of The Kings on his own for many years, Lord Carnarvon was advised to hire a former chief inspector of Egyptian Antiquities Services by the name of Howard Carter.
Then The Great War swept across the globe and the Winter Palace suddenly found itself pressed into service as a convalescent home. During this period the hotel sheltered battle damaged soldiers in hospital suits and nurses in lieu of its usual complement of wealthy nile cruisers.
By 1917 the war was winding down and the excavators and tourists were slowly making their way back to the hotel. And by the time the excavation season began in November of 1922, Luxor was nearly back to it’s old self.
On Nov 4th of that year Carter, who had returned to Luxor to continue the work at the excavation site he and Carnarvon had started before the war, uncovered a step carved in the rocky hillside in the valley, and eventually a staircase leading down to the sealed entrance to a previously undiscovered Egyptian tomb.
Carter immediately notified Carnarvon, who was back in England at the time, and upon his arrival in Luxor on the 26th of November the two made history by breaking through the sealed door.
The news of the discovery captivated the world and by Christmas of 1922 the city of Luxor was inundated by visitors consumed by Tut fever hoping to take a peek inside the tomb. The telegraph office was overloaded by newspaper dispatches, tourists shops sold out of their entire stock of cameras and film and hotel rooms were impossible to find. So impossible in fact, that the Winter Palace started setting up canvas tents on the grounds filled with army cots for tourists simply grateful to have any bed at all.
For weeks a few select lucky eager guests at the Winter Palace were treated to guided viewings of the tomb’s antechamber, however the main burial chamber of the tomb had yet to be breached.
Hungry journalists prowled the halls of the hotel desperate for any news to share with their Tut crazed readers worldwide and haunted the outskirts of the dig site in the hopes of picking up a few scraps of new information to share. Finally on the 17th of February 1923, Carter revealed the long awaited treasures of Tutankhamun to the world. But that was far from the end of the story.
Because just a few weeks later on March 6, the 57 year old Lord Carnarvon would be bitten on the face by an insect and then later, while shaving in his room at the Winter Palace, nick the small bite, which quickly became infected, causing Carnarvon to take ill and be transported to Cairo where passed away on the 5th of April at 2am in the morning. Eager reporters consumed by the tut madness quickly spun the story as a mummy’s curse, setting a world already ablaze with Tut fever, skyrocketing over the edge.
Work at the site continued, despite the claims of a mummy’s curse, and the press became more desperate than ever for news. Matters were not helped by the fact that before his death Carnarvon had signed an agreement giving full rights to any story from the dig to the London Times, leaving all other news sites to either grab at the scraps they could find for themselves or bargain with The Times.
So the press again began to haunt the Valley, grab at second hand stories and pick up any gossip they could from the bar of the Winter Palace. At times Carter, often ill-tempered, would even take to using the bulletin board at the Winter Palace to inform everyone of decisions he had made regarding the site and why.
Work continued like this for a full 10 years as Carter’s team painstakingly removed all the objects from the dig site and transported them to the Egyptian museum in Cairo. At which point Carter retired to his home he had built on the West Bank and spent his time browsing around local antiquities dealers and visiting with friends at the Winter Palace.
Which is where he met Agatha Christie and her then archeologist husband, Max Mallowan, who spent some time in Luxor, staying at the Winter Palace in 1933. Christie was later quoted as saying her and her husband found Carter a “sardonic and entertaining character.” And the three could often be found playing games of bridge together at the hotel.
(BTW If you too feel like you now have Tut fever and want to learn more about Tutankhamun and his tomb, then check out the story at the bottom of this blog post I wrote about our time visiting The Valley of The Kings and Tut’s tomb)
Since its glory days in the early 1920s and 1930s the Winter Palace has done its best to hold on and keep going as so many of the other grand hotels in Egypt have been boarded up, closed down, or demolished. Happily in 1994, the hotel was given an $11 million dollar renovation to help restore the 102-room building to a state as close to its original condition as possible. In 2004 additional restorations, to remove unsightly additions from the 1970s also completed, leaving the hotel as a sort of time capsule for the future.
Minus, the original ballroom… since apparently there is less call for a formal ballroom these days and more call for a very large oversized lounge. Which is where we enjoyed a very nice high tea one afternoon during our visit.
Interested in learning more of the history of the hotel and browsing through vintage photographs of the building and the people who stayed there? I can’t recommend the book “Grand Hotels of Egypt: In the Golden Age of Travel” by Andrew Humphreys enough. And if you can’t wait for your copy of his book to arrive, check out his blog with posts about the Winter Palace in the mean time.
What We Loved
The Character & History
Despite being a bit dated and frayed around the edges, you can’t escape THE HISTORY that happened within these walls. As I’ve mentioned before, there aren’t a lot of hotels left in Egypt at this point from the golden age of travel, and most of those that do still exist have been HEAVILY renovated and modernized, so it’s rare to find a hotel with so much of it’s original character still in tact.
Of all the hotels we stayed at during our time in Egypt, the Winter Palace was, by far, the most centrally located. Literally mere steps away from the Luxor Temple complex, less than a half mile walk to the main ferry crossing and just under a mile to the Luxor Museum, the Winter Palace is perfectly situated for any tourist wanting to explore Luxor easily by foot.
The On-Site Amenities
While a bit dated and frayed around the edges, the Winter Palace does a good job of still trying to provide a full service experiences to its guests. From on site gifts shops, to a plush bar, breakfast room, formal dining room, outdoor cafe, high tea service, to a beautiful pool and lounge area and even a massage parlor (which we totally took advantage of and was a lovely addition to our trip), the hotel really does provide an enormous number of on site services for the weary traveler who may just want to take it easy for a few days and have all their needs met without having to even leave the grounds of the hotel.
The Price Tag
Compared to The Old Cataract Hotel, it was infinitely more affordable to stay at the Winter Palace. (Although comparing pictures of the two, I’m sure you can see just a few differences and why the price tag might reflect that.) Coming in at only around $154/night during our visit in 2018, it is by far not the cheapest option in the city, but an excellent price (in my humble opinion) for the opportunity to stay in such a historic hotel.
What We Didn’t Love
The Street Sellers Camped Out Front
I know I just got done saying how great the location was, and IT IS, however it’s proximity to the center of town and it’s reputation for hosting “wealthy” tourists has made the front entrance of the building an easy target for local street sellers and hustlers to camp out and then swarm anyone leaving the building. Which made every instance of leaving the hotel a bit of a battle.
This is by no means a new problem though. This has been an issue since the hotel opened and even tourists back in the early 1900s wrote about the same problem in their travel memoirs.
“[Luxor vendors] fill the entire street in front of the Winter Palace, and walk beside, in front of, and behind every foreigner, who comes out, all talking at the same time, all wanting to sell their services or something equally undesirable, all thrusting themselves in between you and your friend, or the object at which you may be looking, in order to secure your attention.”Douglas Sladen – Queer Things About Egypt 1911
Ultimately this was not something that was so bothersome that it ruined our experience, or would deter us from choosing to stay there again (these are fellow human being just trying to do their best to provide for their families and loved ones after all), it is something to be aware of when choosing this particular hotel as your home base during your visit. Was it annoying, yes. Was I ever scared for my safety or fearful because of it, no, not once. Just be prepared to say “la, shukraan” (Arabic for “no thank you”) on repeat…. a lot.
The Quality Of The Rooms Varies Greatly
My biggest complaint in regards to our personal stay at the hotel, was with how disappointed I was with the original room we received upon check in.
For a bit of backstory, there are two sections of the hotel. The original building with the original 102 rooms either facing toward the Nile or inward toward the garden, most with their own private balcony. There is also a much newer building near the back of the grounds and the pool, with more modern rooms. So during our booking process I requested a room in the original building with a view of the Nile.
However, upon check-in we were given a ground floor room, facing the Nile yes, but with the view completely blocked by bushes and trees and no balcony. (Like literally all you could see out the window was a wall of bushes lol) Upon inquiring at the front desk if there were any alternative rooms available with a better view of the Nile, we were given a room on the third floor, on the far south western end cap of the hotel. And while the room DID have a balcony and if you went out onto the balcony it DID have a view of the Nile… it mostly had a view of the building next door. This seemed preferable to the room with no balcony or view of the Nile at all, so we swapped rooms.
However we soon discovered that the innocuous looking building right next door with the funny looking scaffolding on top, was in fact a speaker system for the local mosque to amplify their calls to prayer. You can imagine how loud this was in our room.
All that said, friends of ours taking the trip with us received a beautiful room overlooking the Nile and greatly enjoyed it. So either be prepared to be extremely specific during your booking process or know that the quality of the room you get may differ greatly from person to person.
Come Prepared For Mosquitos
Like I mentioned before in regards to our stay at The Old Cataract, for some reason, coming from Alabama, land of mosquitos, you would think I would have come prepared to deal with bugs. But somehow in my mind we were going to be in the desert of Egypt, there aren’t any mosquitos in the desert… ummmm, duh Kadie, what about the GIANT RIVER full of water!? Long story short, the hotel does what it can, but if you are a target for mosquitos and all manor of biting flying creatures like I am, be sure and come prepared with some bug spray if you plan on spending any time hanging out on the grounds outside.
The Wear & Tear Is Noticeable
While the hotel has made a notable effort to maintain the history and charm of the original building, and as recently as 1994 put $11 million dollars worth of renovations into the hotel, the wear and tear is still very noticeable. Unlike The Old Cataract where one feels transported to a different time surrounded by the plush furnishings and the opulence that visitors during the golden age of travel would have been greeted with during the hotel’s hay-day. Today’s visitors to the Winter Palace are greeted with somewhat tattered and worn furnishings and an atmosphere that is all just a bit frayed around the edges. The beauty is there, it’s all just a bit worn down by time. However, for me if the option is worn and frayed around the edges but still retaining its original charm, or renovated and modernized beyond recognition, I’ll personally take worn and frayed every time.
One thought on “Step Into History At The Winter Palace In Luxor”
Great story, very pleasant to read.