When we say Luxor, we do not mean the ancient monuments. We mean that long corniche where almost every Egyptian school trip strolls and chants with passion: ‘Luxor baladna balad sowah!’ (Luxor, our tourist town).
For more than a century and a half Luxor has been a top destination. The influx of western tourists meant that it accommodated consular agencies for several nationalities including the French, British, German, Italian and Belgian. And with the developments of photography over the years both tourists and explorers produced an extensive amount of photographs that range from amateur snapshots to professional images. In the case of Luxor more than any other town, its archeology is intermixed with its urban layout, i.e. the spontaneity and development of the town, as much as with its modern social history and hotel industry.
Two aerial photos taken in the mid-twentieth century of the Luxor Temple were considered striking by the standards of their time for the novelty of their perspective.
Clip from Gharam fel Karnak film 1967
(1. Aerial Luxor 1; 1. Aerial Luxor 2).
While urbanists study them to assess the extent of city growth within the last seventy five years, historians, archaeologists and artists value them as they reveal how well integrated the temples were in their own habitat despite their grandeur. That is also a perfect illustration of where the origin of the name “Luxor” came from. Because of the magnificence of their architectural scale the temples were misnamed as palaces, which in Arabic is pronounced Al-Qusur. This in turn and with time was distorted and became “Luxor.”
The aerial photos reveal also the spontaneous layout of Luxor, emphasising its corniche, known to locals until today as Sharia Al-Bahr (Street of the Sea).
Areal Luxor 2
While the anchor of Luxor’s corniche is the Luxor Temple, the guidebooks of the early twentieth century highlight several other landmarks of which only the legendary Winter Palace Hotel is still extant, with the same classical majestic exterior although somewhat renovated its interiors. What is subdued are one of the two Andrawus family houses neighboring the Luxor Temple from its north side, the Savoy Hotel and the National Bank.
At the far southern end was the so called Banana Island belonging to the Andrawus family and currently leased to a hotel. And as is the case nowadays, animation was happening on the Nile itself where the steamers were docked. Some of the earliest were Thomas Cook which was also a travel agency, both launched in 1886, Anglo American, American Express and the Lloyd Triestino. And since at that time the Luxor Museum, which is only a couple of decades old, did not exist the trade of replica antiquities was common. But for the purchase of genuine pieces or for advice on whether they were forgeries or not, potential buyers were advised by guidebooks to go to a small store run by a local by the name of Muhareb Tadros near the Luxor Temple, presumably also on the corniche.
Being photographed endlessly by its visitors, an image of excavations around the Ramses statues flanking the entrance of Luxor Temple captures a rare moment in the history of Luxor before which these two statues were covered to their chest level. However, there are no photos of a time when Luxor Temple boasted its second obelisk currently at Place de la Concorde in Paris
Luxor Temple while excavating around Ramses's statues.jpg
Luxor Temple while excavating around Ramses's statues
Equally unfortunate is that there were many photographs of the exterior of the Winter Palace but very few of its interior. And while no wide angle would have been able to capture both the Luxor Temple and the Winter Palace together in the same shot, Tony Binder, a watercolorist of the turn of the century created small postcards grouping the two highlights of the corniche in one frame
Winter Palace and Luxor Temple by Tony Binder
Some of the Winter Palace facade pictures show the kind of stores that occupied its front galleries which were on the ground level and accessible by street walkers and thus not limited to the residents of the hotel. Among others were Luxor Photo Stores known and run by the two partners A. Gaddis and G. Seif’s (still extant). Guidebooks of the twenties inform us that the Winter Palace closed yearly from the middle of April to the middle of November. But while it was open it provided much attention to all possible facilities to guarantee the comfort of its residents, including having a resident chemist named Mr. Hampton and a Swiss physician by the name of Dr. C.E. Wetter. Finally, at the other end of the corniche was the Savoy Hotel, owned by German. It was the only hotel which offered its guests a garden on the Nile.
Seemingly, one of the few hotels that was open year round was the non extant Luxor Hotel, located a few hundred metres behind the Winter Palace, and it had an even larger garden.
This was convenient for explorers, authors and artists. Both the Winter Palace and the Luxor Hotel offered their residents the facility of post offices. Letters with posted or arrival seals from those offices have now become highly esteemed collector’s items by serious philatelists.
Spread and scattered are photos of all the VIP’s who visited Luxor throughout the twentieth century. Perhaps among the most notable were the heads of states. For example, King Victor Emmanuel III visited it in the 1930s and is known to have come back to Egypt when he was exiled only a decade and a half later. Luxor was also an inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile and gave its name to a prominent hotel in Las Vegas as well as a cinema in Paris.
The streets, scenery and temples of Luxor are also glamorously featured in the local cinema industry of the fifties and the sixties. Faten Hamama and Omar Sherif are filmed with the columns of Luxor temples in the backdrop of the screen. A decade later, the movie Gharam fil Karnak (Love in Karnak) staring Farida Fahmy and Mahmoud Reda performed their folkloric dances in its streets in an almost parade style. For generations to come their troop riding caliches and chanting “Luxor Baladna Balad Suwah,” (Luxor our tourist town) on the corniche of the Nile will be sang by almost every Egyptian school trip that visits Luxor.
Photos Courtesy of Ola.R.Seif