Alexandria enjoyed a period of prosperity as it became a transit town for travellers to and from India between the years of 1835 when the land route began in earnest and 1869 when the Suez Canal opened. Then, following the de facto annexation of Egypt by Britain in 1882, Alexandria became a fashionable place for tourists with its cosmopolitan population and its varied cuisine. It was also an ideal base from which to view some of Egypt’s ancient monuments and a perfect transit point for Cairo and the Nile Valley sites of Luxor and Karnak.
Left: The Majestic Hotel. Right: The Metropolitan Hotel. Both in Tahrir (Independence) Square. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
From the mid 1830s the two best hotels were the Hotel de l’Europe and Hill’s Hotel. Hill’s (also known as Rey’s) was owned by J.R.Hill who set up with a colleague Mr Raven as a rival to Thomas Waghorn, who is often credited with pioneering the overland route to India. The next to open was Coulomb’s later known as the Hotel d’Orient. These hotels were on the central square of Alexandria known variously as the Grand Place and the Place des Consuls (because the main powers had their diplomatic missions there). Later the square was renamed after the Khedive Mohammed Ali and is now Tahrir Sqaure.
Eliot Warburton wrote in 1841:
Strange and African as Alexandria had appeared to me three months before, it now seemed familiar, and almost European: the streets were thronged with men in hats, and smooth chins; the cafés rustled with newspapers; the walls were placarded with announcements of the evening's opera; and, above all, the calm sea reflecting many a British flag, lay smiling before me with its old familiar face. Where the post only comes in once a month, each packet's arrival is anxiously looked for: every European eye in Alexandria was watching eagerly the British Consul’s flag-staff, whereon the hoisting of the red ensign was to announce the first appearance of the Oriental steamer. She was late by some days; and as the Syrian mail-packet waited for her arrival, I took up my quarters in the comfortable Hotel d’Orient, and found some pleasant acquaintances among the resident merchants, and the numerous passengers just arrived from Suez. 
Waghorn and Hill found it easier to provide overnight accommodation in Alexandria than at Suez. George Parbury wrote in 1842 that
the wretchedness of Suez has been often described, but never in terms too severe; the hotels belonging to the rival agents, Mr. Waghorn, and Messrs. Hill and Raven, are both uncomfortable; that of the former, is certainly the best, and has an European female attendant attached to it. In Messrs. Hill's, the little accommodation there is for a large party is of the worst kind: the bed-rooms are few, and the ultimate resort is the divan or a broad-cushioned seat of the dining-room, and the bare floor, with the cold night air from the desert freely blowing on the sleepers from numerous broken panes of glass.
A German Guide for Travellers in Egypt published in 1858 comments on the best hotels; “Hotel de l'Europe—outside very grand, inside rather neglected, good table, board and lodging 9 shilling per diem, candles 1shilling, attendance 1shilling.—Peninsular and Oriental Hotel —opposite first mentioned, on the great square, in every respect the best hotel in Egypt; landlord P Zech, a German, servants also mostly German, 10 shillings. per diem. Hotel Victoria—English, 8 shillings. per diem. Hotel du Nord—French, kept unorderly, 11 francs for French, 1shilling. for Englishmen. India family hotel—English, 10shillings. Hotel de la Marine—in bad repute, as a gambling house &c.”
By 1866 Bradshaw’s guide listed the Hotel d’Angleterre “an acceptable refuge for Overland passengers when the other hotels are full.” An advertisement in Bradshaw’s 1861 guide was placed by Herr Zech the proprietor of the Orient announcing that he had bought Shepheard’s in Cairo which opened in 1841 and would go on to become one of the most famous hotels of the Orient on a par with Raffles in Singapore (opened 1887), the Eastern and Oriental in Penang (1885) and the Great Eastern in Calcutta (1840).
P. Zech, Proprietor of the Hotel d'Orient, Alexandria, begs to inform Overland Passengers to India, and the Nobility and Gentry visiting Egypt, that he has become the Proprietor of the celebrated Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo; and expresses a confident hope that, by strict attention to cleanliness and English comforts generally, he will ever merit a continuance of that patronage which Mr. Shepheard for so many years enjoyed. European servants. Baths. Every information given to Travellers for the Nile, or the Desert.
You will notice more than a little snobbery about these hotels. European servants were seen as an advantage. Germans were associated with efficiency and the French with a lack of organisation. The Greeks, Italians and Armenians all had their own establishments.
The British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 changed everything. Following Colonel Arabi’s uprising against the Khedive Admiral Seymour’s squadron shelled the forts of Alexandria for over 10 hours. Allegedly his gunners took care to avoid civilian areas but the resultant damage was considerable assisted by extensive looting and a fire which destroyed most of the Frankish or European quarter of the city.
The Place des Consuls was heavily damaged. Only the English church and the statue of Mohammed Ali escaped unscathed. Photographs taken by the Italian Luigi Fiorello, available online on the website of the American University in Cairo, show the Hotel de l’Europe in ruins; the photograph on the left shows it intact before the bombardment.
Left: The Place des Consuls. Right: The Hotel de l’Europe in Ruins
The aftermath of the bombardment led to a rebuilding of Alexandria. By 1930 the Cecil Hotel (a name particularly associated with the best hotel in Simla, the summer capital of British India) became predominant but, at the turn of the century, the Metropolitan, the Majestic and the Windsor Palace were built not far from where their predecessors had been destroyed during that disastrous day in 1882.
Left: The Windsor Palace Hotel. Right: The Place des Consuls in 1917.
Photographs by the author. Image correction, formatting, and linking by George P. Landow.You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.
Bradshaw's Monthly Continental Railway, Steam Transit, and General Guide. London: WJ Adams, 1861.
Busch, Dr Moritz. Guide to Travellers in Egypt. London; Trubner 1858. Google Books. Web. 8 August 2020.
Forster, E.M. Alexandria: A History and Guide. Alexandria: 1922.
Humphrys, Andrew. Grand Hotels of Egypt. Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 2015.
Parbury, George. A Handbook for India and Egypt. London: W. H. Allen, 1842)
Vogt, Hermann. The Egyptian War of 1882 A translation [from the German]. Original held and digitised by the British Library.
Warburton, Eliot. Eastern Travel. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845.
Last modified 8 August 2020