The Old Cataract Hotel
The Old Cataract Hotel is perched atop a granite hill at the Nile river's edge in Aswan, Egypt, and takes its name from the rivers First Cataract (rapids) at the traditional northern border of Nubia.. It was Thomas Cook, the grand tour manager of Egypt who had the hotel constructed, mostly for the tourists that his company was escorting down the Nile at the end of the 19th century. Unlike many historical hotels in Egypt, it was never a royal palace or lodge. It has always been a grand hotel. Today, under the management of Sofetel, it remains one of the finest hotels in Egypt.
The Old Cataract's first newspaper advertisement appeared in The Egyptian Gazette on 11 December 1899 and promised: "Every modern comfort. Large and small apartment rooms, library, billiard room etc. ... fireplaces in hall, salons and the main rooms. Electrical lights running all night. Perfect sanitary arrangements approved by the authorities. Can accommodate 60 visitors." In 1900, the hotel was considerably enlarged, but became so popular that by 1901, tents had to be constructed about the hotel to accommodate overflowing demand.
Staying at the Cataract has been described as walking into a painting, or a period post card. This hotel is a living history that one not only senses with the eyes, but feels in the bones. With its high ceilings, long halls and Moorish decor, one is transported back through time to Egypt's Victorian past, of empire builders locked in monumental discussions on the famous Terrace, of Howard Carter reveling in his recent discovery of Tut's Tomb and of Europe's royalty relaxing and gaining their health in isolated gardens.
The Old Cataract Hotel is a favorite of many Tour Egypt readers, almost to the extent that a few we hear from must make an occasional visit for a routine "Cataract Fix". It easily qualifies as one of the two best known hotels in Egypt, perhaps after, or before the Mena House in Cairo.
The Old Cataract Hotel was always a favorite of the Elite during Egypt's British colonial period, and with the release of the movie written by Agatha Christie and Anthony Shaffer, "Death on the Nile", in 1978, the hotel received a grand revival of interest. However, for those of you already planning on staying there, if you rush out and rent this movie, please be advised that there are considerable inaccuracies regarding monuments and travel locations.
The Famous Cataract Hotel Terrace
As one of Egypt's monuments to its colonial period, the Cataract Hotel is at the very least a place to be visited, even if the traveler's budget does not allow a stay. Unfortunately, one may or may not be allowed in. This is, after all, and exclusive resort, and the management protects the privacy of the guests. The Knoph Guides, usually fairly sedate on their descriptions of hotels, states, "Absolutely charming with a magnificent view of the Nile and Elephantine Island. Truly wonderful, it is a privilege to stay there; an unforgettable experience". Another guide simply points out that it may be a place that one cannot afford to not afford, while yet another calls it the finest place to stay in Egypt.
Certainly others have thought the same. The Cataract's guest list includes Czar Nicolas II, Howard Carter, Sir Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, the Duke of Connaught, the 3rd son of Queen Victoria, the Aga Khan III, King Farouk of Egypt, the Shah of Iran, Nahas Pacha, Khedive Abbas Helmi Soverein of Egypt, Mohamed V King of Morocco, Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, Helmut Kohl, Queen Noura of Jordan, Lady Diana and the Princess Caroline of Monaco.
Obviously, this is a five star hotel with all the amenities. There are several restaurants and bars, a beautiful swimming pool, tennis and volleyball courts, a health club, meeting rooms and of course a business center. The Rooms are well appointed with elegant private baths, air conditioning, color televisions and telephones. But all this is to be expected. It is the elevation of these amenities which speak to the tourist of the hotel's charm and elegance.
Each room is different, with high ceilings, wonderful Nile views classic furnishings and bathroom fixtures and comfortable beds. Near the large swimming pool, surrounded by gardens and trees, one may find quarry marks from ancient times. Public areas are splendid, with marble, fine wood and artistic draperies.
While the hotel has several restaurants, the "1902" is also one of Egypt's most famous eateries. Designed as a Moorish hall, the domed restaurant features four red and white traditional door-key arches and is decorated with fine mashrabiya and stained glass. It was opened to celebrate the first Aswan Dam, a British construction, and opening night was attended by the Khedive Abbas Helmy, the sovereign of Egypt, Winston Churchill, who attended with King Edward VII's younger borther, as well as Dukes, Lords, and other dignitaries.
The 1902 Restaurant
In 1999, the Cataract celebrated its centennial, beginning the next hundred years of service. Anyone traveling to Aswan should consider this hotel for their stay. While certainly not inexpensive, as has been said, one may not afford to miss the opportunity of staying in one of the world's best known and most elegant hotels. Make reservations well in advance.
Notation: The Old Cataract Hotel is not the same as the New Cataract Hotel, of fairly recent construction.