Kathleen Sheppard, author of Tea on the Terrace, discusses her time spent in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and how the destruction of various political spaces inspired her examination of Egyptologist’s British colonial presence during the Victorian age, ending in the Urabi Revolution of 1881. Sheppard’s new book examines how a great deal of archaeological work took place away from the field sites and museums. Applying insights from social studies, the book reveals that hotels in particular were crucial spaces for establishing careers, building and strengthening scientific networks, and generating and experimenting with new ideas.
As a historian and Egyptologist, I wondered how people, especially Egyptologists, used that luxurious, yet political, central space.
The idea for this book originally occurred to me when I was living in Cairo in 2010 and 2011 and teaching at the American University in Cairo (AUC). The country, and especially downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square, by the Nile, was in the midst of revolution and uncertainty. Yet there stood the Ramsses Hilton Hotel, just steps from Tahrir Square, the centre of the revolution. Next to the hotel and Tahrir sat the recently burned out National Democratic Party headquarters, since torn down.
Both the hotel and the party headquarters were tall buildings—one housing visitors and dignitaries visiting the city, the other housing a political system that Egypt’s people hoped would end. Both were, without a doubt, political spaces. Yet by the middle of 2011 one remained standing, virtually untouched. The tall, brown tower with the bright blue Hilton logo at the top is a symbol of the continuing Western influence in Cairo, even after a century of independence.
The juxtaposition of these two buildings, each representing a different political ideal, brought to my mind the old Shepheard’s Hotel, which, until burned down in the Revolution of 1952, stood mere steps from the verdant, tourist-filled Azbakeya Gardens. From the 1870s until the 1950s, Western Egyptologists and tourists flocked to Shepheard’s and the nearby Gardens. The strong association of both spaces to the British colonial presence in Egypt, made the hotel one of the first casualties in the revolution that eventually pushed the British out for good.
As a historian and Egyptologist, I wondered how people, especially Egyptologists, used that luxurious, yet political, central space. Most Egyptologists know about, and some have fond memories of, many of these hotels. For example, the Luxor Hotel in Luxor was open until the mid-80s. Egyptologists also know that Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and others stayed, played, and worked at these hotels, but we have never centralized them in the discussion before. I wanted to do that.
The book is arranged as though the reader is traveling through Egypt with archaeologists and Egyptologists. We arrive with travellers in Alexandria, move on to Cairo, travel up the Nile by boat and train, and stop in Luxor
In Tea on the Terrace, I analyse hotels in Egypt as sites of knowledge creation and network building for Egyptologists from around 1885 to 1925. The book is arranged as though the reader is traveling through Egypt with archaeologists and Egyptologists. We arrive with travellers—such as Americans Theodore Davis, Emma Andrews, and James Breasted, as well as Britons Wallace Budge, Maggie Benson, Howard Carter and more—in Alexandria, move on to Cairo, travel up the Nile by boat and train, and stop in Luxor.
Throughout the journey, readers spend some time with them at their hotels and on their boats. We listen in on their conversations, watch their activities, and begin to understand that much archaeological work was not done at the field site or in the university museum, as many historians have argued. Instead, using geographies of knowledge and the politics of conversation in the social studies of science, I argue that hotels in Egypt on the way to and from home institutions and excavation sites were liminal, but powerful and central, spaces which became foundations for establishing careers, building and strengthening scientific networks, and generating and experimenting with new ideas. These were colonial spaces, making Egyptology an unquestionably colonial discipline.
Tea on the Terrace takes what may be familiar stories to readers and present them in a new framework to show Egyptologists’ activities in a seemingly familiar but unknown space. A mix of archaeological tourism and the history of Egyptology, my analysis is based on original archival research, using letters, diaries, biographies, and travel guides as well as secondary sources.
Kathleen Sheppard is an Egyptologist (UCL MA 2002) and a historian of science (Oklahoma MA 2006, PhD 2010). Their first book was about Margaret Alice Murray, the first university-trained woman Egyptologist in Britain. Their current position is Associate Professor at Missouri S&T in Rolla, Missouri.