Tea on the Terrace: Hotels and Egyptologists’ Social Networks, 1885-1925

REVIEW: Anna Garnett

For many of us, it is the human stories behind major archaeological discoveries that first spark our fascination with Egyptology. Who were the people on the excavation teams? What did they do, and how did they spend their leisure time? This exciting new volume sheds light on some of these questions by exploring the social history of excavation in Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, set within the wider history of tourism in archaeology.

Before a field season began, it was essential (and remains so today) to spend some days in a large urban area to gather supplies, organise transportation and a workforce, and to deal with excavation permits. For several decades during this period, opulent historic hotels in Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan accommodated many well-known characters in the history of Egyptology, including Theodore Davis, Wallis Budge, and Howard Carter. It was here that Egyptologists mingled, debated, and presented ideas, building their professional and personal networks, and finding patrons and employees, colleagues and friends. In these spaces, they were ‘unfettered by the formality of the work site or the museum, and they could give their scientific imagination free rein’. These were not simply places of accommodation: ‘particularly fraught’ spaces, they provided settings for primarily Western archaeologists to develop ideas and approaches that shaped the field of Egyptology immeasurably.

The chapters are presented geographically, in the order that most of those who travelled to Egypt during this period would have travelled: the reader disembarks in Alexandria, travelling south to Cairo and then up the Nile to Luxor, meeting different historical characters along the way. Sheppard’s comprehensive assessment of the social life of these characters is set against a backdrop of politics, exclusive access to knowledge and people, and the elitist and colonial development of the discipline of Egyptology. The reader is invited to see these places, and the people who frequented them, by looking beyond traditional narratives: for example, the stories of female archaeologists – whose achievements have historically not been celebrated – sit alongside those of their male counterparts. They include the British archaeologist Maggie Benson (1865-1916), the first woman to gain official permission to excavate in Egypt and a key character in Egyptian archaeology at the turn of the century. It is refreshing to see this holistic and inclusive approach.

A useful ‘cast of characters’ can be found at the end of the book, as well as a comprehensive bibliography. Chapter endnotes offer opportunities for further research, and a series of greyscale illustrations, including reproductions of city maps from the famous Baedeker’s guidebooks, bring the stories alive beautifully. This volume will be essential reading for general and scholarly readers alike, and will delight all those with an interest in the early development of Egyptology.

Tea on the Terrace: Hotels and Egyptologists’ Social Networks, 1885-1925
by Kathleen Sheppard
Manchester University Press, 2022
ISBN 978-1-5261-6620-3
Hardback, £80