Earlier this week the InterContinental Cairo Semiramis, a luxury hotel, began tweeting SOSs as an armed group of demonstrators attempted to break through its back and side entrances. The unsettling assault, which led to an evacuation but no injuries, was one of the first incidents since the beginning of the Arab Spring that directly targeted tourists in Egypt.
The urgent tweets -- "SOS: Same group as last night have surrounded #Semiramis attempting to breach all entrances. #Tahrir #Jan29 SEND HELP!"-- served to illustrate not only the dire state of tourism in Egypt, but also how different the Cairo modern tourists visit is from the city that was once a major luxury travel hub.
The golden age of Egyptian travel was no doubt the beginning of the twentieth century, when hotels like Mena House, Gezira Palace (now a Marriott) and, yes, Semiramis, were thick with writers, nobles and adventurers heading south. The tea flowed like tea still flows, but in lovely cafes. Tahrir Square was a scenic roundabout fringed by stately Edwardian manses.
Modern Egypt is still beautiful and likely still safe for prudent travelers, but the romance has been ruined by the intervention of a tough reality. As unclear as Egypt's future is, its past is hard not to romanticize. It was, after all, very pretty.
The photographs below are from the Brooklyn Museum's collection and were taken by various tourists and photographers more or less a century ago.