This article was published in February 1996 in Al Ahram Weekly newspaper. I was in Luxor, in Upper Egypt, when I met with the owner of the oldest bookstore in Luxor, Abdallah Gaddis, who died two years after this interview. Gaddis has withstood the fluctuating tides of tourism from World War II to the post-Gulf War era and I decided to flip, with him, through the pages of history.
Abdallah Gaddis was barely one year old when Howard Carter discovered the treasures of Tutankhamun in 1921 but he can relay his father’s impression of the spectacular flux of tourists Luxor witnessed at the time. “It was the most successful year ever. Hundreds of the aristocrats and the members of the press flocked here to witness and cover the discovery,” says Gaddis, who runs the shop his father opened in 1907.
A seasoned member of the tourist industry, Gaddis has welcomed widely different customers during many seasons, eras and wars into the Gaddis bookstore that neighbors the legendary Winter Palace Hotel. He’s shared conversation and books with the European elite, the habitués of modern package-tours, with bargain-hunters and backpackers. And despite his versatility, he is definitely nostalgic about the “good old days.” “My clients were the world’s richest and most elegant aristocrats; the cream of the society,” recalls the 74-year old Gaddis. “They toured the sites in their best clothing; women in furs and elegant dresses and the men in suits.”
But times were not always peachy. The wars Gaddis and his father witnessed often struck bad blows to the business. But his father did manage to expand the store during World War II, when the British and American tenants of the surrounding three shops did not return to Egypt for the tourist season. “The owner asked my father if he would like to rent all three premises. He agreed and paid a nominal price for them.”
His father once sold silver and gold ware, learning trade secrets from his friends in Cairo’s Khan Al-Khalili. He then turned the shops into one bookshop, specializing in books and photographs about Egypt, and particularly monuments. “My father was a pioneer in a field hitherto monopolized by Greeks and Jews, says Gaddis.
When Gaddis took over the bookshop in the later 1930s, he would often keep it open past midnight, long after the crowds of tourists had retreated to their hotels. “My clients could then quietly select their books and decide which photographs appealed to them. “ Not only was his bookstore frequented by the wealthy, but the wealthy were willing to spend heavily on his books, making LE1,000 or LE2,000 purchases, “a fortune in those days,” says Gaddis.
He remembers that “only one Maltese officer and 25 Egyptian soldiers” guarded the monuments of Luxor, Karnak and the Nile’s west bank in the 1930s, and only 40 guides or torgomen, toured the sites with visitors. “They wore traditional caftan, tarboush or emma (turban)” he recalls. “They were cultured though not necessarily university graduates. They were enthusiastic readers of ancient history of which acquired profound knowledge. And they spoke English or French or both.”
He recalls that the Winter Palace Hotel would have the guides work in rotation. If a group of 50 tourists arrived, for example, four were allocated one tour guide at LE2 a day. “At the end of the trip the visitors usually give an envelope to the guide containing LE100 in appreciation of his efforts. That was a good income then. “But conditions for the torgomen changed in the 1960s when they became too old to work.
Luxor also had a fixed tourist season at the time; from mid-December to the end of March, and the hotels would open only during those four months, recalls Gaddis. Egypt was still under the British occupation and Luxor was not heavily populated. During off-season, he says, “it was unusual to see a single pedestrian before noon. Only a few fruit, vegetable and clothing shops were open.”
This changed after President Gamal Abdel Nasser made a visit to Luxor in November of 1952. “He met with local businessmen,” Gaddis said, “and we told him that we wanted the hotels to stay open all year round. When Nasser asked us if we could guarantee tourists throughout the year, we suggested carrying out of a two-year experiment. It proved so successful that all the hotels opened in the summer and the winter.
But business has never been good during wars, says Gaddis. A few years before the outbreak of World War II, a worldwide economic depression drastically affected tourist movement to Egypt, and consequently Luxor. “In place of wealthy tourists,” said Gaddis, “British soldiers were brought in in large numbers by Eastmar Travel to see the monuments of Upper Egypt.”
At that time as well, he says, Egyptians began to visit Luxor. “They would leave Cairo and Alexandria in the winter and spend at least two months at the Winter Palace.” While tourists from abroad only trickled to Luxor in the war years, it was only four years after the war that Germans, British and Americans came in large numbers. “The situation improved,” says Gaddis. “Tourism was at a peak at the time of the July 1952 Revolution.
Another peak, says Gaddis, was during the 1960s with the construction of the Aswan High Dam and following UNESCO’s decision to relocate the temples of Abu Simbel. “There was a tremendous influx of visitors for three years. They were anxious to take a last look at the temples at their original sites before they were dismantled and transported to other locations. Hotels were full.”
But then there was the June 1967. “On the day the war broke out, there was not a single empty room. We had three bad months before tourism revived,” says Gaddis whose shop was exempted from rent for one year by the government.
Gaddis believes that the most severe slump came during the Gulf War, and to an extent not even seen during the wars with Israel. “When the Americans shot the first bullet in the Gulf, there was not a single tourist in Luxor. Conditions improved after the war but then terrorism followed and tourism dropped again.”
Today, books about Egypt in English, French, German and Arabic fill the shelves of the bookshop and potential buyers have a large choice of publications, from the famous Blue Guide and Insight Guides to specialized books, souvenir publications and coffee-table editions. Never before have the shelves of Gaddis been so heavily stocked.
For more information about the history and products of this historical bookstore, visit http://www.gaddis-luxor.co.uk/gaddis_shop/index.htm