Archaeology in Film Part 1: Who’s Been Polishing the Sun?

I’ve been doing research on a new project.  It’s mostly new, even though the ideas have been milling about in my head for about 5 years.  With the first book done, and the child born and into toddlerhood, I can finally move forward with some of this new stuff!

That being said, in the midst of some searching for Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo–the one off the Azbakiya Gardens that was finally destroyed by revolutionaries in 1952, not the one on the east bank of the Nile that is being refurbished–I have found some interesting and fun things.  First, if you’re looking for a good book about hotels, including Shepheard’s, look no further than Andrew Humphreys’ book The Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel (Cairo: AUC Press, 2011).  He also has a website where he adds even more images and new stories.  Don’t miss it. He has a new book out called On The Nile in the Golden Age of Travel (Cairo: AUC Press, 2015).  Watch this space for a review soon!

Back to what I was saying.  I always start my scholarship searches with Google.  I know, I know!  This may be terrible to do, and worse to admit out loud.  But I do it.  I know the correct way to search for resources.  I do use JSTOR, OCLC, my library, online news archives and more.  But I’ve found that googling your topic first will find you some legitimate resources you may not have found in library searches.  It can also help you to find books that you can download, thanks to indispensable resources like Project Gutenberg.  I’ve come to depend on the Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA) out of Rice University.  I wouldn’t have found either without some proper Googling.

In a Google search for Shepheard’s, I found a YouTube upload of a 1934 film called “The Camels are Coming!”  I’ve embedded it here.  It is 71 minutes long and is a kitschy film with a few offensive stereotypes.  I have a thing for archaeology and film, and I’ll talk about it more in future posts.

You don’t have to watch the whole thing, so I’ll tell you about it.  Caution! Spoiler Alert!

An RAF pilot has trained some Egyptian military pilots to fly planes over the Western Desert in order to thwart a dope smuggling ring.  The military believes the dope is being smuggled by bands of Bedouin.  It turns out they are, and they are led by an archaeologist!  The RAF pilot meets the archaeologist while looking for some help with his plane.  (About 21:30.) In the end, the bumbling RAF pilot gets all the credit for capturing the archaeologist and the dope Bedouin, even though the damsel really did all the work.

So, where is the archaeology?  There isn’t a lot, to be honest, but the film offers some amazing views of the Pyramids as they fly over and around them in the beginning of the film.  Starting in the 37th minute, the pilot also chases the damsel to the Pyramids and you get to see what the plateau looked like before all the paving and clearing.  It is remarkable to see it in motion.  Upon leaving the Giza pyramids, the group pass by the Colossi of Memnon at 40:30.  Obviously, the Colossi are on the West Bank near the town of Luxor, but the film places them in Cairo.

Shepheard’s makes a surreal appearance from around 32:40 to the 37 minute mark.  During that short time, the film shows Shepheard’s facade, some of the gardens, and of course the terrace.  According to Humphreys, “The cliche was that if you sat on Shepheard’s terrace long enough you would see the world walk by.”*  It was the place to see and be seen for tourists, and a whole scene in the film takes place outside the front steps of the hotel. After seeing photographs, drawings, and reading countless retellings of the experience on the terrace, it was fascinating to see it on screen.

The film in itself is not that great, but the historical places that it has preserved for us are really critical in the study of the history of place and of science.  A lesson here is that where properly organized, cataloged, and protected archives serve their extremely important purpose, old films that inadvertently capture historic places on film can be found in the public domain.

Shepheard’s was burned down in January of 1952 as Egyptian nationalists demonstrated against British control.  They attempted to destroy everything that was even remotely symbolic of British presence in the country.  Shepheard’s was one of the most iconic symbols of Britain to the general population, and it was completely destroyed.

In the centre is part of the famous Shepheards Hotel, in Cairo, Egypt, Jan. 27, 1952, after it was burned the previous day by rioters. In the foreground are the wrecked offices of Trans World Airlines. (AP Photo)

Taken from a blog post by the Denver Post: “In the centre is part of the famous Shepheards Hotel, in Cairo, Egypt, Jan. 27, 1952, after it was burned the previous day by rioters. In the foreground are the wrecked offices of Trans World Airlines.” (AP Photo)

In the same spot today, I believe, is this:

What stands where Shepheard's was now, on the old Sharia Kamel. Author image

What stands where Shepheard’s was now, on the old Sharia Kamel. Author image

*Humphreys, Grand Hotels of Egypt, 89.

**The subtitle is the name of a song in the film, not long after the pilot meets the archaeologist.  It is a catchy tune and it WILL stick with you.  The worst of all earworms.

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One Response to Archaeology in Film Part 1: Who’s Been Polishing the Sun?

  1. harngroup says:

    Reblogged this on HARN Weblog and commented:
    Speechless! What a joy!

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