The Nile Cruise Ship and Its Origins
Alan Dumelow

The origins of the Nile cruise ships (as we know them today) can be traced back to the mid-19th century, and specifically the entrepreneurial dedication of one Thomas Cook. In 1847 Solomon Pasha laid down the first stones of the Esna dam. This pushed the Khedive to buy some boats from England to keep the Nile’s postal services regular. In 1870, Egypt’s Viceroy Ismail granted Cook a concession to run the Egyptian government’s steamer fleet from Cairo to Aswan (the First Cataract) followed, in 1874, by the concession to extend the services to the Sudanese border; the Second Cataract. With this, Cook developed the infrastructure for a vibrant tourism industry, using the Egyptian government’s fleet of steamships.

 Between 1877 and 1884, Cook consolidated operations on the Nile. In 1877 he obtained the concession for all transportation on the Nile. Subsequently, in 1880 he obtained the sole concession for all postal services along the Nile. This concession included a clause that enabled Cook to construct and operate his own ships. In 1881 he built the Hotel Cataract at Aswan, recognising that Aswan was (at that time), the first obligatory stop after the Primar Cataract, such necessitating a change of ship in order to reach the temples of High Nubia and Abu Simbel.

Unfortunately, the Sudanese uprising in 1884 saw Cook’s entire fleet requisitioned by Kitchener for transporting 18,000 troops plus tons of armourments and supplies south to Khartoum. For Cook, this was a catastrophe. By the end of the campaign, his fleet was decimated and in an irrecoverable state. Undaunted, Cook contracted to build a fleet of the most modern ships possible; ships designed for the comfort and desires of travellers. Eventually, two types of ship were built. The Sudan-series of five: “Sudan”, “Arabia”, “Egypt”, “Rosetta” and the “Damietta”, all capable of carrying up to 80 passengers; plus two smaller ships, the “Delta” and “Thebes”, capable of carrying up to 50 passengers, then the larger Memnon-series of ships were built; the “Memnon”, “Chonsu”, “Oonas”, “Fostat”, “Seti” and the “Scarab”. 


By this time, competition to Cook’s monopoly had emerged under the banner of the Anglo-American Nile Company . In 1906, this company was joined by Hamburg America Line to form the Hamburg & Anglo-American Nile Company which added five ships: ”Britannia”.”Puritan”,”Victoria”,“Germania” and “Nubia” to “Mayflower”, “Indiana” and “Niagara”, andsought to capture a large slice of the tourist traffic along the Nile.

 In 1906, further competition arrived in the form of the Express Nile Navigation Company, which introduced the two steamers “America”and “Virginia”, well timed to cater for the large increase in tourists from the United States.

 The advent of World War 1, the subsequent fracture of The Occident, the ascension of King Fouad  (grandson of Solomon) to the throne, and the proclamation of Egypt’s independence all contributed to the disruption of Nile tourism and, although by 1926 some normality had returned to the passenger services, it was short-lived and overtaken by the rumblings and eventual outbreak of World War 2. 

SS Sudan 1921The "Egypt"The 'Thebes' during WW1
.............................. Cook’s paddle steamer “Sudan” in 1921............ Cook’s luxury paddle steam “Egypt” ................Cook’s steamer “Thebes” in World War 1
Puritan'Niagra' 1908
Anglo-American’s steamer “Niagara” 1908 ..............Hamburg & Anglo-American’s “Puritan”

After World War 2, the Arabic population were (partly due to the creation of Israel) ready to revolt and, so, King Farouk (in attempt to pacify Egypt)nationalised the majority of foreign companies operating in the country, including all three Nile operators; their ships passing into both Egyptian private and government ownership. 

Of those Nile steamers still operational after World War 2, Thomas Cook’s “Arabia” was sold to Ahmed Bey Youssef el Tawil on 12.11.1949; “Egypt” was sold to Gamal el Din el Abd Bey on 14.03.1950 and “Sudan” became the property of His Excellency King Foud Serag El Din, also on 14.03.1950

The steamer “Puritan” survived to the late-40’s, reportedly serving as a 38 room floating hotel for transiting passengers on Sunderland flying boats enroute to the Far East and Australia. The stern paddle steamer “Ibis”, which was originally built by Fairfield, Glasgow, in 1886 (for the British Government’s Sudanese campaign) was subsequently rebuilt as a Nile steamer and spent many years plying between Wadi Haifa and Aswan. In 2004 she was photographed laying idle on a riverbank near Cairo. Behind her, also idle and rusting, is believed to be Anglo-American’s 1887-built steamer “Niagara”. In 2006, the 1887-built stern-wheeler “Indiana” was photographed rusting away in an inlet near Roda

Sadly, many more old quarter-wheel paddle steamers lay abandoned along the Nile. On the riverbanks near Karima, there are at least four old steamers. At the Esh Shagara dockyard in Khartoum, there are at least a dozen, including the rusting bones of the quarter-wheeler “Kassala”.

Happily and fortunately (for us), a handful of the original Nile steamers remain in service. All have been painstakingly and extensively restored to their “Belle Epoche” era of grandeur, opulence and luxuriousness, and again ply the Nile offering five-star deluxe cruises. 

Among these wonderfully refurbished steamers, with their original machinery, are “Misr”, “Sudan”, “Karim” and “Memnon”.

BrtianniaVictoriaIbis 2004
........... Anglo-America’s steamer “Britannia” ............. .. Hamburg & Anglo-America’s “Victoria” ................ “Ibis” photographed near Cairo in 2004  
Most notable is the "Misr" built in 1918, she was originally contracted for the Royal Navy, but was purchased and extensively converted to a luxury royal steamer for King Farouk. Still retaining her original steam engines, "Misr" was recently completely restored by Jules Verne and three Egyptian associates, and now boasts 24 luxurious suites, each differing in styles ranging from Ottoman to Art Deco era and design.


Historic Nile Cruise ShipHistoric Nile Cruise ShipHistoric Nile Cruise ShipHistoric Nile Cruise Ship
Some of the historic Nile Cruise Ships such as the "Misr" were restored to their former glory.

Equally notable is the stern-wheel paddle steamer “Karim”: built in 1917 as the royal steamer for King Faroud and, later, his son King Farouk. As with “Misr”, the “Karim” retains her original machinery and, following her restoration and refurbishment, she now boasts just 15 luxurious suites.Originally built in 1921 for Thomas Cook’s fleet, but subsequently acquired (in 1950) by King Faoud and converted to a royal steamer, the “Sudan” was discovered abandoned at a remote wharf in 2004 and subsequently fully restored and refurbished to her prior grandeur and luxuriousness, and now boasts just 23 comfortable suites. 

The “Memnon”, as with “Sudan”, was built in the early 20th century as part of Thomas Cook’s fleet of Nile steamers. She is now owned by the SETI First Group and is currently undergoing a total restoration and refurbishment before re-entering service in 2010/11.

In 1991, the abandoned and partially sunken 1901 paddle steamer “Le Pascha” was discovered along the banks of the Nile. The businessmen that discovered her fully rebuilt the ship and added two decks and, today,is a highly successful and thriving floating restaurant moored at Cairo. Similarly, the late 19th century paddle steamer “Nile Peking” now operates restaurant cruises on the Nile from Cairo.

Today, over 300 cruise ships ply the Nile and Lake Nasser. Of these, four replicate the appearance and luxury of the original steamships. “Eugenie” (built 1993) and near-sister “Kasr Ibrim” (built 1997), the “Prince Abbas” (built 1998), and the sumptuous deluxe “Oberoi Philae” are all among the best ships on which to cruise.  

New and even more luxurious ships are added to the Nile each year. At present, there are five newbuildings under construction and/or due into service in the next twelve months. Of these, “Savoy Palace”, “Farah”, “Opera” and “Nile Pioneer” will offer the latest exclusive 5-star luxury.

Steamship “Karim” .......................................................................................   Steamship “Sudan”
Nile Pewking RestaurantOberoi Philae
Cruise restaurant s.s.”Nile Peking” ........................................................ Deluxe cruise ship “Oberoi Philae”

Alan Dumelow and Luxor-on-Line wish to thank Thomas Cook Archives for their help with information

Alan Dumelow and Luxor-on-Line wish to thank Voyage Jules Verne for permission to use photographs of “Misr”.


Interesting websites: