Thomas Cook and Touring the Middle East

20 May 2016

Cultural Studies | History

This week sees the anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement. A secret agreement between the Triple Entente signed on the 16th May 1916, it would divide the Middle East and the surrounding areas that were currently controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The plan was exposed by the new Bolshevik government of Russia in 1917 and printed in the UK newspaper the Guardian the same year. 

The pull and potential of the Middle East, in particular the religious region of Palestine and the surrounding areas, had long been a source of interest and intent to Westerners, and it was not only governments who strived to get their stake. Early tourist agencies such as Thomas Cook quickly organised tours of the Holy Lands and Egypt for keen travellers in the 1800s, which can all be explored in the History of Mass Tourism resource (available soon).


Four Men on Camels. © Thomas Cook Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Thomas Cook was an entrepreneur who quickly saw the potential success of organising tours to events and places around the UK and further afield. He organised his first trip in 1841 when he arranged for a group of temperance campaigners to travel from Leicester to Loughborough by train, negotiating prices with the rail company and being paid a portion of the fares for his trouble. By the 1860s his tours to Egypt and the Holy Lands were particularly popular with the British public and he quickly developed multiple connections in the area that enabled him to offer ‘authentic’ Middle Eastern experiences to his customers, such as Nile tours, camel rides and tours of ancient monuments.

Female tourist on a camel at the foot of the Pyramids, Cairo, 1936. © Thomas Cook Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The connections developed were in fact considered impressive enough that his son, John Mason Cook, was asked to help with the rescue of General Gordon in 1884. General Charles Gordon, a well-respected but somewhat controversial British Army officer and administrator, had been sent to the Sudan to orchestrate the evacuation of Khartoum due to the rebellion occurring there. Upon arrival, however, he declared that he would not evacuate and would instead fight the rebels, resulting in a siege situation. A rescue team was organised by the British government and Thomas Cook and Son asked to guide the team up the Nile. Never one to miss a chance for profit, a “visit to Khartoum” as an excursion from Cairo (and part of a wider trip from India to the Middle East) and “an opportunity to form a relieving force to bring Gordon out of Khartoum” was advertised by Thomas Cook & Son in India and mentioned in the Thomas Cook Excursionist of that year, where “Messrs. Thomas Cook & Son will arrange the transport and commissariat and give the whole expedition the air of a holiday trip”. John Mason Cook was also asked to organise a trip to Palestine for Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898, though he unfortunately died of dysentery whilst arranging it.

Cook's Excursionist and Home and Foreign Tourist Advertiser, American Edition, Series 34, No. 1-12.© Thomas Cook Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Thomas Cook and Son continued to organise trips and tours to the Middle East and numerous other destinations for people all over the world into the 21st Century and currently still operates as one of the biggest travel agents in the UK. Its history, and the history of many other travel agents and tourist destinations, can all be explored in the History of Mass Tourism resource, to be published by Adam Matthew in June.

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About the Author

Jo Perdicchia

Jo Perdicchia

I joined the Adam Matthew team in April 2014 as an Editorial Assistant. Since I began I've worked on a variety of different projects, including American History, 1493-1945, and have enjoyed rummaging through the materials (both electronically and physically) of all of the projects I’m involved with.

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