What is now the Cairo Marriott was formerly the Gezira Palace Hotel – or Ghezireh Palace Hotel, as in those days the more letters in a word the more authentically foreign it looked. A genuine former royal palace built to house Empress Eugenie, guest of honour at the opening of the Suez Canal, it was sold off when the British declared Khedive Ismail bankrupt. It ended up being leased to the Brussels-based Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hôtels – the hospitality arm of the company behind the famed Orient Express – which had the former khedivial residence remodelled, refitted and opened to paying guests in October 1894. The brochure below dates to not long after.
A few weeks ago a visitor to this site posted a comment in which he guessed that I would be familiar with Amelia Edward’s A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. I’ll say. Grand Hotels of Egypt begins with Amelia and her claim that she wound up in Egypt for no better reason than to escape the rain that was dampening her enthusiasm for Europe. Even if I don’t fully believe her, I still tip my hat to her show of nonchalance as she embarks on her grand adventure. Her account of a season on the Nile in a dahabiya remains an enthralling read and I reference it numerous times in my own book, On the Nile. So, yes, I know Ms Edwards.
Except it turns out I don’t, not really. I know the Amelia Edwards whose voyage up the Nile inspired her to become a tireless campaigner for the preservation and research of ancient Egypt, who co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882, and who bequeathed her collection of Egyptian antiquities to University College London, where it formed the basis of the University’s Egyptology Department. This is the Amelia Edwards commemorated with an English heritage blue plaque, unveiled on her former London home last March.
It was another visitor to this site who alerted me to another Amelia, the author of tales of the supernatural and a woman not afraid to assert her individuality. On his excellently eccentric blog greydogtales, John Linwood Grant writes, “Her private life seems to have been as lively as her professional one. Acquaintances said that she was involved with more than one other woman (in one case, she seemed to have formed a menage a trois).”
Long before she made the trip to Egypt that would alter the course of her life, Edwards (above) was also a highly successful novelist. Her Lord Brackenbury (1880) went to 15 editions. And she wrote short stories, ranging from tales of adventure to ghost stories. Her best known of the latter is “The Phantom Coach”, which is about (and I’m paraphrasing John Linwood Grant here because I haven’t read it myself yet) a young man struggling through the onset of a snowstorm. Finding temporary shelter, he is advised of a local coach that might take him back to his wife twenty miles away – but what will he meet on the road?
Edwards was acknowledged as one of the best ghost-story writers of her day and was one of the select band invited by Charles Dickens to contribute suitably chilling tales to the Christmas numbers of his magazine All the Year Round. I’ve just start reading a collection of her stories – I love a good Christmas ghost story – and they are excellent. You can still pick her up in print, with a collection called All Saint’s Eve available in a cheap Wordsworth Edition or, if you have a Kindle or a Kindle app on your phone, a similar collection titled The Phantom Coach is available on Amazon for not very much at all. As a bonus, it includes a piece by Edwards about “My Home Life” which offers an insight into the mind and life of one of the Victorian era’s most fascinating women.
My first post on this site back in November 2011 concerned Joe Scialom (that’s him, above). Joe was the legendary bartender in charge of the Long Bar at Shepheard’s from 1939 until 1952. In that time he became just about as famous as the hotel in which he worked. I found pieces on him in a 1952 edition of the New York Times and in the Washington Post in 1957 – these are where I drew my information from for what I wrote about Joe in Grand Hotels of Egypt. Since then I’ve got a hold of an issue of Collier’s magazine from 4 September 1953, which also has a piece on Joe, which I’m reproducing in full below because Joe seems such a swell guy everybody should get to know him a little more.
It’s titled ‘One for the World’ and it’s written by Robert Ruark, who would later make his name writing about big-game hunting in Africa and of whom his obituary in the New York Times said he was “sometimes glad, sometimes sad, often mad, but always provocative”. Sounds like perfect Long Bar company.
Anyway, here you go…
Joe Scialom’s Cairo customers come from all over the world – yet he never forgets a face of the drink that goes with it. That’s why he’s probably the world’s most famous barkeep
Happiness to a great many people for a great many years, has been a thing called Joe. Ninety-nine per cent of the happy people have never known his last name, which is Scialom, but he has been an arbiter of barroom culture for so many years in so many places that his face and his fame have become synonymous.
In the older, gentler world, there were a few places where is a man tarried he could see anybody he wanted to see. One was The Long Bar in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo; behind it Joe reigned.
Joe speaks a few languages fluently – English, French, Italian, Greek, Arabic, German, Russian. He also has a faculty for never forgetting a face or the drink that goes with it. From 1939 to 1952 he was the master of the world which travelled through Cairo. Messages were left with Joe. Commissions were given to Joe. Strange duties were entrusted to Joe. Joe became a kind of international bank, post office, underground and extension agent.
Shepheard’s is no more, having been set afire in 1952 by some of the rioting citizens of Egypt. But Joe has remained an institution. The tiny world created by crisscrossing airlines that pause in Cairo badly needed Joe. So the people who ran Shepheard’s created him a shrine in another of their hotels, the Semiramis. It is called Joe’s Bar, and if you are looking for somebody in Cairo, that’s where he’ll be, whether he drinks or not.
On an average evening in Joe’s you will see a brace of Egyptian Cabinet ministers, a dozen airline officials, some high-blown military, a debutante or so, a cotton broker, 20 oil people in from the fields in the Middle East, a sheik in a burnoose and agal ropes and a variety of unidentifiable angle-shooters.
Nobody has ever defined what makes a bar a mecca, as Toots Shor’s is a mecca for one kind of person in New York, as “21” beckons another brand, as the Stork Club attracts another. But Joe’s attraction is obvious: it is his understanding of the international floaters who never look forward to a chicken farm any place, from Long Island to Tanganyika. His background makes him the perfect foil. “I was born,” he says, “at some date which escapes me, of a Venetian father and a Russian mother, on the high seas. I became a legal Venetian but got my birth certificate in Egypt. I was named Giuseppe, after the captain of the ship I was born on. I am an American by adoption, and Scotch by absorption. I am married to a woman who is half French and half Algerian. I look like anybody’s cousin Joe, whether it’s Cousin José, Cousin Giuseppe, Cousin Yusuf, or what.
“I have worked in Paris, New York, London, Khartoum, Johannesburg, Algiers, Istanbul and Rome, not to mention Cairo. I have seen very traveller who drinks, at least twice: once when he comes in, and once when he comes back to see I remember his name and preference in drinks.”
For the barter world, Joe is the one-man brokerage house. You want an apartment? Ask Joe. You want to sell a car, or buy one? Joe’s the boy. You want a ticket on the airlines? Tell Joe I sent you, and he will call Hassan el Samra of TWA or somebody I BOAC or Ethiopian Airlines or Air France and what exactly is it you want?
Joe is never at a loss, which helps explain how he invented a drink I’ll call the Suffering Buzzard, although that’s not precisely its name. It was 1941, and the war was running Joe short of ingredients. A couple of hang-overs came in one day beseeching aid, and Joe looked desperately around him.
“I always thought that gin, which I had, and bourbon, which I had, don’t marry,” Joe says. “But I stuck some gin and bourbon into the vase, and looked about for something to take the curse off. There was some angostura and some lime cordial and some dry ginger ale for fizz. I shook it all up with some ice and decorated it with mint.
“I was most surprised at the result. The customers did not drop dead. They recovered, and clamoured for more. Been clamouring ever since.
“You see,” says Joe, “I am a healer at heart. I started out as a chemist – studied in France–and got bored with it. Merely changed bottles.”
Joe refers to his domain as St Joe’s Parish, and runs it on somewhat ecclesiastical lines. He is very proud of the fact that in Shepheard’s, during five years of war, there was never a fight amongst all the motley warriors who drank under his aegis. He had some unusual experiences, though.
He remembers one Homeric drinking bout between a Turk and a Canadian. The Turk was holding out for the healing, soothing benefits of honest Scotch whisky. The Canadian was a Martini man. They drank, drink for drink, 52 slaps a piece. The Martini aficionado survived. The Turk went out on a board.
Joe refers to himself as the man in the white coat – a psychiatrist who uses a mixing glass instead of a couch, and some salted nuts instead of the works of the late S. Freud.
“A man in a bar wants to feel important,” says Joe. “I have mastered the art of making a man feel important. I am perhaps the best listener in the world, in any one of seven languages.
“I also flatter him in another way,” Joe continues, melding a Martini with meticulous care. “The fact that I know his name, his face and his language makes him suddenly feel like a prince. I have tried this on princes too, and they feel like kings. We don’t have much king business any more in this locality since Farouk left, but will you tell me what that Arab emir is doing over there with his lemonade if he doesn’t feel a psychic need to be at Joe’s, even if he doesn’t drink the hard stuff?”
The airplane has made things easier for folks with a psychic need to be at Joe’s; today people cross hi path much ore oftener than in the old days of the Orient Express and steamer travel. I was pushing off from Cairo not long ago and dropped in Giuseppe for a farewell pop. I swiped a line from the song. “One for my baby,” I said, “and one more for the road.”
Joe looked his mystic look, and the blue stone in his ring twinkled when he poured the drink.
“Not road, chum,” he said. “One more for the world.”
This coming weekend marks five years since the first post on this site (which was about four months before the publication of Grand Hotels of Egypt). To mark the occasion I’d like to say a big thank you to everybody that regularly checks in here, and particularly to all those people who’ve left comments or have emailed me directly. Every time my enthusiasm has flagged and the posts have dropped off, there’s been a fascinating or gratifying communication from someone out there and I’ve been inspired to dig up more material to share.
It really is the interaction that keeps this site going. I’ve got a big kick out of hearing from the distant relatives of some of the hoteliers and other characters that I write about in my books and from people whose ancestors travelled to Egypt way back when, especially those who’ve shared diaries and photos with me. I’ve also loved fielding some of the intriguing requests for information that regularly come my way – helping to identify a hotel in Alexandria hotel for an exhibition about Paul Klee in Germany or show what a letterhead from Shepheard’s would have looked like back in 1914 for a dramatisation of one of HP Lovecraft’s weird tales. The query about tessellated pentagonal tiling at the Cataract flummoxed me, though. Next year I’ll also be loaning some of the bits and pieces I own relating to Egypt’s old hotels to a couple of museum exhibitions here in the UK, one on an amateur Egyptologist who travelled to Egypt in 1886/7 and 1890/1 and the other devoted to Winston Churchill in the Middle East. More on those nearer the time.
Meanwhile, please keep checking back regularly, and keep the comments and emails coming. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my obsessions. (The photos, by the way, are from the launch party for Grand Hotels, which took place at Cairo’s Windsor hotel.)
The item above is not a Christmas card or greetings card, although it was handed out to all who boarded a Cook & Son Nile steamer. It is a passenger list – flip it over and the small card lists out all your fellow passengers.
It was important to know who they were, after all, with the standard cruise taking three weeks, everybody would be spending a lot of time in each other’s company. Chances are some of the names would be familiar – a trip up the Nile was not cheap and the steamers were largely the preserve of the aristocratic and moneyed classes.
Cook & Son employed a variety of slightly different designs for their passenger lists. These lists relate to the boats I wrote about in the last post, so they would have been issued some time in the 1890s or first decade of the 20th century.
From the same period comes the excellent ticket below, issued by the Cairo office of Cook & Son on 22 November 1893 and good for a journey from Girgeh south to Aswan and back down to Cairo. It is personally signed and authorised by John Mason Cook, son of Thomas and head of the company since his father passed away the previous year.
All these items come from the Thomas Cook archive in Peterborough.
In 1888 Cook & Son’s seasonal Egypt and the Nile brochure opened with an apology: “It will be known to all who have watched the course of events in Egypt, that from the season 1883-84 until the past season of 1886-87, we have not been in the position to justify us announcing a regular tourist steamboat service on the Nile.”
The reason for this was that Cook’s fleet of Nile steamers had been requisitioned by the British Army to transport its troops up to Khartoum in a doomed attempt to rescue Major General Charles Gordon and his besieged forces. The boats were ruined in the attempt. Cook & Son sued for recompense and in 1887 was able to commence the launch of a wholly new, purpose-built fleet of paddle steamers, built to order and custom-fitted for Nile service.
The first two boats were ordered from Fairfield Govan of Glasgow. The design of the boats was based on the American river steamers, with upper, main and lower decks, and side-mounted paddlewheels. The completed hulls and engines were delivered in sections to Egypt in the second half of 1886, and assembled in Cairo, where Cook & Son had its own boatyards at Bulaq. These first vessels were an almost identical pair, the Tewfik and Prince Abbas, which made their trials on the Nile in October 1886.
At around the same time, two additional steamers were ordered from France. These were the Rameses and Prince Mohammed Ali, which were towed across the Mediterranean to Damietta and up the Nile to Cairo.
In November 1889, a further Fairfield boat, the Rameses the Great, was delivered. It made its maiden Nile voyage in January 1890 with African explorer Henry Morton Stanley on board. Business was so good, two seasons later Cook & Son commissioned yet another steamer. This was the Rameses III, launched into regular service on 17th January 1893.
There were also four smaller, less lavish steamers that were built for use on a “Cheap Express Service”: the Amenartas, Cleopatra, Hatasoo and Nefertari. To prove their “express” credentials, in November 1888 the Cleopatra completed the run from Cairo to Aswan and back, a distance of 1,200 miles in 122 hours, faster than anyone had ever done it before. The Express service ran Asyut–Aswan–Asyut, where it connected with the Cairo train. It was for travellers who wanted to spend less time and money on seeing the Nile. It only made short stops en route, including just a few hours at Qena, Luxor and Edfu.
Another purchase was a small steam launch, a boat suitable for a party of not more than eight. This was named Nitocris and was used for private hires (one client was Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who sailed the Nile in January 1896). The company also retained a small fleet of dahabiyas, which were also used for private hire.
At a speech to mark the launch of Rameses III, head of the company John Cook recalled that when he had made his first trip to the Nile in 1870, there had been only one passenger-carrying steamer and 136 dahabiyas; now there were fifteen steamers, all running under his ownership, and not more than thirty dahabiyas. (In the 21st century, the dahabiya has made a bit of a comeback, while there are no more than two or three working steamers.)
The beautiful drawings included here come from a Cook’s Egypt and the Nile brochure from the 1890s. They were cleaned up and reproduced in large format in my On the Nile book, which is, as far as I know, the first time they have ever been published. You need to double-click on them to appreciate the detail.
From the unpublished diary of Mrs Charlotte Riggs of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, who with her husband Reverend Alexander B Riggs sailed from New York to the Holy Land in 1907 aboard the White Star Line steamer Arabic.
Launched in 1902, the ship was only in service thirteen years before being torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat on 19 August 1915. It was used mainly on Atlantic crossings between Liverpool and New York, but was also used for Mediterranean winter cruises. The ship berthed briefly in Alexandria to allow passengers to make an excursion down to Cairo.
March 20, 1907
We left the boat this morning & took a ride in the steam cars, reaching Cairo about 2 PM. We have a fine room with bath. Took a walk, sat on the hotel veranda & then dressed for dinner. ‘Tis lovely here. To think of my being in that terrible Jerusalem, making my trip, at least this part, so unpleasant, but ‘tis past now.
Thursday, March 21
We made to Pyramids through a lovely road lined with large trees & along the river Nile. We crossed the river twice on five bridges. Saw the Sphinx.
Saw Coptic church, Old Cairo, Nilometer, place where Moses was found, Mosque & Citadel, Bazaar.
Saturday, March 23
Took a walk in morning, afternoon drove to Bazaar. Took tea with the Warthys. Buchanans called last evening.
Sunday, March 24
Went to Church of Scotland this morning. Sat on [hotel’s] veranda after church. Also after lunch a while saw several funerals. Street full of all sorts of people. The people who live at this hotel are very dressy. At six o’clock attended service at American Mission. Dr. Kennedy of Pittsburgh preached. Took our last dinner here tonight. Leave the Grand Continental Hotel in the morning.
Monday, March 25
We left Cairo this morning at 8:20 by steam cars & reached the boat about one o’clock safely. We were rushed through Alexandria as they have smallpox there, we hear. It was good to get back to ship though we had a lovely time at Cairo. The greeting of friends on the boat was pleasant after my being away twelve days.
The hotel in which the Riggs stayed was the Grand Continental on Opera Square, which some years later would change its name to the Continental-Savoy. Thank you to Charlotte’s great-nephew Douglas Brookes for sending me the images and the diary extract.
It’s a beautiful poster and it belongs to the most politically incorrect film you’re ever likely to see. This poster is Italian, but the film was American, released by MGM in 1933 as A Night in Cairo (aka The Barbarian).
The plot is an American socialite (Myrna Loy) arrives in Egypt to marry her terminally dull English fiancé, where she attracts the attentions of a sleazy desert prince (Ramon Novarro) who poses as a tour guide in order to make moves on foreign women. This charmer kidnaps, tortures and rapes her, after which she decides she loves him and the pair elope up the Nile. What got everybody heated up back then though was a scene in which Loy appeared to be naked in a sunken bath, modesty not quite preserved by floating petals.
Much of the film takes place in Cairo, the bulk of it in a hotel that is clearly modelled on Shepheard’s. The shooting took place on an MGM back lot in Culver City, California, with Yuma, Arizona used for the desert scenes. Being a studio shoot there are no street scenes and only a handful of well-used locations, including a railway station, the Pyramids, hotel rooms and the desert. The hotel rooms are totally generic and look nothing like the photos I’ve seen of rooms at Shepheard’s from that time. But then there are a couple of scenes in which the characters go out onto the hotel terrace and they baffle me. They look completely authentic. The doorway, the steps down to the street, the arrangement of the terrace all appear exactly as they really were. Check out the railings in the screengrab below and compare them with the actual photo of Shepheard’s beneath it.
They are identical. In a scene in which Loy and party leave the hotel you see part of the name Shepheard’s on the terrace wall (a bit dark, I’m sorry), as it was in real life (bottom image, taken in the 1920s).
No way did the studio fly out Myrna Loy (that’s her in the screenshots) to shoot a couple of exterior scenes in Cairo, so this must have been a studio set back in California. How intriguing to think that in the early 1930s technicians built a replica Shepheard’s terrace in Hollywood. I wonder, as was the way with these things, if it ever got recycled for any other films?
The painting above (click to enlarge) is of Opera Square from a balcony at the Continental-Savoy. It’s by François Krige (1913–1994), an artist I had never heard of, but a quick Google reveals he was a South African who painted in a ‘Post-Impressionist style which formed early in his career, influenced by his travels and studies in Europe’. He was in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Italy as a wartime artist during the Second World War, which is possibly when this painting dates from. I love the vitality and life about it, and the fact that there across the square, you can make out the terrace of the legendary Madam Badia’s casino.
Not too much to say about the photo above except it depicts British officers (no non-ranked soldiers allowed) relaxing on the terrace at Shepheard’s in 1941 and it’s new to me. It was shot by British photojournalist George Rodger (1908–1995), who went on to photograph the mass graves at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of World War II and later became famous for his images of tribal Africa. Rodger also shot the images below of soldiers relaxing at the other grand Cairo hotel, the Mena House.