A couple of posts back I mentioned the Schindler publishing company of Egypt and the guides it produced to Cairo and Alexandria, covers above. These were put out in 1942/43 to take advantage of the tens of thousands of Allied soldiers that had flooded the city since the outbreak of World War II. So they are light on history and sightseeing and mostly concentrate on restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping and useful information like postal rates and train times. They are filled with ads for many of these businesses. In the case of Cairo, except for Groppi’s and the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop, the advertised businesses are all long gone. Not so with Alexandria – among the ads in that guide are many for bars and restaurants that still just about hang on today, including the Cap d’Or, Badrot, Santa Lucia and a few others. For all the lamenting that goes on for lost Alexandria, the city manages to cling on to its past far more securely than Cairo.
A few days back a visitor to this site, Amina Niazi, posted a request for information on the Grand Hotel, which used to be on the Corniche at Aswan, so here’s what I know.
The story starts with Ferdinand Pagnon, who I haven’t written about before on this blog, which is a bit of an oversight given that he was the major hotelier in Upper Egypt at the tail end of the 19th century – so thank you Amina for the prompt.
Albert Ferdinand Pagnon was born on 1 January 1847 in Bourgoin, not far from Lyon in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in France. His family had a hotel there but it burned down the year of Ferdinand’s birth and so they moved to Marseille and then Egypt. The baby was left behind in France in care of an aunt, until at the age of 12 Ferdinand was sent to study in Malta. He returned to France to work in a bank in Romans until in 1868 his father died and the young man was called to Egypt to take his place running several hotels in Ismailia and Port Said. These almost certainly catered to engineers and company officials associated with the Suez Canal, which was then under construction and opened the following year.
Somehow Ferdinand also came to run the Hotel Victoria in Venice, which is where he met John Cook, son and heir of the international travel agent Thomas Cook. John made Pagnon the agent for the company’s growing Nile business in 1876. Pagnon was based down in Luxor, where Cook & Son built its first hotel, the Luxor Hotel, which opened in 1877 and was managed by Pagnon. Not long after, the company bought a second Luxor property, the Karnak Hotel, which I imagine was again managed by Pagnon. He later bought these two hotels from Cook.
From Luxor, Cooks’ steamers continued south to Aswan, where they stayed for two days before heading back downriver to Cairo. There were no hotels at Aswan, so for passengers wanting to extend their stay the company maintained a permanently moored steamer, the Sethi (above), as a floating hotel. That was until 1894 when, with money borrowed from Cook & Son, Pagnon opened the Hotel Assouan on the Corniche close to the wharf where the steamers moored. At some later date this hotel would become the Grand Hotel d’Assouan and then just the Grand Hotel. It was not a particularly large property and when the rival Anglo-American Nile Company launched the far fancier Savoy on Elephantine Island, Cook & Son responded by building the Cataract, which opened in 1900.
Initially, the Cataract was leased to Pagnon, but in 1904 it was sold to the Upper Egypt Hotels Co, a consortium headed up by Charles Baehler, owner of Shepheard’s in Cairo, but in which both John Cook and Pagnon also had stakes. The Upper Egypt Hotels Co also built the Winter Palace in 1907. Pagnon did not live long to enjoy his hotel empire – he caught a chill while boating on the Nile and died of pneumonia in 1909.
He left behind a wife, Kitty, and two daughters who returned to France to live in a farmhouse purchased by Ferdinand in Romans. There’s a small archive of correspondence between Pagnon and his wife held by the Municipal Archives of Romans, while the family property is now a health and therapy centre. A shrewd operator, while in Egypt Pagnon also amassed a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, which were left to his family and fetched decent prices when auctioned off at Christie’s in 1993.
As for the Grand Hotel at Aswan, it survived Pagnon by at least two decades because it was listed in the last Baedeker guide to Egypt, published in 1929. Beyond that, I don’t know. If anyone else has any information, please do drop me a line.
It is a name usually associated with lifts and lists, but in Cairo in the 1930s and ’40s the most prominent Schindler was a printer and publisher of English- and French-language books. From a Downtown office at 41 Sharia Madabegh (now Sharia Sherif), E & R Schindler put out a variety of books on Egyptian subjects, including regularly updated guides to Cairo and Alexandria, along with what were possibly the company’s best-selling titles, Rambles in Cairo and Moslem Builders of Cairo, both by Mrs RL Devonshire. Mrs Devonshire was a rather formidable French lady, born Henriette Caroline Vulliamy, who married a British lawyer, Robert Llewellyn Devonshire, and who was a great expert in Islamic architecture. According to Artemis Cooper in Cairo in the War 1939–1945, a tour of the city’s mosques in her company was a must for any cultivated visitor to Cairo. Mrs RLD was a historic monument in her own right, like Gertrude Stein in Paris. On three afternoons a week, in both world wars, she took members of the armed forces round the major Islamic monuments free of charge.
Schindler’s most curious book, though, was something called From Siwa to Cairo: Across the Libyan Desert with Armoured Cars by Major MTI Dun, dso, mc, ramc. It is not so much the subject matter – a drive across the desert to Siwa and back that took place in late 1932 – as the presentation. An officer in the XIIth Royal Lancers, Major Dun was also a man of culture. His book is part travelogue, part art book. Packaged between golden covers, the pages are embellished with deco-style page ornamentations, woodcuts by members of Cairo’s School of Fine Arts and, running along the bottom of the text, small pen-and-ink sketches of the convoy of 10 Rolls Royce armoured cars, one Leyland radio truck, three Austin Seven cars and a motorcycle making its way across the sands.
The charming convoy drawings are credited to N Strekalowsky, but the book offers no further information about the artist. The expedition was completely uneventful, with no accidents or emergencies – the only action was a football match between the British soldiers and their Egyptian counterparts at Sollum. It’s all a bit of wheeze.
Cairo to Siwa also contains this excellent map (click to enlarge). As the text rightly points out, ‘We know a town better by its buildings and shops than by the names of its streets’ and this map is heavily annotated with all the landmarks that played a role in the lives of many foreign residents in Cairo in the 1930s. You can reconstruct those lives from it: the restaurants Groppi’s, Gattegno, Aval de Venise; Shepheard’s, the Continental-Savoy and National hotels; Davies Bryan, Circurel and Chemla department stores; the bars and restaurants on Alfi Bey Street; and the branches of P&O, Cox & Kings and Thomas Cook for tickets home again. There are a few mysteries too: the lady with her legs astride a building that is being torn apart at the corner of Suleiman Pasha and Fouad al-Awal streets, what’s that about? And the squatting chap with a beard and turban on the corner of Emad ad-Din and Fouad al-Awal? I can get lost for hours here.
Hector Horeau, born in Versailles in 1801, had little luck as an architect. He won the competition for a covered market in Versailles in 1839 and for the design of the main building for the 1851 Great Exhibition of London (pictured above). Neither of these projects was realized with Horeau’s designs. The same happened with his 1849 proposals for Les Halles, the main market of Paris. He came up with a scheme for the construction of a railway tunnel under the Channel, connecting France and Britain (pictured below) – needless to say it never happened, not for another 150 years, anyway. None of his completed projects exists or can be identified. Horeau remains known only to architectural historians, who regard him as a pioneer in cast-iron, even if most of his work went unbuilt.
There is another body of work by Horeau, which is equally unheralded, although highly regarded by those who know about it. During the first part of his life he travelled extensively around Europe and also in Egypt. He was in Egypt in 1838, the same year David Roberts arrived, and like the Scot, Horeau explored the country with paintbrush in hand, producing a great many watercolours and sketches. Some of these were published in a portfolio with the snappy title Panorama d’Égypte et de Nubie, avec un Portrait de Méhémet-Ali et un Texte Orné de Vignettes. Rare copies of this sell for upwards of US$1,200 and, as far as I know, there have never been any reprints. Happily and quite amazingly, Horeau’s original watercolours survive and are held by the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, which has conserved, scanned and put them on line. Here are a few:
In all, the institute has some 130 paintings and they are magnificent. They show Egypt and its monuments as they would have been seen by early travellers, before they were fully excavated or cleared of debris. For my money, they have far more life and colour to them than Roberts’ far better known but bloodless drawings. To see more, go here.
I’ve just written a story on the Baron’s Palace for Eight, a magazine that is distributed through the Dusit Thani hotels. The editors asked if I could contribute something from Cairo on a theme of myths and legends. I was tempted to write about Lord Carnarvon’s tragic end in a room at the Continental-Savoy, or about the well in the courtyard of the Gayer-Anderson house that leads down to the domain of Sultan al-Watawit (the Sultan of the Bats), but I’ve always had a fascination with the Baron’s Palace, a building with more than its share of tall tales. Back in the late 1980s, when I worked up in Heliopolis for a spell, I used to make nocturnal visits to the palace with friends. As I write in the story, there was only an old watchman as security. He occupied a small wooden hut the size of a garden shed, over on the north side of the grounds, towards the Airport Road. If you approached from the southeast, the bulk of the palace was between you and him and, unless he was out on patrol, which was rare, you wouldn’t be seen. The fence was just barbed wire and easily slipped through. Then it was just a quick dash of a couple of hundred metres across the hard, dry ground to the sheltering shadow of the building.
It was easy enough to get in. Somebody had already removed one of the boards covering a window at lower-ground level. You crouched down, squeezed through and dropped. That was scary – it was a short drop but you landed in the pitch black. We never thought to bring a torch. After a few minutes, your eyes adjusted a little bit and then you could make out a doorway across the room, but you still couldn’t see where you were stepping and we were always afraid of snakes. You went out into an equally dark corridor at the end of which were some stairs. As you went up, there were some windows, which the moon just about strained through.
The light didn’t penetrate far. We could just make out that the rooms and halls on this, the ground floor, were completely empty except for filthy rags, crumpled newspapers and the sort of garbage, covered by a solid layer of dust, that suggested hobos had at some point long ago sheltered here. Once we braved the darkness of a corridor only to trigger a squealing whirlwind as a colony of bats loosed itself from the ceiling and swarmed us. After that we just stuck to the stairs and directed our explorations upwards.
There were only two floors above basement level but the staircase continued up into the tower, splitting in two, curving in two directions around the walls. Where they rejoined, one narrow, ladder-like flight extended out across the void to an upper gallery. We once took a few steps on it but our nerve wouldn’t take us any further. Instead, we found a door that exited to the roof and there we used to hang out, larking around and looking over at the nightlights of Cairo in the company of stone-carved temple dancers, dragons and elephant gods.
The rest of my story deals with the various legends associated with the palace, some of which are true – the son of the original builder did throw lavish parties and did marry a former burlesque dancer who used to appear naked except for a coat of gold paint – but most of which are not: the revolving sun room, the Satanist rituals, the suicides and ghosts. But you can hardly blame people for making up tales about the old palace – just look at it. Could you conceive of a better model for a haunted house?
I read recently that work was supposed to be beginning on the first phase of an architectural rescue of the building. As I haven’t been in Cairo for a little while now, I don’t know if this is happening. But as with all stories connected with the myth-shrouded Baron’s Palace, I will believe it when I see it.
All the photographs, by the way, are from Xenia Nikolskaya’s book Dust, which I have previously blogged about here.
The above item recently sold on ebay. What is it? It is a baggage tag issued to passengers embarking on Anglo-American Nile cruises. It bears the same design as an Anglo-American brochure that was issued in 1928 (here), so I’m guessing it dates from the same year. It’s not very big, probably just a bit bigger than a cigarette packet, but very rare – I’ve never seen one before – which is why somebody just paid $130 for it. Not me, but congratulations to whoever did buy it, it’s a lovely thing.
A few years back I posted a request for information on the Parisiana, the bar-restaurant that used to occupy the ground floor of the Windsor Hotel building. It received a bunch of responses in the comments section. A few days ago, another comment was posted.
“My maiden name is Djerdjerian, and I am the grand-daughter of Garabed Djerdjerian, one of four partners who together owned and ran the famous Parisiana. The family names of the other partners were Tekeyian, Ibishian, and Ayrandjian. In 1952 Parisiana was burned down during the revolution, and the following year my grandfather passed away and my father Arto Djerdjerian took his place (although the restaurant was still closed). In 1954, the Parisiana was reopened by Levon and Senpat Ibishian (sons of the original partner), who were then joined by my father. The restaurant was nationalised in (I think) 1965/66, closed and turned into a governmental communications office. I remember Parisiana as a young girl of 12/13 years old, always with great fondness.”
I asked the lady – whose name is Rita Batchelor – if she had any photos and she kindly sent the three images below, as well as a scan of the clipping, ‘Enjoy Cairo Café for 50 Cents,’ which comes from a January 1961 edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune (click to enlarge to a readable size), a time when 50 cents went a long way.
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.”