Tomb service

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For On the Nile we wanted an old photo of tourists dining in a tomb, which, of course, was the only place to eat in mid 19th-century Egypt. We couldn’t find one so we had to do without. This morning, searching for something entirely unrelated I came across the image above, which is fabulous (click to enlarge). Just look at the amount of booze – four bottles of what looks like bubbly for six people. No wonder two are out cold and the guy at the back looks like he’s about to collapse face first into his companion’s lap.

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And then there is also this image of tourists dining in a temple. Once again, the booze is to the forefront and there is some splendid headwear on show, particularly the elderly lady’s hat, which looks like a pigeon caught in a fishing net.

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Oh, what a lovely war

More delving through online photographic archives, this time over at the Australian War Memorial site. The riches to be found there are amazing and I’ll be posting a bunch of finds from the archives in the coming weeks. First though, a handful of random images that I’m posting for no better reason than they are lovely photographs. They are all from 1942 and show Australian nurses and soldiers off duty and relaxing in Cairo.

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Rollerskating was hugely popular at this time and Cairo had several purpose-built rinks.

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Dora dines in Cairo

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A pingback linking to this site alerted me to a fascinating post over at the Sydney Living Museums website. It concerns a new book containing correspondence between Dora Sheller and her son Leslie Walford, one of the leading figures in Australian interior design until his death in 2012. In 1929 Dora Walford, a glamorous Sydney socialite, set off on a honeymoon voyage to England, stopping off in Cairo from late December 1929 until the first week of January 1930. She was well-heeled enough to stay at the top hotels, notably Mena House and Shepheard’s. The photo below is Dora on the steps to the tea gardens at Mena House.

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Dora spent Christmas at Shepheard’s and kept hold of the printed and tassel-corded menu for the Christmas Eve dinner at Shepheard’s Grill, with a beautiful cover showing a masqued ball in full swing.

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The Sydney Living Museums post helpfully translates the belt-busting menu:

Blinis with caviar
Tomato soup (served in a cup)
Lobster thermidor
Quail in puff pastry (named for the writer George Sand)
Chicken breast in a rich cream sauce ‘Russian style’
Indian salad (lettuce, cress; a dressing of red wine, vinegar, spices)
Mandarin sorbet with Chantilly cream;
‘Chocolate shoes’ – a novelty chocolate biscuit shaped like a shoe
Chocolate Yule log

A few days later Dora dined at the Mena House and, again, she kept the menu.

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In English:

Consommé garnished with finely diced carrot, turnip, green beans, truffle &c;
Turbot with a tomato sauce
Roast premium cut of lamb cooked with sage
Asparagus
Bresse chicken in a very rich casserole sauce
Ice cream bombe
Fruit basket
Coffee

After getting through all that, you’d imagine Dora wouldn’t have to eat again until she reached England. However there was a trip into the desert – which may have just been across the road to the Pyramids – for which the Mena House provided a picnic that was transported on its own trolley, as seen in the photograph below, which shows Dora’s husband Eric Sheller and son Leslie.

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All these items come from the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. You can read more here.

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Luxury leave in 1943

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One of the strands that runs through my book On the Nile is the story of the various steamers that were built, or bought and refitted, especially for use on the Nile. Their heyday stretched from the late 1880s to the outbreak of World War I and then again for a short spell between the wars. Short because the Great Depression that came in the wake of 1929’s Wall Street Crash was very much felt in Egypt. Thomas Cook & Son, which operated the majority of the steamers, saw its Egyptian business drop by almost half as a result of the Crash. The company responded by selling off a large part of its fleet. A few years later the business came to a complete stop with the outbreak of war in North Africa. What remained of Cook’s Nile fleet was requisitioned by the British Army, as were the boats belonging to the Anglo-American Nile Company. Some of the boats were used for transport, several were used as floating officers’ clubs, moored at Cairo. At the time I was writing the book I looked for images of the boats in their new roles but failed to find anything other than the photograph above, which shows South African troops aboard Cook & Son’s Thebes down at Shellal. Then just last week, while searching the Imperial War Museum archive for something else altogether, I came across the images below.

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The photo set is captioned “Luxury leave for the Navy in Cairo, 19 May 1943”. The pics show petty officers aboard two houseboats moored beside the Gezira Club, where all the amenities are at the officers’ disposal, including golf and the swimming pool. The boats are the Indiana and the Puritan, which were part of the Anglo-American fleet.

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Schindler’s guides to Cairo and Alex

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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.

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Pagnon and the Grand Hotel, Aswan

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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.

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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 bought the Hotel Assouan, which had opened on the Corniche close to the wharf where the steamers moored a couple of seasons previously. 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.

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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.

5 JUNE 2017
Some additional information comes courtesy of Dr Cornelius von Pilgrim of the Swiss Institute, Cairo:

Dear Andrew,
The later fate of the hotel goes as following: the Assouan Hotel was renamed some time around 1900 as the Grand Hotel Assouan before it was destroyed by fire on April 23rd 1903. In the summer of the same year it was newly built and reopened as the Grand Hotel that winter. It was a completely new building, with three floors, a fourth floor was added the following year. It burnt down again in summer 1985.

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Schindler of Cairo

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Horeau show

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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.

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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:

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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.

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Nights at the palace

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pricey label

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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.

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