It has been quite a while since I posted anything here for which I do apologise. There was good reason. I have been busy writing the follow-up to Grand Hotels, which is to be titled On the Nile in the Golden Age of Travel. It tells the story of tourism on the Nile, from languorous expeditions in dahabiyas to the coming of the steamer, and the heyday of Cook’s Nile services in the early 20th century. I’m pleased to say the manuscript is now with the American University in Cairo Press, which will be publishing the book in Spring 2015. There’s still plenty to do: for the next couple of months I will be working with Gadi Farfour, my wife, on the design of the book (like Grand hotels it will be heavily illustrated in full colour), and then there’s captioning, editor’s corrections, proofing and a whole heap of other things. However, we’re very much on the home straight and life outside of writing now starts to get a look in once again, including, hopefully, more posting here.
Today I received another email from Peter Kuonen – who sent me the wonderful images of his grand-uncle Victor, who was concierge at the Winter Palace in its heyday (see here). Here’s the text of Peter’s email:
Much to my surprise, I found the gold watch which Victor received with a dedication from Charles Baehler for his excellent work during 30 years in Egypt. You surely wonder how and where I found it. In my research, I have of course spoken with many relatives. Thus, it happened that I was talking about this watch and then I held it in my hand. You cannot imagine how I felt. It was just great… like getting a reward for my work. The person that keeps this memorable piece is Toni Kuonen, a hotelier in Sierre, Switzerland. He received it from his father Richard, a son of Victor Kuonen.
And here is the watch, courtesy of photos from Peter.
Incidentally, the Charles Baehler who Peter mentions in his email was the king of Egyptian hotels. A former accountant from Switzerland, he arrived in Egypt on 21 October 1889, aged eighteen. He went to work at Shepheard’s in a junior role but so impressed his employer with his conﬁdence and knowledge of hotel administration that he was soon appointed manager. By 1905, he owned the hotel. By the time he died, in 1937, his companies not only owned every major hotel in Egypt (including the Winter Palace), but also 72 shops and 130 ﬂats, a stable of race horses, a kennel of prize-winning St. Bernard dogs, and a museum-worthy collection of paintings and tapestries. He married three times and fathered three sons. His obituary in The New York Times on 28 September 1937 called him “one of the world’s greatest hotel men.”
Now if any of his descendents read this, I would love to hear from them.
I was doing some research on the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits this week, the outfit best known for operating the Orient Express and other luxury train services. Less well known is that in 1894 the directors set up a subsidiary, the Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hotels, through which they began operating luxury hotels around the world. In Egypt, they took up the lease on what had been one of Ismail’s numerous palaces until it had been seized following his abdication in 1879. The CIGH had the former khedivial residence remodeled, reﬁtted and opened to paying guests in October 1894 as the Gezira Palace Hotel—or Gheezireh Palace Hotel, as in those days the more letters in a word the more authentically foreign it was thought to be.
The image above is part of a CIGH advertising poster and it is one of the most unique and beguiling views of Cairo I’ve ever seen. It must date from the very last years of the 19th century, soon after the CIGH acquired the Palace, which is at the centre of the panorama. If you don’t yet recognize it, the Gezira Palace would eventually – after a long spell as a private home – become the Cairo Marriott, and the island is what’s now Zamalek. The bridge in picture is Qasr el-Nil. It’s as though the artist is hovering above the east side of 26th of July Bridge.
Behind the U-shaped building are the extensive khedivial gardens with twin lakes overlooked by the Kiosque, a large free-standing pavilion that was originally used as guest accommodation, but later became function rooms and a casino. South of the ornamental gardens, the Khedive’s private park has already became a sports and recreation ground, for polo and horse riding – it’s now the Gezira Club. Missing is the 6th October flyover that now cuts across its middle. Beyond, the west bank is largely desert, apart from the thread of greenery that indicates the road running straight to the Pyramids on the horizon.
I love the detail, like the dahabiya just setting off from the moorings at Bulaq bound for Upper Egypt, and the lions at the end of the bridge. So many feluccas too – it looks more like Aswan than Cairo.
As I posted a couple of months back, I’m currently at work on a follow up to Grand Hotels, this time round focusing on the Nile steamer services. The manuscript is progressing well and I’m due to hand it over to my publishers, the AUC Press, in mid July. One of the major operators of Nile boats was an outfit called the Anglo-American Nile Company, founded in 1896 and in existence until at least the late 1920s. Unfortunately, information on them is very hard to come by. If there’s anybody out there who has any leads, I’d love to hear from you.
A new novel that might be of interest to readers of this site is The Visitors by Sally Beauman. It’s set in Egypt in 1922, where a young English girl has been sent in care of a chaperone to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother. The opening chapters largely play out in the salons and on the terrace of Shepheard’s in Cairo, which is beautifully brought to life. The supporting cast of characters include familiar names such as Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert, Arthur Mace, Harry Burton, Pierre Lacau, James Breasted, Arthur Weigall and a host of other real-life people, all of whom were involved in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun – the event that provides the novel’s dramatic backdrop. Beauman does a good job of putting flesh on the biographical bones of her historical cast and succeeds in bringing the characters to life. How accurate and fair she is, I can’t say – it would take someone better read in Egyptology than me to comment. Her descriptions of Shepheard’s and Winter Palace are generally spot on though, right down to describing the bathrooms of the former as being vast and echoing, like mausoleums – one 19th century journalist said sitting in one of them was like being in a chamber at the centre of a pyramid. If I were being picky I might mention that the Continental hotel isn’t across the Ezbekiya Gardens from Shepheard’s but just up the street, and the Winter Palace is not designed in a Baroque style – far from it – but that’s minor stuff. A bigger problem, I found, is the voice of the protagonist, Lucy, whose inner thoughts run to things like, “In the fustian Cambridge circles in which I’d grown up, divorce equaled disgrace”. She’s supposed to be eleven years old, for god’s sake. I found this such a problem I gave up on the book a quarter of the way in. Now I’ll never know whether Howard Carter found that tomb or not.
The English novelist EM Forster was 36 when he arrived in Alexandria in November 1915. He had already had four novels published, including A Room with a View and Howards End. A paciﬁst by inclination, he had decided to avoid ﬁghting by volunteering for the Red Cross, and was posted to Egypt. While he looked for more permanent accommodation, he took a room at the newly built Majestic, which had opened the previous year on 20 April 1914.
The hotel had announced its arrival the previous year with the following notice in the local press:
Messrs Pappadopoulo & Co beg to announce the opening of the Majestic Hotel, the construction, furnishing and installation of which has been executed according to the latest modern methods of good taste and comfort.
The Hotel situated in the centre of town opposite the Jardin Francais, with a splendid view on the sea, in close proximity of the new quai, the Egyptian Post Offices, the Mixed Courts, and the principal commercial Establishments offers both by its exceptional position and irreproachable service all that could be desired.
Mr F. Roure who managed during 25 years the Grand Hotel Abbat and afterwards the Grand Hotel and whose repute is well known has assumed the management of the new House thus a guarantee is assured that entire satisfaction will be given.
Messrs Pappadopoulo and F. Roure earnestly hoping that Travellers and Residents alike will extend to them at the MAJESTIC HOTEL the confidence which they have hithero shown to them: beg to thank one and all in advance.
Forster intended to remain only three months in Alexandria but in the event stayed more than three years. He spent his ﬁrst few months visiting the city’s hospitals during working hours and walking the seafront for recreation. He wrote to his mother, ‘one can’t dislike Alex … because it is impossible to dislike either the sea or stones. But it consists of nothing else as far as I can gather: just a clean cosmopolitan town by some blue water’. Over time he obviously discovered more to the city, finding the place sufficiently inspiring for him to produce his Alexandria: A History and a Guide (published 1922) and a collection of essays on Alexandrian themes called Pharos and Pharillon (1923).
But while Forster did a fine job of keeping alive the legends and myths of Alexandria, the hotel in which he stayed has faded into obscurity. I’ve been able to find virtually no references to the Majestic. Obviously, it lacked the glamour that was attached to other Alexandrian hotels, such as the Cecil or San Stefano. I suspect its clientele leaned toward travelling businessmen, civil servants and low-ranking officials, the sorts of low-visibility types who couldn’t afford to splash out on somewhere like the Cecil but weren’t going to be around long enough to warrant finding an apartment – the sort of person Forster perhaps was when he first arrived.
I don’t know when the Majestic ceased to be a hotel, but it is long gone. The building survives, though. Its lower ﬂoors are occupied by a modern shopping mall, the upper ﬂoors by ofﬁces. Until very recently it was still distinguished by the elegant twin cupolas on its front corners, but recently these were destroyed in a shameful act of architectural vandalism by an opportunistic developer looking to add an extra couple of storeys. Apparently work on the building has now ceased on orders of the governor of Alexandria but it’s a bit late.
The news of what’s happened to the Majestic building (and the photos) came from the Facebook page run by Zahraa Adel Awad, an Alexandrian tour guide who is campaigning to save the city’s architectural heritage – visit her site here.
I knew that Shepheard’s was severely damaged by fire in 1868 from a dramatic illustration that ran in the London Illustrated News, below. But I was never able to find any further details, so the event only receives a passing mention in my book Grand Hotels of Egypt. Recently, however, I managed to find not one but two newspaper accounts of the event, one of which, from the 21st August 1868 edition of The Coventry Herald and Free Press, and Midland Express I’m going to post in full because it’s full of interesting detail. For instance, in 1868 Shepheard’s had a stock of wine that was worth fully half as much as the entire hotel?
A correspondent at Cairo, in a letter dared the 7th furnishes some particulars of the burning if Shepheard’s Hotel, which occurred on the previous night: “The building was constructed by Mohamed Ali for a school of languages on the site of a former building occupied by Napoleon as his headquarters while in command of the French expedition in Egypt; and a well now subsisting in the garden of the hotel is said to be the identical well in which the assassin of General Kleber momentarily concealed himself after stabbing the general and those who were in the company walking up and down one of the garden paths. On the breaking up of Mohamed Ali’s schools the building passed to Kamal Pasha, his son-in-law, and now one of the Sultan’s ministers. In 1850 Abbas Pasha, then Viceroy of Egypt, rented it from Kamil Pasha, and granted it, at the suggestion of Sir Charles Murray, then Her Majesty’s agent and consul-general in Egypt, for a nominal rent, to the late Mr. Shepheard (who resided until his death at Eathorpe, near Leamington), for the purpose of a hotel. In a few years Mr. Shepheard was enabled to retire, and in 1859 he transferred the hotel for a premium, it was understood of £12,000 to its present proprietor, Mr. Zech, who has further laid out much money upon it. It is said he is insured in French offices to the amount of £14,000. The building was of two floors in height, and in plan in the form of a hollow square round an inner quadrangle, which was laid out as a garden. On the lower floor was a wine closet containing a stock of wine valued at between £6,000 and £7,000.
The fire began at half-past eleven last night, the first alarm preceeding from an explosion from a store closet containing parafine – or, as it called in Cairo, gas – candles, and other combustible matters. The servants were at the moment preparing to close the house. In an instant flames shot forth in several directions at once. The people of the house could do nothing, there having been no fire-extinguishing apparatus of any kind on the premises. The preparations against fires are so ineffectual in Cairo that it was stated to be two hours before an instrument, consisting of a hand-carried box with a pump in it, which passes for a fire engine, arrived. The stream projected by such a pump is certainly not thicker than an ordinary hand garden pump. Fortunately there was no wind. Had the northerly wind which had been blowing for some nights previously continued, Kamil Pasha’s house must have gone, and very probably the new hotel, constructed and furnished at a cost of £120,000, and not yet completely finished. On visiting the scene at eight O’clock this morning, I found the east and south fronts a roofless burnt-out ruin – thin columns of smoke curling up here and there from the materials which had fallen in between the walls. The north and west blocks are uninjured, but the furniture they contained having been thrown as best it could, out of the windows, will yield little salvage.
Some suspicions are entertained that the fire may have been the act of an incendiary. Fires are of rare occurrence in Cairo; but it so happens that for the last nine days a fire has been reported in different parts of the town every evening. There is a great discontent among the people at the arbitrary exactions to which they have been subjected in order to satisfy the Pasha’s requirements for meeting his liabilities at home and abroad, while at the same time they hear of his wasting enormous sums of money at Constantinople. A firdeh or trade tax of 8 1/3 per cent per annum on the profits from trade, calculated in many instances much in excess of the true profits, and weighing with excessive hardship on a large class of the inhabitants of the town, has lately been imposed.
The Glasgow Daily Herald of Wednesday 2nd September 1868 ran a very similar story, probably from the same correspondent, but it chose to include this excellent detail:
I am told of one guest in the hotel putting an appearance, in sorry plight, at one of the windows flanked by flames from others on either side of it, and by aid of extemporised ladders and mattresses and things for his to jump on, he was got out in safety and nudity.
The hotel was not out of commission for too long because just a few months later, in January 1869, travel impresario Thomas Cook was in Cairo leading his very first Egyptian tour party, and from a diary left by one of its number, we know that Shepheard’s was up and running again by this time.
A gentleman called Frank Bird posted elsewhere on this site to alert me to a passage in Michael Asher’s Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia in which the author pays a visit to the Continental-Savoy in Cairo, which is where, of course, Lawrence stayed for some time. Asher found the place in a similarly decrepit state as I did, although he did better than I (see this post) in that he got to see the old dining room and bar. The book was published in 1998, so I imagine Asher’s visit may have been a year so previously. Here’s the extract:
“When the black and white taxi deposited me in Ezbekiyya Square, Cairo, I had some difficulty at first in spotting the Grand Continental Hotel. I suddenly realized I suddenly realized that it was the dismal, mouldering heap opposite the Ezbekiyya Gardens, half hidden by a row of very drab shops. In the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I had seen a picture of the place as it had been in 1914, embossed on the head of a letter written by T. E. Lawrence, and it was difficult to equate this mildewed tenement before me with that great colonial château whose guest-list – A. & C. Black’s guidebook for 1916 had assured me – once read like a page out of the Almanac de Gotha. That grand world of Egypt’s belle époque, when Cairo had been a fashionable winter resort rivalling Nice and Monte Carlo, was lost, hidden like the hotel itself beneath the seedy façade of a hectic modern city. In the dark lobby, a fly-blown man with a two-day stubble showed brown teeth when I pressed him for the price of a room: ‘This place hasn’t been a hotel in ten years,’ he said. In what had been the Front Desk Manager’s office – a place of peeling paint and faded velvet upholstery – a wizened man called Khalid groped in some filing cabinets and brought out a colour postcard of the hotel as it had looked ten years precisely as neglected as it looked now, I thought. ‘They said it was beyond repair he told me. ‘They couldn’t use it as a hotel any more, so they turned it into offices.’ There was no chance of me seeing the rooms upstairs, he said, but he would show me the downstairs area, and fetching a great ring of keys, he led me like a gaoler across the lobby and unlocked a steel flange nailed across the dining-room doors. The room was astonishingly vast, with a plush carpet, once wine-red perhaps, but now faded and rotten and covered in rat droppings and bits of plaster fallen from the ceiling. ‘I was a bellboy here in the old days,’ Khalid said. ‘Kings and princes used to come from all over the world. It was the best hotel in Egypt.’ He showed me the fine frescos of ancient Egyptian gods and pharaohs which adorned the walls. ‘Italian artist,’ he said. ‘Done more than a hundred years ago.’ Lawrence must have known them well, I thought, for the Grand Continental had been his base for nine months from 1914 to 1915, and he had taken breakfast, lunch and dinner in this room almost every day. In the lobby, you could see the remains of a travel-agent’s kiosk, a worn-out sign announcing Nile cruises, and a jeweller’s shop, and Khalid showed me what had been the bar – though all that was left were the mirror-mosaic shelves where the bottles would have been on display. ‘Here they had whisky,’ he said, and I imagined the great and good of Cairo in 1914 – Ronald Storrs, Bertie Clayton, George Lloyd, Aubrey Herbert, Stewart Newcombe and others – nursing their drinks and turning over in the eminently civilized heads their dreams of Empire, their dream of the Arab Revolt.”
Thank you Frank.
I was recently contacted by Peter Kuonen of Urdorf in Switzerland, who wondered if I would be interested in seeing some photographs of his grand-uncle, Victor, who spent more than 20 years employed at Luxor’s Winter Palace, and before that Shepheard’s, in the early years of the 20th century. Of course I was interested. So Peter sent me the photographs and they are wonderful – he’s permitted me to post some of them, below. I also asked Peter if he could tell me a little about Victor, and he responded with the text that follows.
“Victor was born on May 4, 1875 in a small mountain village called Guttet in the picturesque canton of Wallis in Switzerland. He grew up together with five sisters and fourteen brothers. After completing his compulsory schooling he had to help to support the family. Therefore, he went to work in a hotel at the age of 16 years. As a young man, he already had jobs in different cities like San Remo, Basel and Lucerne. In 1897, aged 22, he travelled to Egypt for the first time. He sent back travel reports, which were published in a local Wallis newspaper Briger Anzeiger from February 1902 onwards. His first report described the trip from Switzerland via Genoa to Port Said. He not only wrote what he had experienced on the trip but also about the people and the land of Egypt. He continued to file reports right up until 1923 and his most interesting are now preserved in the archives of the Canton Valais.
“He found employment in Egypt in the first-class hotels, including Shepheard’s in Cairo and the Winter Palace in Luxor – both hotels owned by fellow Swiss Charles Baehler.
“Victor worked in Egypt during the winter (which was Egypt’s prime tourist season) and returned to Switzerland or Germany during the summer. In Switzerland, he worked in the Hotel Mont Cervin, Zermatt and in the Hotel Schweizerhof, Lucerne. In Germany, he was a concierge in the Hotel Europäischer Hof, Baden-Baden where he met his wife Sophie Mohl. They had three more sons and one daughter.
An illustration of Victor, presented to him as a gift. I can’t be sure but it looks like the work of Tony Binder, who I have posted about previously, here
“In 1927, after working 30 years for Charles Baehler, – during which time he was present in Luxor when Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered – Victor received a Diploma of the Swiss Hotelier Association and also a gold watch with a dedication from Baehler.
“Victor said good-bye to Egypt in 1931. He moved with his family to Algeria, where his second-oldest son, Oscar, had a job in a hotel. They settled in the coastal town of Bône (today called Annaba), where Victor opened a restaurant, Au Rosbif. The family ran this for about 10 years but then World War II came along and they packed up and returned to Switzerland. Back in his homeland, Victor bought the Hotel Mont Cervin in Visp/Wallis in 1941 and was a successful hotelier for the next 8 years until he died on October 13, 1949.”