Poking around in the archives of the American University in Cairo the other week I came across a box labeled “Susan Weeks”. Susan was the wife of Egyptologist Kent Weeks, rediscoverer of the KV 5 tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Susan worked with Kent as part of the Theban Mapping Project, for which she was ceramics expert, registrar, headquarters supervisor, project archivist and chief architect until her tragically premature death in December 2009. The box contained some of her pencil and ink sketches and watercolours. If you’ve ever seen a copy of Kent’s book The Lost Tomb, then you will have seen Susan’s sketches, one of which heads each chapter. Unfortunately, the reproductions in the book are not very good – not in the paperback, anyway – so to see the original pieces is a thrill. Plus the book is in black and white and doesn’t have any colour pieces. Below is a selection of some of the work from the archive, only two of which feature in the book. It’s just a small sampling, pieces I particularly liked, and there is much, much more. It’s a shame the work is so little seen. Maybe one day we’ll get to see it published in a book.
AUC Press has a fantastic new book coming out late October called Classic Egyptian Movies, subtitled 101 Must-see Films. It’s a translation (by Sarah Enany) of a book first published in Arabic by film critic Sameh Fathy, in which he picks out his personal landmarks of Egyptian cinema. It’s interesting to see what makes the cut and what doesn’t. The bulk of the films are from the 1950s and ’60s, with only one film from the 21st century. There’s lots of Youssef Chahine, but even more Salah Abu Seif. Farid Shawqi is the actor who appears most, while Souad Hosni is the most represented actress. Each of the films gets a write-up arguing the case for its greatness, complemented by a full cast list and other credits. Best of all, each film is illustrated by its original poster and a film still. It makes for a gloriously colourful and visually rich book, which comes in a neat, compact format. The stylish design is by Gadi Farfour, who was also responsible for Grand Hotels of Egypt and On the Nile looking so great. (Full disclosure: I had the enjoyable job of editing Sarah’s translation.)
Cairo has had dozens of English-language newspapers over the last century and a half – I co-founded one myself – and hats off to the Egyptian Gazette, which is the only one that has gone the distance, published (continuously, I think) since 1880. The one that fascinates me, however, is a publication called The Sphinx. Part of the fascination is because it is so rare. It was published weekly from 1893 until possibly the end of the First World War, so, for around 25 years or more. Yet I’ve only ever been able to find a handful of surviving copies, all of which are held by the British Library. From the copies I’ve seen, it’s not a newspaper, it’s a cut-rate Tatler, filled with society news and gossip, write ups of garden parties at the ‘Residence’, that sort of thing.
Of much more interest than the writing (sample: ‘Oh! One could write reams on the top-hats of Cairo’) are the ads that pack the pages. Each issue is like a directory of fashionable businesses. For instance, the intriguing ad above for the Lipton’s Tea Rooms, which a story inside describes as being entered from Emad el-Din Street, near the Rond Pont Suares. It is supposed to have a garden with two circular domed summer houses and is being designed by St John Diamont, architect of the AUC’s Ewart Hall. I’m guessing this is what became Groppi’s garden café.
The owner of The Sphinx was an Anglophile American named David Garrick Longworth. Born in Addison, Ohio in 1853, as a young man Longworth worked as a booster for Barnum, whipping up publicity for his shows. He went into business for himself and travelled widely in Africa, where he continued to employ his talents for promotion: on one occasion in Cape Town he hired an army of locals to march, laden with white rocks, up Table Mountain, where he had the stones arranged to spell out ‘Take Liver Pills’. He arrived in Cairo in October 1893, a man in a hurry to make a splash, and launched The Sphinx a month later.
In addition to his paper, he operated a bar-nightclub, also called The Sphinx, which was on rue Fuad (present-day 26th of July Street) – and that’s all I have been able to find out about it, although it was famous/infamous enough to feature on postcards (above).
Meanwhile, Longworth’s wife spent three years sculpting a scale plaster model of the actual Sphinx, ten feet long and three feet high, which was exhibited in Paris in 1903, and then bought by the Field Museum of Chicago, Mrs Longworth’s hometown. Mr Longworth died in London in January 1928. If anybody knows anything more about this intriguing character, his newspaper or bar, please let us know.
Another curiosity discovered in the archives of the American University in Cairo. In an old alumni newsletter I saw a notice for the death of Claude Feninger, who was described as the last manager of the old Shepheard’s hotel. Really? I’d never heard of him. A little googling and I find that it’s more or less true and that Claude even wrote an autobiography, Sang Froid: Keeping My Cool in the International Hotel Business, much of which can be read online.
Born in Cairo of an Egyptian father of Swiss descent and a Neapolitan mother, after completing his education Claude had to wait until the end of World War II before taking the first boat out of Alexandria. He was bound for the Ecole des Hoteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland. After a brief experience managing a small hotel in a Swiss resort town, he returned to Cairo at the age of 25 to become the ‘resident manager’ of Shepheard’s, working under general manger Antoine Foester.
You can’t trust everything Claude writes. For instance he says Shepheard’s was the first hotel built in the world, which is a ludicrous claim to make – it wasn’t even the first in Cairo. He also says that he started work on 12 October 1952, which he calls ‘the best day of my life’. Except Shepheard’s burned down on 26 January 1952. I think that’s probably a typo and was meant to be 12 October 1951. Claude knows very well when Shepheard’s burned down because he was there and he describes the day in his book.
He relates how that Saturday began with Mrs Blanche Weinberg, a long-term resident, knocking on his office door to tell him she was off to spend the day in Maadi with her daughter-in-law. Twenty minutes later there is a call from Mr Ibrahim Yehya, the minister of culture and a family friend. He says there are anti-British riots breaking out in the city and that Shepheard’s may well be targeted. Claude thanks him for the information and goes to find his boss, Antoine Foester. Foester can’t be found so Claude takes his passkey and goes through the hotel, instructing all the guests to leave what they’re doing and quickly assemble in the gardens at the back of the hotel. By noon, the streets are filled with rioters chanting, ‘Death to England. Death to the puppet Farouk’. Black smoke rises above the surrounding streets. Nubian staff are posted at the entrances to the hotel but the rioters force their way in and start fires all over the hotel. As the flames take hold, 250 guests are in the garden, terrified. They need to be evacuated and taken through the city streets to somewhere safe. Claude steps up on a chair and shouts at the rioters. ‘You’ve done your damage. Now I need some help take the guests to safety.’ He was, he says, swamped by willing volunteers.
Once the flames died down three bodies were found in the ruins. Two were looters found in the basement where the hotel kept its silver. The other was found in suite 302. It was Mrs Weinberg, who must have changed her mind about going to Maadi and returned to the hotel. Claude had never checked her room because he thought she was out for the day.
In the picture above (click to enlarge), the streetfront terrace is at the bottom of the picture with steps in the middle leading up to the main entrance. The domed structure is the Moorish hall. To the left, beyond the burned-out Shepheard’s, is the Windsor hotel, still in business today.
Two posts back I wrote on searching for Egypt in Paris this summer. The picture above is what I would have found had I done the same 118 years ago.
In 1900 Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair, and its fifth such jamboree since 1855. It was intended to celebrate the coming of a new century. It introduced the world to art nouveau, and gifted the city the Grand Palais and Petit Palais, which stand beside the Seine until today. (The Eiffel Tower was the legacy of the previous 1889 Exposition). Among its other popular features were the foreign pavilions, each intended to celebrate their home nations. The Egyptian Palace was designed by French architect Marcel-Lazare Dourgnon, who, just a few years later, would win the commission for Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. It was a curious complex with a domed Mamluk madrassa in the centre flanked by two pharaonic temple facades. It was, apparently, very popular with visitors. Behind one of the pharaonic facades was a theatre with a show that featured a supposed 200 dancers. The theatre or cinema with an ancient Egyptian façade became something of a craze in the 1920s and ’30s, and I wonder if this is the protoype?
The Grand Palais, incidentally, also references Egypt in the gorgeous mosaic friezes that run under its colonnades.
What is it with sphinxes and beautiful women? Some while back I posted a photo of Sophia Loren sat in front of one of the sphinxes on London’s Embankment (here) and yesterday I find the picture above. It’s the very same sphinx but this time the lady is Nena von Schlebrügge, an American fashion model in the 1950s and 1960s, and mother of actress Uma Thurman. The shot was taken by celebrated English fashion and portrait photographer Norman Parkinson in 1963.
Over the years I’ve been to a number of good exhibitions at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris and last week I went to another. Next November marks 150 years since the opening of the Suez Canal and the Institute has decided to get the celebrations started early with a show called ‘The Epic of the Suez Canal’. It begins with a room dedicated to the grand inauguration party at Port Said. The centrepiece is a large model of the town and canal with the pavilions erected for the occasion; there are further models, notably of Aigle, the ship on which guest of honour, the Empress Eugenie, sailed in the procession through the canal, lots of paintings and one of the dresses worn by Eugenie.
The exhibition continues by detailing the canals dug in ancient times, illustrated by pharaonic loans from the Louvre, and then documents the various other schemes predating the Suez Canal, before going on to document its construction. Included are maquettes and a watercolour of the monument designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi that was to have stood at the mouth of the canal, but which in a slightly amended form was eventually erected in New York Harbour (I’ve blogged about this before, here).
It takes the story through into the 20th century with Nasser’s nationalisation of the canal, the tripartite aggression by the Israel, Britain and France, and the 1967 and ’73 wars. It ends by putting you on the bridge of a container ship sailing the length of the canal. It runs until 5 August and is well worth seeing.
Also on this summer is an exhibition at the Quai Branly, near the Eiffel Tower, called ‘Paintings from Afar’ (Peintures des lointains). It brings together around 200 unseen works from the museum’s collection, largely drawn from the late 18th to mid 20th centuries, illustrating the Western perception of distant lands. Among the pieces on display are more depictions of the Suez Canal, as well as several paintings by Emile Bernard, including ‘Les marchands du Caire’, below. It runs until January 2019.
If you are in Paris this summer, you could spend a whole week exploring the links between the French capital and Egypt. There are the obvious ones, like the ancient Egyptian treasures in the Louvre and the obelisk on place de la Concorde, but there is plenty more beyond. You might start by searching out the passage du Caire, a covered arcade that runs off rue St Denis, which is filled by textile and garment shops. It exits onto place du Caire where, if you look back, you see a frieze of pharaonic faces decorating the facade.
Just around the corner are the rues Alexandrie, Abu Qir and du Nil. Opposite the west end of rue du Nil is the Libraire Petit Egypte, a fine little bookshop with a good section of all kinds of books on Egypt. From here it’s not too far to walk to place du Chatelet, where you find the Fontaine du palmier with four huge sphinxes at its base (below). You might then hope on Metro line 4 a few stops to Saint Suplice from where it’s a few minutes walk to rue de Sevres where you find the Fontaine du fellah (below), also known as the Egyptian Fountain, which was erected in 1806 commemorating Napoleon’s short-lived expedition in Egypt.
Some of those who accompanied Napoleon on that particular campaign are now buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, where there is no shortage of Egyptian-inspired funerary architecture (below). Personally, I prefer the Montmarte Cemetery where you find a sleek, life-sized figurine of Egyptian diva Dalida (below), which is more fashion mannequin than funerary monument. A short walk away there is also place Dalida, with a well-fondled bust of the singer.
Finally, you shouldn’t miss the Cinema Louxor, which I have blogged about previously, here. As well as being a fabulous building, it also frequently shows Egyptian films. We’ve seen Chahine’s 1957 comedy Inta Habibi here (the main auditorium here is named for Chahine) and Le Caire confidential, and just the week before we arrived in Paris last month it was showing Sala Abou Seif’s 1956 film Shabab Imra’ah.
That should keep you busy for a while.
I’ve recently being doing some work in the American University in Cairo archives, which is where I found the above drawing (click to enlarge). It was in a folder of miscellaneous documents relating to the AUC buildings on Tahrir Square. It shows an alternative reality for a Tahrir Square that might have been. On it are some recognizable landmarks, notably the Egyptian Museum, and the blocks labeled Semiramis Hotel and AUC, while the block labeled ‘Municipality’ corresponds to the Mugamma, Cairo’s hated administrative fortress. What is labeled ‘Parliament’ was at the time the plan was made (it is dated 14 June 1950) the Qasr el-Nil barracks, evacuated by the British Army in 1947 and torn down in 1951–52 to be replaced by the Nile Hilton. (Another document in the AUC archive, dated 1948, refers to a plan to replace the barracks with Cairo’s answer to New York’s Central Park.) None of the other structures shown on the plan – the Arab Museum, Broadcasting House, National Library, Cultural Museum, Premier’s House – were ever built. The drawing is titled ‘View of Proposed Development’ and it is signed JS Badeau – John Badeau was then president of AUC. Why would the president of the American University be replanning Cairo’s central square? Was this ever a serious plan or was it just a bit of presidential doodling? There is nothing else in the archive’s folder relating to the plan and it is a mystery. I’d love to know more.
Tucked away off Kasr al-Nil Street in Downtown Cairo, the Cosmopolitan has always been an overlooked hotel. It has never featured large on the tourist map, so it has usually been blessedly free of large groups. It boasts a fantastic central location but its amenities have always been limited (and well worn), which meant its rates have been competitive. Instead it has attracted an intriguingly assorted clientele, the sorts of people who are too old for the backpacker joints of Talaat Harb but aren’t prepared to fork out for air-con luxuries of the likes of the Hilton and Sheraton. It’s a place where you would find businessmen from the fringes of Europe, journalists and visiting academics – as well as locals happy to take advantage of the cheap beer in the Kings Bar. Or at least that used to be the case, before the Cosmopolitan closed for restoration last year as part of the larger-scale project to beautify and revitalise the whole Bourse area. Recently the scaffolding that has been wrapped around its façade for many months came down. However, word is that work on the interior is far from complete as the hotel’s owners – EGOTH, the state body in charge of most of Egypt’s hotels – is looking for a tenant to complete the refurb and manage the hotel. I wonder when they do find that outfit if they will decide to retain the hotel’s name. After all, it has changed twice before.
The Cosmpolitan began life as the Grosvenor Hotel, back in the early 1920s. In 1929, the building’s lease was purchased by Egypt’s premier hotelier Charles Baehler, who did his own refurb and reopened the place in May 1929, renaming the hotel the Metropolitan. Baehler was the chairman of Egyptian Hotels Ltd, which already owned almost every grand hotel in Cairo but there were not as many big spenders around as there had been (and there would be even less when the Great Depression kicked in towards the end of 1929) and the company wanted a smaller hotel with cheaper rooms to cater for the new breed of traveller of more modest means. At some point – and the Cosmopolitan was rarely mentioned in travelogues or the press, so accounting for its precise history is difficult – the hotel underwent another change of name to its current one of the Cosmopolitan.
It is impressive that it has survived at all when so many other Cairo hotels haven’t. I’m intrigued to see who comes in to run it and whether they can continue to attract a suitably global and eclectic clientele to justify the hotel’s present name.