Category Archives: Lost Egypt

Lost or endangered bits of Egypt’s built history.

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.

64.	 Baron Palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, 2011

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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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Back at the Parisiana

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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.

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Opera Square in the 1940s

h4145-l103686233The 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.

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Mystery Heliopolis pics

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I have had the images above and below sitting on my hard drive for several years now. Obviously, they are the Baron’s Palace in Heliopolis, but that’s all I know. Who painted them and when? And why? And where do they come from?

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If anyone has any information on the origins of these paintings I would love to hear from you.

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Cairo in vintage photos

Joanne Woon just posted a comment on this site to alert me to an image of the Muski taken around 1900 that shows a street sign for the Hotel du Nil (click twice on the photo to enlarge). This hotel was rare among Cairo hotels in that it wasn’t in the modern city but hidden away in an alley deep in Islamic Cairo.

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It comes from a set of wonderful photos mostly taken in the 1930s sourced from the Library of Congress, which was an invaluable source when it came to finding images to include in Grand Hotels of Cairo (less so for On the Nile). Point your browser over that way and you could spend hours lost in its image archive.

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This could almost have been taken in taken in the last 20th century until you notice the guy at the far right in his Edwardian pith helmet.

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What really dates the photo above is how clean it is. I’ve certainly never seen it like that. The images in this post and several more can also all be found here.

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Garden City riverscape

I was at the Thomas Cook Archives in Peterborough, 45 minutes north of London, recently, doing some last-minute picture research for my forthcoming Nile steamers book. I came across the images below, of a dahabiya against a low-rise river bank of what look like villas. I couldn’t identify where it was at first until I noticed in the background of the top image the distinctive silhouette of the Citadel (click on the pics to enlarge). So Cairo then. And then I noticed on the extreme left of the middle picture a familiar building: it’s the old Semiramis hotel. So this is Garden City, some time post 1907. The building on the right in the bottom picture is the British Residence, now the embassy. But what is the building in the middle, anyone know?

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Panorama of the past

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Memories of the Parisiana

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When a few years ago I interviewed the owner of Cairo’s Windsor hotel, William Doss (who was then 94), his earliest memories of the place were not of the hotel but of the bar–restaurant that once occupied the ground floor. This was the Parisiana, one of several popular night spots on Alfi Bey, along with the neighbouring Kursaal and the St James. As a student in the 1930s, Doss told me, he would go each Thursday evening to sit at one of the Parisiana’s pavement tables and order a beer for two and a half piasters. The café also appears in the memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, as the venue where the parents of author Lucette Lagnado first met: “Edith was sitting outdoors at La Parisiana, Cairo’s most popular café, enjoying a café turque with her mother, when she noticed the man in white.”

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The café is, of course, long gone. It was ‘foreign-owned’, and in the wake of the 1952 Revolution it was either nationalized or the owner just sold up and quit. Doss remembers the space becoming a showroom for a state collective of furniture makers before being occupied by the Ministry of Communication. This week I received an email from the great-granddaughter of a/the former owner of the Parisiana, an Armenian called Kapriel Ayrandjian. This lady wonders if I have any further information on the Parisiana and/or her great-grandfather. Unfortunately I don’t but I wonder if anybody reading this blog has? If so, please do get in touch.

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The view from (and of) the Semiramis

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In a column headed ‘Hotel Life: Semiramis Hotel’, the Egyptian Gazette of 27 November 1907 ran the following:

Many additions and alterations have been made to this enormous hotel, which before the end of December should be completely finished. Already the roof garden is planted out with flowers and shrubs; and when the little tea kiosks etc are finished there should be no pleasanter spot in Cairo wherein to while away a lazy hour. And no more beautiful bird’s eye view of Cairo can be imagined than from that lofty vantage ground, the wide panorama stretching away on every side, distant desert and pyramids melting away into the sky line on one hand, the Citadel backed by the Moqattam Hills on another, and the broad expanse of the river flowing peacefully below.

And here are those views, front and back:

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The best view of all though is the one below, taken from the air, which shows the Semiramis hotel itself, on the east bank of the Nile right beside the Kasr el-Nil bridge. Immediately north of the hotel is the reverse-E shape of the Ismailia barracks, now the Hilton/Ritz-Carlton hotel and, beside that, the Egyptian Museum. Two blocks south of the Semiramis is the British residence, now the British Embassy, with its lawns rolling right down to meet the river because this is well before the creation of the Corniche. I don’t know the exact date of the photo but it’s pre-1936 because the Anglican Cathedral has yet to appear on the plot just north of the barracks. (Click on the pic to enlarge.)

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The New Hotel

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I recently managed to acquire the interesting photo, above. If it looks familiar but at the same time something seems slightly off, that would be because you might recognize the view but not necessarily the hotel. The scene is Cairo’s Opera Square – in most photos and postcards the large building across the empty expanse of carriage way would be the well-known Grand Continental/Continental-Savoy (see pic below). Except this a very early photograph, dating from the 1880s, and what you are looking at is the forerunner of that hotel, the New Hotel.

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Here are extracts from a description of the hotel from the Scientific American magazine dated 2 September 1871.

As the opening of the Suez Canal is turning men’s minds towards Egypt, our readers may be glad to know something of the Oriental Hotel Company’s new hotel at Cairo, in Egypt, which has recently been opened for the convenience of travelers to the Nile, and by the overland route to India, as also for the reception and accommodation of the many invalids who find benefit from a winter residence in Egypt.

The hotel is beautifully situated, facing the gardens of the Ezbekieh and the Rue de Boulac, and commands a good view of the Pyramids. The foundation stone was laid with great ceremony by His Excellency Nubar Pasha, Minister of Pubic Works, on the 10th of January, 1865, being the anniversary of the accession of his Excellency the Viceroy.

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The hotel, when completed, is intended to form a quadrangle, with a large open garden in the centre. The building is Franco-Italian in style, and has been erected from the designs under the superintendence of Mt. Christopher G. Wray of London, who, from a long residence in India as an officer of the Public Works Department had knowledge that enabled him to arrange an hotel suitable to the requirements of the climate.

It is constructed with stone from the neighbouring quarries, with terra cotta enrichments, which were sent from London, as also were all the woodwork and fittings. The hotel is surrounded on all floors by wide verandahs, affording a passageway around the building and supplying a comfortable lounge. The table d’hôte room is supplied with an orchestra for evening entertainments, and is laid with parquetrie, so as to afford a dancing floor. The various apartments throughout are supplied with Bregnet’s patent electric bells.

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Those verandahs that offered guests fine views over the city also ensured the sun never warmed the interior; one traveller wrote, “We found the hotel exceedingly cold and damp, and we were made ill by it”.

What’s also fascinating about the photo at the top of this post is how undeveloped Cairo is. This is the period in which what’s now Downtown was first being developed; look at the map below, from 1878, and the street and squares that define modern Cairo are already in place, but the areas between them are plots, most empty, some with villas in large gardens.

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The New Hotel lasted until the 1890s, when it was pulled down and replaced by the similarly sized and proportioned Grand Hotel, which within a year of opening would be bought by George Nungovich and renamed the Grand Continental.

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