Category Archives: Lost Egypt

Lost or endangered bits of Egypt’s built history.

An early aviation meet

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I bought the wonderful poster that in a slightly Photoshopped form features on the cover of Grand Hotels of Egypt from an auction house in New York. I’ve been on its mailing list ever since. The latest online catalogue pinged into my inbox yesterday and one of the items in a forthcoming 25 February sale caught my eye (see above). According to the catalogue description it is a poster promoting the first aviation meet held in Africa, which was organized by Baron Édouard Empain and took place at Heliopolis. This poster doesn’t include the date, but it was 6–13 February 1910. In other words, just seven years after the historic Wright Brothers flight that marked the birth of powered aviation.

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For the purpose of the meet an Egyptian Aero Club was created, and the event was also supported by the Automobile Club of Egypt, the Egyptian Tourism Association and the French Ligue National Aérienne. The head of the organising committee was Prince Ahmed Fouad, who would in 1922 become King Fouad I. A five-kilometre course was laid out in the desert, overlooked by two grandstands, and 12 pilots and 18 planes were entered in the competition. The flyers arrived by ship from France. Several had their planes damaged en route. Among the pilots was the Baroness Raymonde de Laroche, real name Élise Deroche, and the first woman ever to enter an aviation meeting. A total prize fund of 212,000 francs was raised for what would be several days of competitions for distance, speed and altitude. One of the events was the Prix Boghos Pacha Nubar, offering 10,000 francs for a flight from Heliopolis around the Cheops pyramid and back.

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The organising committee for the meet

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One of the flyers and the Heliopolis meet

The official opening day was Sunday 6 February, a perfect day for flying with a clear sky and no wind. Several pilots went up and made test hops. One landing caused a horse to take fright and it ran over a Mr Tarihaki, who had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Flying was a new and enormous novelty and the first day of the event drew 40,000 people. The following days were a bit hit and miss: at this time the planes were little more than string and canvas, and any bad weather meant they stayed grounded. One day’s flying was cancelled because of a sandstorm, while heavy winds on another day caused the race to the Pyramids to be called off. Mechanical mishaps and crashes – one pilot crashed four times – kept other aircraft grounded but at least there were no deaths (death being a common occupational hazard for early aviators). You can find out more about the meet here.

As for the poster, it was painted by French artist Marguerite Montaut, who was the wife of a famous French automobile illustrator Ernest Montaut. She specialised in aviation subjects, which she sometimes painted under the pseudonym Gamy, an anagram of her nickname Magy. Here’s some more of her work:

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Vedrines flying his 'Borel' monoplane, c 1911.

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The Heliopolis poster is being sold by Poster Auctions International of New York; the estimate is $1,200 to $1,500, which strikes me as very reasonable given its rarity and historical significance, not to mention its beauty.

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Compliments of the season, Mrs ‘Arris

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The cover of Parade magazine, 19 December 1942, entitled “The Soldiers Dream” or “Christmas Eve at the Local” and drawn by Edward Ardizzone. Parade was published in Cairo and distributed to the Allied forces in Egypt and around the Mediterranean. More on Ardizzone and Egypt to come in the New Year. Meanwhile, my own compliments of the season to you.

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Ocean Liners coming to London’s V&A

Vintage maritime history photo of the RMS Titanics propellers as the mighty ship sits in dry dock.
The Titanic in dry dock c. 1911 © Getty Images

I was at a press launch today. It was for a forthcoming exhibition, ‘Ocean Liners: Speed & Style’, which will be held at London’s V&A museum from 3 February 2018. It is going to be all about the glory days of ocean travel, exploring the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner, including the ground-breaking engineering, architecture and interiors, and the fashion and lifestyle aboard. Highlights, we were told, will include a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915, as well as a panel fragment from the Titanic’s first-class lounge where the ship broke in half, returning to the UK for the first time since its doomed maiden voyage in 1912. There will be custom-made furniture and decorative panels from the rival inter-war queens of the sea, the Normandie and Queen Mary. The exhibition will also throw the spotlight on some the famous passengers that travelled aboard, and will have personal luggage carried by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and dresses worn aboard by Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.

Duke and Duchess of Windsor's Luggage, Goyard, about 1950 © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California. Photograph courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Luggage previously belonging to the Duke of Windsor by Maison Goyard, 1940s © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California


Marlene Dietrich Returning from Europe
Marlene Dietrich onboard the Queen Elizabeth arriving in New York, 1959
 © Getty Images

Wooden panel fragment from the first-class lounge on Titanic, c. 1911 © Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Wooden panel fragment from the Titanic © Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia

I don’t know that there will be anything in the show specifically relating to Egypt, but many great ocean liners frequently called at Alexandria and/or Port Said on their way between Europe and the ports of Asia. And, of course, visitors to Egypt from the United States first had to cross the Atlantic to Europe, and many would have done so on ships belonging to major lines such as Cunard and White Star.

Below are a handful of fantastic posters put out by various shipping lines, mostly dating from the 1920s and ’30s, advertising routes to Egypt, North Africa and beyond. Some of these you’ll find in my book, On the Nile, but I’m pretty sure none of them will feature in the V&A exhibition, though posters and other liner-related graphics will be definitely be included. Some of these images come courtesy of Galleria Alassio L’Image.

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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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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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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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