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?
Category Archives: Lost Egypt
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although it was hotel for only around 20 years, and the last guests checked out 93 years ago, the name of the Eden Palace lingers in Cairo – it’s there in large letters on the pediment of a corner building on modern Khazindar Square, across from the Sednaoui department store. It’s passed every day by thousands of people but likely noticed only by a very few.
The hotel opened around 1900 in a grand new building raised on the site formerly occupied by the original Hotel d’Angleterre, the first hotel run by George Nungovich (see earlier post). It was a good site, overlooking the Ezbekiyya Gardens; guests in the better rooms would wake to birdsong, and a view of trees and greenery when they opened the shutters. It had 145 rooms, with a lift and steam heating. Shepheard’s, the epicentre of the city’s social scene was just a stone’s throw away. Unlike Shepheard’s, which attracted a fashionable crowd, the Eden Palace catered to businessmen and long-term residents, who would sacrifice a little glamour for cheaper room rates – the 1914 edition of Baedekers gives Shepheard’s charging 80 piastres per night, same as the nearby Continental, while the Semiramis charged 90 pias and the Savoy 90-120 pias; by comparison, the Eden Palace was just 50 pias.
An insight into the kind of person who stayed at the Eden Palace comes from a letter held by the Albany Institute of History and Art in upstate New York. Dated March 1909, it’s from Samuel W. Brown, a noted local businessman in the coffee, spice and mustard trade who was also on the board of trustees of the Institute. It’s addressed to Cuyler Reynolds, the curator of the Institute, and it concerns the attempt to acquire a pair of Egyptian mummies on the cheap:
My Dear Mr. Reynolds
I received your letter with enclosures as stated I called at the U.S. Consulate several times but did not find Mr. Berry; later on learned that he was not connected with the Consulate but was a “Judge” of the Tribunal Court here. I called at his hotel then but did not see him there. He called on me at my hotel last evening. He did not hesitate to inform me that he could do little to assist me as he was not acquainted with the Director of the Museum. I am at a loss to understand why you should expect to get any of the Museum Curios for nothing. The Museum is a Government affair and everything going out of the Museum must be paid for at a fixed price whether for a museum or private collection. These people are not in the Museum business for their health, and I fully learned of that fact when I was in Cairo four years ago.
I called on the Director the following day and made my wants Known to him and have secured two Mummy’s [sic] which I am having packed for shipment. I have written to Mr. Ten Eyck the details of the transaction and I hope that they will be in Albany before I reach home.
We are having a delightful time Bright warm weather.
Samuel W. Brown
Whatever his frustrations, Brown was successful and the pair of mummies he brought back form the centerpiece of the Institute’s Ancient Egypt collection until today.
While the front entrance of the Eden Palace was on Sharia al-Genaineh, facing the Ezbekiyya, the back door let out onto Wagh al-Birket, which at this time was notoriously a street full of brothels. This can’t have done much for the hotel’s reputation. And when Cairo became flooded with British and Commonwealth soldiers following the outbreak of World War I, it seems the Eden Palace might have taken on the character of some sort of Wild West saloon:
“We had our first pay day on Christmas Eve and leave was general and everybody went straight into Cairo. Our own party of four really disgraced outselves, AWOL for three days, finally and very ignominiously dragged out of the Eden Palace Hotel in the early hours of the morning by the picket and made to walk it home into the guard tent.”
Letter from an Australian soldier quoted in Peter Hart’s Gallipolli
The hotel seemingly never quite recovered, and trade post-World War I was sufficiently bad that when, in 1920, British Army HQ decided to vacate the Savoy for budgetary reasons, the owners of the Eden Palace made them an attractive offer. The army didn’t stay long in residence but after the uniforms left the place never returned to use as a hotel.
The building today is in a wretched state, but with its arcaded pavements and low-rise, Italianate architecture, if your imagination can dust things off a little, then this dilapidated corner still gives a good impression of what the city once looked like when the Ezbekiyya was a pleasure garden and birds still sang in Cairo squares.
The caption for this vintage news photo, issued by the Associated Press in January 1976, reads, “Nile landmark to go: The Semiramis Hotel, for years a landmark along the Nile River in Cairo, will soon disappear. The hotel, named for an Iraqi princess and built by Europeans in the the early 1900s, closed last summer and will be pulled down and replaced by a pyramid-shaped, 850-room, $18 million hotel.”
The Swiss-built Semiramis, opened in 1907, was demolished in 1976, and it was replaced by a new 800-room hotel – thankfully, however, this did not take the form of a pyramid. That was left for Las Vegas.
When Shepheard’s went up in flames back in January 1952, one of the notable losses was the hotel’s set of Golden Books, the ledgers in which decades of distinguished guests had been invited to sign their names. It used to be common practice for hotels to keep VIP guestbooks and use the names they contained as marketing collateral, to be listed in ads and promotional booklets. But it’s not just Shepheard’s Golden Books that were lost, because I don’t know of any surviving examples from any of Egypt’s grand old hotels – except, that is, for one.
It comes from the Winter Palace and covers the years 1920-1935, an exciting time coinciding as it does with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the ten years of excavations that followed. I learned of the guestbook through an essay written by André Wiese, curator of the Egyptian Department at the Museum of Ancient Art and Ludwig Collection in Basel. He discovered the existence of the guestbook back in 1991 when he was preparing an exhibition devoted to Seti I. It was in the possession of Carmen Heusser, the daughter of Swiss hotelier Anton Badrutt, who managed the Winter Palace between 1920 and 1935.
Wiese was allowed to study the book and subsequently wrote a 22-page study (in German) that was published in an academic journal in 1998. He kindly sent me a copy, which I’ve translated. I’m not going to run the whole text because it’s 5,000 words long, but I will summarise it.
‘Bound in parchment and leather, here we truly have a piece of history in front of us!’ Wiese begins. Inside, the fly-leaf is decorated with a hand-painted image of a cheery Tutankhamun (above) done by Austrian artist Anton ‘Tony’ Binder. Binder (1868-1944) was an Orientalist painter, who lived in Alexandria but travelled around Egypt gathering material for his oils of Egyptian landscapes and interiors. Some of his work was also printed on postcards. In addition to the Tutankhamun drawing, the book also contains sketches by him of hotel guests Howard Carter and Bernard Shaw.
According to his daughter, Badrutt liked collecting autographs, so this guestbook was something of a personal affair. As well as signatures it also contains notes of thanks addressed to Badrutt in person, and a number of photographs, including several of Carnarvon and Carter dated ‘Winter 1922-23, Luxor’. One is the famous image of Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn on arrival at Luxor station on 23 November 1922, being met by Carter and the Governor of Qena, just three days before they breached the tomb.
Also slipped into the guestbook is a menu for Christmas dinner on 25 December 1923 decorated with a guardian figure from the tomb of Tutankhamun, depicted befoe and after the dinner, in the latter case with a huge fat belly and smoking a pipe.
Most of the space though is taken up with signatures, and it’s some collection. Wiese lists them: there are the statesmen, including former French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, Czech president Tomas Masaryk and ex-Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria – who were all in residence at the hotel at the same time; and the crowned heads, such as crown prince Edward of England, visiting in April 1930, who, six years later would be become king of England only to step down within the year, as well as the Belgian king and queen, Albert and Elizabeth, and the crown prince of Sweden, the future King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden.
There’s an entry in the guestbook on 8 March 1929 by Rudyard Kipling and signatures from November of that year of the American silent film star Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, the equally famous Mary Pickford (there’s also a photograph of the pair with Anton Badrutt). German novelist Thomas Mann, who spent 10 days at the hotel, signed the book on 6 March 1930 (and left a lengthy inscription, which I was unable to translate), while George Bernard Shaw wrote on 26 December 1932, “I cannot make up my mind whether Luxor is the hottest place on earth or the coldest”.
Other random names and the dates they signed the book include John D Rockefeller Jr (15 Feb 1929), Evangeline Lindbergh, mother of Charles (24 Jan 1929), Somerset Maugham (14 Dec 1929), Nelli Melba (18 Feb 1930) and World Champion Heavy weight boxer Gene Tunney (23 Feb 1931), who added the message: ‘The charm of this lovely Winter Palace is only equalled by that of its guiding spirit Mr AR Badrutt’.
Wiese includes a lot of background on Badrutt, but I’ll save that for a future post.
Recently, I thought I might travel to Basel to see this wonderful piece of history for myself, so I emailed André Wiese to ask if he could put me in touch with Ms Carmen Heusser. His reply was tragic:
Thanks for contacting me again. I have no good news. Unfortunately the lady suffers in the meantime heavily from dementia and the guestbook has disappeared recently when she moved to the home for old people. There exists only our digital copy in the museum.
And then there were none.
Some years back, well before the calamity that has befallen the country, I stayed at the Zenobia hotel at Palmyra in Syria. It has the most extraordinary location, away from the modern town and right on the edge of the Roman ruins. It is possible to sit up in bed and look out of the window of your room at grand colonnades silhouetted against the moonlight. It seems natural that pieces of antiquity should find their way into the hotel, and so in the garden the ancient carved capitals of columns serve as bases for tables. I think I remember something similar in the garden of the Palmyra hotel at Baalbek in Lebanon.
An image kindly sent to me by Susan Allen reminds me it used to be like that in Egypt too. It shows the garden of the Hotel du Nil and, in it, two great stone sarcophagus lids.
The terrace at Shepheard’s used to boast a pair of sphinxes, reputedly from Saqqara, while the Luxor Hotel in Luxor had two statues of Sekhmet in its garden, most likely brought over from Karnak. Probably nobody at the time thought this an inappropriate employment of Egypt’s archaeological heritage. What was contentious, though, and stirred up comment in the press of the time, was architect Henri Favarger’s usage of stones from the Pyramids to build the Mena House hotel. He didn’t deny it, but in an address given to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1892, claimed it was rubble gathered from the foot of the Pyramids that was collected, and only then with the approval and close supervision of the Egyptian museum authorities.