Category Archives: Hotels then and now
Ryder Kouba, a colleague working at AUC, recently pointed me to the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I wish I had known about it when I was putting together Grand Hotels. It has some excellent vintage images of Cairo and Egypt that I would have loved to have included in the book. Malish, maybe if we do a second, updated edition. Meanwhile, see if you can identify the places below – captions at the end.
The pics are Emad ed-Din Street; the main entrance of the Savoy Hotel on Qasr el-Nil Street; Boulaq Bridge, looking toward Zamalek, since replaced by the 26th of July Flyover; the Heliopolis Palace Hotel under construction (now the presidential palace); Shepheard’s Hotel, burned down in 1952; Ataba Square, looking west; Bab al-Hadid Station, now Ramses Square; Opera Square; Rondpont Suleiman Pasha, now Midan Talaat Harb, dominated by the Savoy Hotel; the Hotel d’ Angleterre, next to the Hashamayim synagogue on what’s now Adly Street; Shepheard’s street-side terrace; rue Suleiman Pasha, now Talaat Harb; the Boulaq bridge.
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.
I was in Cairo two weeks ago when the demolition crews were moving at uncommon speed, rapidly erasing the building that was the Continental-Savoy from its Downtown site of over 150 years. There has been a sizeable hotel here on Opera Square since 1865, when the foundation stone for the New Hotel was laid in anticipation of the hordes of international dignitaries and freeloaders who would be hitting Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal (read all about it here). That was demolished and replaced by the Grand in 1890, which then became the Grand Continental and eventually the Continental-Savoy. I’ve written on the history of the hotel elsewhere on this site (here) and there’s a meaty chapter on it in my book Grand Hotels of Egypt, so no need to repeat it here. Suffice to say that those rooms and corridors have witnessed a lot of history. I’m gratified to see that this has been acknowledged in the local media, where there has been a lot of fuss made about the building and its demolition. Typically, a lot of it is nonsense. An article in Egypt Today called it “one of the most beautiful buildings in Egypt,” which is just rubbish and Zahi Hawass has weighed in demanding the building must be preserved. He’s a little late. The building has been in a parlous state as long as I’ve known it – which goes back to the 1980s, when there was a clinic down one decrepit corridor where inoculations against yellow fever were issued to African travellers. The building was beyond saving even then. It had already ceased functioning as a hotel because who would want to stay on Opera Square? Back when the hotel was built this was the social hub of modern Cairo, with the opera house and the park-like Ezbekiyya Gardens, with actual trees, lawns and a lake. By the 1980s, the only park was the car park where the opera used to stand; half the Ezbekiyya had been concreted over and the rest was a dusty wasteland. Tourists now preferred to stay beside the Nile, where the river breezes made the air more breathable. The only surprise is that it has taken so long for the Continental-Savoy to go. While I’m sad to see it disappear, I completely understand that it had to go. It was a rotting carcass of something that had long-since died. The big fear, of course, is what replaces it. Cairo does not have a good track record when it comes to new architecture. Just take a drive around New Cairo. Or closer to home, take a look at what they have built on the former site of Shepheard’s or the National (here).
For now, let’s just remember it as it was:
I received an email last week with the above image attached. The sender bought the item in an antiques shop. It measures 137 by 97 mm and appears to be made of brass. The text seems to be advertising the hotel management’s ability to go way beyond the normal expectations of service in providing prostitutes and rent boys for those who should require them. The sender wanted to know if I knew anything about it and whether it was an original item. The short answer is I don’t know, but there was and, indeed, still is a Grand Hotel in Cairo. It’s Downtown, on 26th July Street at the junction with Talaat Harb. It’s not a particularly old establishment, dating back only to the 1940s or ’50s, as you can see in the images below.
Despite the name, I don’t think it was ever a salubrious establishment, not a place that would attract the better class of visitor. It probably, like many, second- and third-tier establishments catered for longer-term visitors – military, civil servants, business types, people that needed temporary lodgings for a few weeks or months. I guess such a sign as the one above might conceivably have hung at a hotel reception in the 1940s when the city was flooded with soldiers, but it is unlikely. It certainly would not have been displayed after the Revolution, when stricter morals prevailed. My feeling is given the generic nature of the hotel name and the design that this is a joke item. Having said that, I could be wrong – a sign in a favourite bar in Alexandria (sadly now closed) used to read ‘No service in pyjamas and no spitting on the floor’, and that was entirely genuine having hung in place since at least the 1960s. Anyway, if anyone knows anything about the plaque that is the subject of this post, do get in touch.
Cairo’s Zawya Cinema announced this week that Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident, which was set to screen as part of a festival programme, is not going to be shown after all. The cinema cited ‘involuntary circumstances’. In other words, state censorship. Shame. It’s a very good film. I saw it in Paris over summer – appropriately enough at the gorgeous Louxor cinema – where, as Le Caire confidentiel, it seemed to be doing well, enjoying extended runs all over town. The screening I attended was a sell-out.
The issue is almost certainly the film’s head-on depiction of police corruption. At the crime scene that gives the film its English title, the investigating officers sit around a hotel room with a young woman lying in a pool of blood at their feet, while they blithely use the toilet and have room service deliver food. It’s comical but also chilling – they aren’t just trashing a crime scene, they’re blatant in their disinterest in investigating this violent death. Somehow, it feels wholly believable.
Also believable is the film’s portrayal of an incendiary Cairo, immediately prior to the January 2011 Revolution, this even though Saleh shot most of the film in Casablanca, after he failed to secure a permit to shoot in Egypt. (Although the real Cairo features in some guerilla film-making, shot stealthily from a moving car.)
I’ve no idea where in Casablanca stands in for the Nile Hilton, location for the murder that kicks off the film, but, really, any anonymous interior would do. I have never been a fan of the hotel that was the Nile Hilton, and neither the passing of time (the building turned 58 this year) or the new love currently being shown for Brutalist architecture is likely to alter my view.
The Hilton landed in Cairo in 1959, the first international hotel in the post-WWII Middle East and the second Hilton International after Istanbul’s (1955). It was a new form of sleek, all-mod-cons hotel for the nascent jet age. As the ad put it, ‘Modern as a TWA Jetstream’. The Hiltons were quite literally ‘little Americas’, constructed in key foreign cities, in Conrad Hilton’s own words, ‘to show the countries most exposed to Communism the other side of the coin’. With lawns, swimming pools, tennis courts, cocktail lounges, air-conditioning, international phone lines, iced water, cheeseburgers and soda fountains, they were adverts for a bountiful American way of life.
If the Nile Hilton wasn’t the first modernist structure in Cairo, it was certainly one of the first. It was one of three adjacent structures erected by Nasser’s government on the site of the former British Army barracks: the Arab League building, the hotel and the Cairo Municipality, which later became the NDP headquarters until it was set ablaze during the Revolution and subsequently demolished. In line with Hilton International policy, the hotel was constructed with Egyptian state funds and operated on a lease by the American hotel chain. Which is all well and good: why shouldn’t the new Egyptian government have a new shiny modern international hotel?
My issue is that these hotels were deliberately designed to dominate the city – the Nile Hilton was Cairo’s tallest building on its completion – yet at the same time they stood in deliberation isolation. Earlier hotels, like the Continental-Savoy, Semiramis and Shepheard’s, may have been ‘grand’ but they were very much a part of the city, and they engaged with it. Their outdoor terraces provided a space from which hotel guests not only observed but interacted with life on the street. By contrast, the new Hilton was intended as a sealed bubble, protecting guests from the volatile and possibly hostile environment outside. Most of the 400 rooms on the 14 or so floors turned their backs on central Cairo and faced toward the distant Pyramids and desert. Visitors were encouraged to literally overlook modern Cairo in favour of its antique past. Helpfully, the Egyptian Museum was right next door. This was the start of a shift that now sees many new hotels now being built out near the Pyramids, with the Egyptian government obliging by siting the new Grand Egyptian Museum at the Giza Plateau. In the very near future no tourist will have any reason to visit central Cairo.
The Nile Hilton closed in 2009. Following extensive renovations it reopened in 2015 under new management as the Nile Ritz-Carlton. The rebranded hotel is even more remote from the city than it ever was. The semi-public shopping plaza that used to connect the Nile Hilton to Tahrir Square is gone. Now, once you pass through the security block there is just an empty expanse, devoid of people and life, to cross in order to reach the lobby. Few guests, you imagine, enter or leave this hotel on foot. Inside, the hotel has undergone a massive upgrade – the Ritz-Carlton is a far more upmarket proposition than a Hilton. With its marble and carpets, faux Oriental trimmings, chintzy art and OTT floral displays, it is less ‘little America’ than ‘wannabe Dubai’.
Dubai is, of course, where the real-life case that inspired The Nile Hilton Incident occurred – the 2008 murder of Lebanese diva Suzanne Tamim by former police officer, Mohsen al-Sukkari, who was hired by Egyptian tycoon Hisham Talaat Moustafa for the sum of two million Egyptian pounds. Al-Sukkari was sentenced to 25 years in jail, Talaat Moustafa to 15. After serving just nine years of his sentence, Talaat Moustafa was released this June, pardoned by President Sisi.
In the 1990s, when I was lucky enough to be paid to travel and write guidebooks for the likes of Lonely Planet, people would occasionally ask, ‘Where’s your favourite place in the world?’ The answer was usually wherever I’d been last, but there were also a couple of immovable regulars I always mentioned: one of these was a coffeehouse in the shadow of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, another was the barrel lounge at the Windsor hotel in Cairo. I’ve no idea if that coffeehouse in Damascus has survived the devastation of recent years but the lounge at the Windsor hotel is definitely intact, and I was back there last week.
If you have never visited the Windsor, it is a time capsule, not just of Cairo, but of a very particular vanished world of steamer trunks, Baedekers and gin & tonic sundowners. The caged lift that carries guest up to the first-floor lounge is still manually operated and may well be the oldest in Egypt. The hotel décor has certainly not changed since the Doss family took over the hotel in 1962 and looks like it hadn’t been changed for a further 30 years before that. In the lounge, the wooden ﬂoors are deeply scored with age, the walls are hung with hunting lodge trophies and many of the seats are fashioned from old barrels – hence, the ‘barrel lounge’.
In one corner there is a small flag, red with a white cross, a memento to the former owner from whom Doss purchased the business, a Swiss man named Frey. Last week I was delighted to find William Doss lunching underneath the flag, as he has done for decades, which is something of an achievement considering this year he turned 102. With him were sons Wafik and Wasfi, and daughter Marileez, who now together oversee the hotel. We drank tea together and I caught up on news.
I first visited the barrel lounge in 1988, shortly after arriving in Cairo, and was a regular for a few years. During the 1990 football World Cup, the last in which Egypt participated, I watched some of the games at the Windsor – including the one in which England inevitably went out to Germany on penalties. Even without the football, it was a lively place at that time. Every night one particular large table would be filled by a boisterous crowd of actors, directors and hangers-on from the theatres on nearby Emad ed-Din Street. It went a little quiet in the 2000s – as, sadly, did the hotel side of the business – but on current evidence the bar seems to have bounced back into life. While we were there an Egyptian crew was shooting a short film in the stairwell, just the latest, Marileez said, in a string of recent shoots taking advantage of the Windsor’s period charms (taking advantage in a very literal sense in one case, when a production crew walked off with a couple of the hotel’s armchairs and the lid of an antique urn).
There have been one or two changes Marileez was pleased to point out to me. The faded old Swissair posters that used to hang on the stairs have been replaced with new Windsor hotel posters inspired by the luggage labels in Grand Hotels of Egypt. The cover of that book has also been framed and hung on a column in the lounge, as has the book’s title page, which I inscribed to the Doss family during the launch party, held in this very place in 2012. I’m hugely honoured to have a lingering presence in this wonderful old establishment.
For anyone who has never been to the Windsor, I urge you to pay it a visit next time you’re in Cairo. Meanwhile, with Egypt now qualified for the 2018 World Cup, I’m thinking I might book a room for next June and cheer them on again from a seat in the barrel lounge.
The photos in this post come from the Windsor’s Facebook page. Those credited to Jacobs Cindi are from the website of French newspaper Le Monde, where they accompanied a recent article on the hotel
During World War I the British military command saw Egypt, its industries, businesses and people as resources to be drawn upon to assist the war effort. The tourist industry was not exempt. Hotels around the country were requisitioned, as military headquarters in the case of the Cairo Savoy (which I’ve written about previously, here), but more commonly for use as hospitals (San Stefano in Alexandria, the Mena House and Heliopolis Palace in Cairo, Al-Hayat in Helouan) or as places where injured troops could be sent to convalesce (the Winter Palace in Luxor).
Opened to guests a month over four years previously, in January 1915 the 500-room Heliopolis Palace became Cairo’s main military hospital. Renamed the 1st Army General Hospital (1st AGH), it was operated by the Australian Army Medical Corps. It was reorgainsed to provide accommodation for 1,000 sick, every door on every corridor opening to rooms of neat white beds and the grand dining-hall converted into a great convalescent ward with room for one hundred. Even so, within a very short time the hospital had to expand into additional premises, including buildings at the aerodrome, Luna Park and Heliopolis Sporting Club. Why was so much room required? Because Egypt was receiving the wounded from ongoing campaign in the Dardanelles, including the landings at Gallipoli. Hospital ships transported the injured and dying the five or six days it took to get to Alexandria, from where patients were forwarded to local hospitals or on to Cairo.
They came in so fast the system couldn’t cope. “Men were poured into the wards, and they were crowded together until the place became overpowering,” reported a correspondent for Australia’s The Register newspaper in 1915. “They overflowed into a skating rink enclosure, five, six, eight hundred of them; also into a galvanized building with a glass roof; out to Helouan to a convalescent home. Very soon the crowding at the main building rendered the place septic, a statement I make on the authority of the doctors resident in it. They were afraid to operate.”
Not everyone was so downbeat. In April 1915, The Queenslander newspaper published a letter from a corporal in the Army Medical Crops who was billeted at the Heliopolis Palace.
It is said to be the most beautiful hotel in Egypt. We have been told that it cost £2,500,000 to build. The King of the Belgians, with an English and a Belgian syndicate, built the hotel about three years ago. It was to be run as a casino, and the idea was to rival Monte Carlo. The syndicate was unable to get a license for the casino, and the hotel has been a white elephant. The war interfered with the tourist season this year—it should be in full swing now—and the very costly carpets and furniture have been carefully stowed away. It is possible that the King’s room, which cost £1000 to furnish, with a bed, a chest of drawers, and a washstand, will be made into an operating theatre, and there is talk of providing 800 beds for the hospital, which will be one of the very best.
As to the size of the building, if you put the Treasury and Executive buildings together they would require the largest part of Parliament House to make the group equal in size to this palace. And the exquisite marble, and alabaster, and granite! The ballrooms and reception rooms are things of rare beauty, and when you climb the marble stairs, of which there are many flights, and look down on the marble, and granite, and alabaster, and the richest of stained electric lights and clusters, it needs little imagination to call the building a palace. Some of it is like an artist’s dream. If I had any knowledge of architecture I might attempt a description of the palace within and without, but can only say it is wonderfully beautiful. There are perhaps 10,000 electric lights throughout the building, and, of course, all the appointments are on a lavish scale. We have hot and cold baths and showers, and are comfortably settled in rooms with tables and chairs. The nurses and doctors occupy some of the rooms on the first, second, third, and top floors, and have the most perfect accommodation. We, of inferior ranks, have the servants’ quarters in the basement, and are the envy of our less fortunate comrades in the other hospital, who are in tents pitched on sand in which you sink up to the ankles. The corporals have a private sitting room, where one can read and write at ease. Altogether the conditions are too comfortable for active service, but I suppose we should be glad on that account. (Extract courtesy of the Queensland State Library)
In March 1916, the decision was made that the Australian forces should serve in France. The various medical units were ordered to pack up, transfer their patients elsewhere and depart. On 29 March, staff from the 1st AGH sailed out of Alexandria on HM Hospital Ship Salta bound for the battlefields of Europe, where operating conditions were certain to be far less palatial. (The images in this post are courtesy of the Australian War Memorial website)
When it opened on 1 November 1905, the National hotel had accommodation for 250 guests, making it bigger than any other hotel in Cairo at the time save for Shepheard’s. It had a prominent on location on Suleyman Pasha Street (now Talaat Harb) and serious money was put into its promotion: witness the posters promoting the hotel’s imminent arrival, above and below, commissioned from the firm of Richter & Co of Napoli, which produced artwork for top hotels in Italy and Spain, and as far afield as Cape Town and Shanghai. (Why two variants of the poster, I don’t know.)
The National was described soon after opening as providing excellent accommodation both to visitors and permanent residents of Cairo for, “unlike some of the more pretentious, establishments it is open all year round”. The hotel’s billiard room and bar were directly accessible from the street for access to non-hotel guests, another indicator that this was a far less snobbish establishment than the likes of Shepheard’s or the nearby Savoy. It offered suites for long-term stays and families, and dispensed with the requirement for evening dress in the dining room.
All of which, combined with reasonable rates, made it attractive to colonial civil servants and members of the military on Cairo postings. So although the hotel rarely gets mentioned in travel books it crops up plenty in accounts of Cairo during the war years and in letters from soldiers. Australian war artist George Lambert (1873–1930) was at the National for about a month in April 1918 during which time he spent several days with the Imperial Camel Corps at Abbassia making studies of the camels and their gear: this is one of them, below:
In the World War II memoirs of three pilots the place is described as the “lap of low-level luxury” full of non-combatant officers with ranks as high as general. Jewish-Italian double agent Renato Levi who worked for British intelligence and whose identity and career were revealed for the first time in the recently published Double Cross in Cairo, made the National his base for a time in 1941. Spy writer Philip Kerr uses the hotel in his novel One From the Other as the venue for a meeting with Adolf Eichmann.
When it opened the hotel’s proprietor was Alsace-born PE Hergel who had previously been the manager of the Tewfik Palace hotel at Helwan but the name most closely associated with the place is that of George Calomiris. He took over the running of the National perhaps in the 1930s – he was certainly running it during the war years. He was very rich, rumoured to be one of Egypt’s numerous wartime millionaires. He owned the Kit Kat cabaret, where for a time the floorshow starred Hekmat Fahmy, the most rousing of all the Egyptian bellydancers. According to Major AW Samson’s I Spied Spies (Harrap & Co, 1965) Calomiris was a notorious homosexual who regularly fell foul of the British military authorities for offering large sums of money to young soldiers as an enticement to desert and shack up with him. Calomiris reportedly came to a sticky end, murdered in his room at the hotel.
The hotel was still in business in December 1974 when Steve Jobs’s biological father John Jandali accompanied a bunch of American university undergrads to Cairo on a study trip. A respected professor at the University of Puget Sound, Washington, Jandali had been running a course “Egypt Since the 1952 Revolution”. His party checked into the National, which was the last place the students saw Jandali as eleven days later he quietly checked out and fled the country having gambled away everyone’s money at a casino. It took intervention from the US embassy to settle the hotel bill so the abandoned students could get home.
When the National stopped being a hotel I don’t know. It had definitely ceased functioning by the 1980s, by which time it had been turned over to commercial lets. In the 1990s half of the building was knocked down but oddly the northern half was left intact, as it still is today, on the corner of Talaat Harb and Abdel Khalek Sarwat streets.
After many years lying empty the site next door was eventually filled, with this…
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.