Category Archives: Egyptomania

Egypt in vintage popular culture.

Ingrid and the sphinx

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Following on from previous posts of glamorous women hanging out with the sphinxes on London’s Embankment (here and here), here’s a fabulous publicity shot of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, taken to promote the movie Indiscreet (1958). Courtesy of @JohnJJohnson

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Egypt in Paris in 1900

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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?

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The Grand Palais, incidentally, also references Egypt in the gorgeous mosaic friezes that run under its colonnades.

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Nena and the sphinx

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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.

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Egypt in Paris

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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That should keep you busy for a while.

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The Egyptian opera

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Verdi’s opera Aida is being performed at the Pyramids next week, on Friday 9 March. There were originally to have been three performances on successive nights but, apparently, ticket sales were so poor that it has been cut back to just the one. It seems like Aida is always being performed at the Pyramids but actually this year’s production is the first at Giza since 2010. Before that, there were performances at the Pyramids in 1987, 1998, 1999 and 2000 (as well as at Luxor Temple in 1987, the Temple of Hatshepsut in 1994 and Deir al-Bahri in 1997). More shows at the Pyramids were planned but after the downturn in tourism following 911 and the subsequent war in Iraq, the annual stagings of the opera were moved to the less financially risky setting of the new Cairo Opera House.

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The greatest cultural event of the 20th century!

The idea of putting on Aida every year dates back to the days of the old Opera House on Midan Opera, where Verdi’s grandest opera was staged every year until the building burned down in October 1971. This was the venue, of course, for Aida’s premiere, which took place exactly a century earlier in 1871. The popular belief that Aida was composed for the opening of the old Opera House and/or the opening of the Suez Canal is false. Cairo’s original Opera House opened on 1 November 1869 with Rigoletto and the Suez Canal opened 15 days later, both before Verdi had ever been agreed to compose an Egyptian opera. The opera that became Aida was commissioned by Khedive Ismail of Egypt but the commission was not accepted until some time in 1870. Verdi actually declined twice until a reading of the proposed scenario – attributed to Egyptologist Auguste Mariette – changed his mind. That and the Khedive threatening to go to Charles Gounod or Richard Wagner instead.

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The Opera House (left) seen from the roof of the Grand Continental

Mariette, who opened the first antiquities museum in Cairo, in 1863, and who was the country’s chief Inspector of Monuments, remained intimately involved with the opera. It was he, for example, who signed the contract with Verdi on behalf of Ismail. (The composer was paid 150,000 French francs and retained rights to the opera in all countries except Egypt.) And it was Mariette who supervised the designs for the opera’s scenery and costumes.

Aida was originally scheduled to premiere in January 1871 but it was delayed by the Prussian siege of Paris, which trapped Mariette in the city with all his designs. It wasn’t until 24 December that the curtain finally went up, eleven months later than planned. The opera, with its cast of 300, was a huge success but Verdi did not attend. He was, apparently, angered by the negative publicity that surrounded the Egyptian premiere and so instead he reserved his attendance for the first performance of Aida at La Scala in Milan (the model for the Cairo Opera House), the following February, which he considered the real premiere.

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The above two images are Mariette’s original sketches for set designs

Anyway, in honour of next week’s performance, here’s a selection of Aida posters from performances around the world (with acknowledgement to CairoScene, who did this first).

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Egypt’s first lady of horror

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I was doing an image search online recently for something or other when the cover above came up in the results. I had to have it. It turns out the book was published back in 1988 and is long out of print, but it was easy enough to find a copy on ebay. I did try reading it but I didn’t get very far because, well, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Much more interesting is the story behind its author.

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Ehren M Ehly was the pseudonym of Egyptian-American author Moreen Le Fleming Ehly. She was born in Heliopolis, Cairo in 1929, spent part of her youth in London, but then moved back to Heliopolis, where she attended St Clare’s College (it still exists). In her late teens she competed in track and field for various sporting clubs. According to her obituary, she was also ‘a noted beauty’ (that’s her, above) and won the Miss Egypt title in 1949 in the presence of King Farouk at the Auberge des Pyramides nightclub. Coincidentally, in the 10 April 1950 edition of Life magazine, in an article titled ‘The Problem King of Egypt’, there is mention of this very contest, in which it says, ‘No sooner had the judges announced their decision than a message was sent over from the king’s table indicating that His Majesty was displeased with the verdict. The judges hastily reversed themselves and awarded the cup to another girl.’ The obituary doesn’t mention whether Ms Ehly was the favoured or disfavoured girl.

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Bathing beauties at the Auberge des Pyramides, some time in the 1950s

She met her future husband Robert, a US marine stationed as an embassy guard, at a sporting club in Cairo (the US embassy in Cairo and its marine guards feature in the early pages of Obelisk), however, they were separated when Ehly and her mother fled Egypt during the Black Saturday riots in 1952. They were later reunited in London, where Ehly was working at the venerable Flemings Hotel on Half Moon Street. They married in London in December 1952 but, according to the obituary, encountered bureaucratic problems getting Ehly into the United States. The story goes that the way was smoothed with the help of Ralph Edwards, host of TV gameshow Truth or Consequences, who invited Robert onto the programme to judge a beauty contest and had Ehly surprise him by popping out of an oversized milk carton.

The couple settled in the US and lived for a brief time in Louisiana before settling in California. Ehly worked for many years at Sears & Roebuck, before she quit to take up writing classes. She intended writing romance but somehow wound up turning out horror, possibly influenced by some of the books she had read in her father’s library, notably H Rider Haggard’s She. Obelisk was her first novel, followed shortly by Totem.

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She wrote four pulp horror novels in total in the space of around four years before coming to a sudden stop. I can’t help but wish she had written her memoirs instead. She died on 26 December 2012, survived by three children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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Did MGM rebuild Shepheard’s in Hollywood?

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It’s a beautiful poster and it belongs to the most politically incorrect film you’re ever likely to see. This poster is Italian, but the film was American, released by MGM in 1933 as A Night in Cairo (aka The Barbarian).

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The plot is an American socialite (Myrna Loy) arrives in Egypt to marry her terminally dull English fiancé, where she attracts the attentions of a sleazy desert prince (Ramon Novarro) who poses as a tour guide in order to make moves on foreign women. This charmer kidnaps, tortures and rapes her, after which she decides she loves him and the pair elope up the Nile. What got everybody heated up back then though was a scene in which Loy appeared to be naked in a sunken bath, modesty not quite preserved by floating petals.

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Much of the film takes place in Cairo, the bulk of it in a hotel that is clearly modelled on Shepheard’s. The shooting took place on an MGM back lot in Culver City, California, with Yuma, Arizona used for the desert scenes. Being a studio shoot there are no street scenes and only a handful of well-used locations, including a railway station, the Pyramids, hotel rooms and the desert. The hotel rooms are totally generic and look nothing like the photos I’ve seen of rooms at Shepheard’s from that time. But then there are a couple of scenes in which the characters go out onto the hotel terrace and they baffle me. They look completely authentic. The doorway, the steps down to the street, the arrangement of the terrace all appear exactly as they really were. Check out the railings in the screengrab below and compare them with the actual photo of Shepheard’s beneath it.

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They are identical. In a scene in which Loy and party leave the hotel you see part of the name Shepheard’s on the terrace wall (a bit dark, I’m sorry), as it was in real life (bottom image, taken in the 1920s).

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No way did the studio fly out Myrna Loy (that’s her in the screenshots) to shoot a couple of exterior scenes in Cairo, so this must have been a studio set back in California. How intriguing to think that in the early 1930s technicians built a replica Shepheard’s terrace in Hollywood. I wonder, as was the way with these things, if it ever got recycled for any other films?

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Fate wove a rug, and other pulp tales of Egypt

While searching for images for my recent post on Shepheard’s in fiction I found so many wonderfully lurid pulp magazine covers on an Egypt theme (mostly harvested from pulpcovers.com) it seems a shame not to share them. One thing is clear: women who go around wrapped in bandages always end up in trouble.

So here you go.

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Sirena’s creamy skin was wealed with lash marks, old and new!

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“Every city has its something. Rome has St Peter’s. Peking has its Summer Palace. Moscow has the Kremlin. In Madrid there’s the Prado. In New York there’s the Empire State. Constantinople has St Sophia. Cairo has Shepheard’s.”

If it seems like this site seems to bang on about Shepheard’s hotel a lot, maybe the quote above goes some way to explaining why. It comes from the 1945 novel London Belongs to Me, written by author Norman Collins, which is a gritty slice of wartime British realism. What it illustrates is how familiar British readers were with the glamorous, internationally renowned Cairo hotel – it suggests that as a shorthand for the city, Shepheard’s was maybe even more familiar than the Pyramids or the Egyptian Museum. I was reading another canonical English novel recently, Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, written in 1959, and Shepheard’s is namechecked in that, too.

The hotel’s fame and appeal to writers in the English language dates back far beyond the 1940s and ’50s. In 1893, a reporter named Richard Harding Davis in a book called The Rulers of the Mediterranean, noted, ‘Shepheard’s is so historical, and its terrace has been made the scene of so many novels [my italics], that all sorts of amusing people go there, from sultans to the last man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, and its terrace is like a private box at a mask ball.’

I’ve no idea what those 19th century novels were that featured Shepheard’s, they’re long gone, but there is a vintage genre of fiction in which Shepheard’s frequently cropped up that is still read, and that’s pulp.

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Cairo was rich pickings for pulp writers: labyrinthine souks, inhospitable deserts, mighty pharaohs and ancient gods, treasures buried deep beneath the sands… and remote enough from the average reader’s experience that a writer could get away with all kinds of distortions, exaggerations and stereotyping, not to mention outright racism. Weird tales writer HP Lovecraft took a swerve from his usual New England setting to collaborate with Harry Houdini on the story ‘Under the Pyramids’, which had the famous escapologist visiting Egypt and becoming imprisoned inside one of its most famous monuments, but not before a stop off at Shepheard’s:

“We stopped at Shepherd’s Hotel, reached in a taxi that sped along broad, smartly built-up streets; and amidst the perfect service of its restaurant, elevators, and generally Anglo-American luxuries the mysterious East and immemorial past seemed very far away.

The next day, however, precipitated us delightfully into the heart of the Arabian Nights atmosphere; and in the winding ways and exotic skyline of Cairo, the Bagdad of Haroun-al-Raschid seemed to live again. Guided by our Baedeker, we had struck east past the Ezbekiyeh Gardens along the Mouski in quest of the native quarter, and were soon in the hands of a clamorous cicerone who – notwithstanding later developments – was assuredly a master at his trade.”

Lovecraft never visited Egypt and, like the story’s protagonist, he probably gained all his information from a Baedeker, but not so other pulp writers, as reported in the Egyptian Gazette of 15 April 1929:

“There is an immense fascination about Egypt which never fails to appeal to imaginative folk and it is not surprising therefore that many well-known authors are constant visitors to this country. Just at the moment Mr Sax Rohmer, whose works include a number of stories with an Egyptian setting, is staying at Shepheard’s. Mr Robert Hichens, who is a very regular visitor to Egypt – one might almost call him a resident here – is staying at Mena House. Mr AEW Mason spent the greater part of the winter in Aswan and Cairo, and Mr Rudyard Kipling, who finds this country so much to his liking that he is engaged in writing a book about it, only left these shores a short time ago.”

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Kipling’s no pulp writer but Hichens wrote supernatural fiction and Mason turned out detective stories (as well as the novel The Four Feathers), while Rohmer is the pulpiest of the pulp, creator of the brilliantly over-the-top stories of master-criminal Fu Manchu. In 13 bestselling books and at least as many film adaptations, Fu Manchu plots to take over the world, only to be constantly thwarted (in the early books, at least) by the dogged colonial police commissioner Nayland Smith. Although Fu Manchu was Chinese, the orient was the orient and Rohmer’s stories freely mixed the eastern Asian with the Middle Eastern and North African. The wily Fu Manchu was as liable to pop up in Cairo as Shanghai or London’s Limehouse. Rohmer also wrote reams of stories and novels that did not feature Fu Manchu, and many of these were set in Egypt, a country with which he had a deep fascination.

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Apparently Shepheard’s was one of his favourite hotels; he once met Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, on its terrace, and it crops up numerous times in his novels (including in Brood of the Witch Queen, 1918, and Daughter of Fu Manchu, 1931) and short story collections (including Tales of Secret Egypt, 1918). There was even a short story called ‘A Date at Shepheard’s’ published in Blue Book magazine, a slight tale of a mysterious woman imprisoned in room 34B.

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Rohmer’s frequent namechecking of the hotel apparently paid off: in his author’s biography in the Blue Book, the editors claim that Rohmer (who died in 1959) never had to pay a bill at Shepheard’s. The practice of product placement has been around a lot longer than you imagined.

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A visit to the Louxor

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I was in Paris last week and I went to the cinema – not just any cinema, but the magnificent cinema above. It’s a place I’ve passed it many times on trips to Paris over the years, but previously the building was always derelict and boarded up. Apparently, it had been that way since the 1980s. But recently it has undergone a three-year long restoration and the regenerated Louxor – Palais de Cinema opened in April this year.

It’s a beautiful example of Egyptian-inspired Art Deco that followed in the wake of the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – except that this theatre was built the year before Carter’s epic find, in 1921. One theory is, it was designed this way to capitalise on the massive success of the 1917 silent film Cleopatra staring Theda Bara.

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After the cinema closed, the building was a disco and a gay nightclub. Now it’s back to showing films. Good films, too, with an eclectic programme heavy on arthouse and world cinema, the latter reflecting the make-up of neighbouring multi-racial Barbès district.

The Ancient Egyptian theming isn’t limited to the mosaics and columns on the façade – the main auditorium also has a painted relief spanning the whole of the room and moldings of pharaonic heads. I particularly loved the 1920s bar up on the third floor, which has a small outdoor terrace from where you can see the roof-line mosaics close up – or, if you are facing the other way, the domes of nearby Sacré-Cœur. You can use the bar even if you aren’t intending to watch a film. The Louxor is in front of Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station, one stop from the Gare du Nord.

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