Category Archives: Grand hotels

Stories about and from the grand old hotels of Egypt.

Thieves Fall Out (in Cairo)

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The versatile Gore Vidal wrote 25 novels, two volumes of memoirs, countless essays, plus numerous plays and screenplays, including for the films Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer. But he is probably best remembered for simply being Gore Vidal, originator of such fine aphorisms as ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’ and ‘The four most beautiful words in our common language: “I told you so”’. He also suggested that ‘Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so’ – an idea whose time came and went in 2016. What Gore Vidal certainly will never be remembered for is a book he wrote in 1952 called Thieves Fall Out.

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In the early 1950s, the high-living Vidal found himself short of cash. Still only in his twenties, he had already written several serious novels but they had failed to provide any sort of decent income. So he turned to pulp fiction, knocking out a short novel of two-fisted adventure in the space of a few weeks for a $3,000 paycheque. This was Thieves Fall Out, which was published under the pseudonym of Cameron Kay and was all but ignored by the book-buying public and quickly forgotten until over 60 years later it was rediscovered and republished in the spring of 2015 by an imprint specialising in reviving lost works of pulp crime fiction. There’s good reason this book was out of print for so long: it’s bad. It’s a B-movie take on Casablanca, a tale of a young American drifter who finds himself broke in foreign lands and in order to earn some money becomes entangled with a femme fatale who entices him into a scheme to smuggle a valuable antique necklace out of the country. There’s a piano-playing, brothel-running hunchback named La Mouche and the beautiful daughter of a high-ranking Nazi as the love interest. What it doesn’t have is a topless dancer wielding a wickedly curving dagger as depicted on the cover of the 2015 reprint at the top of this post but, still, you are never quite sure whether it is meant to be a parody or not. But you will understand what makes the book fascinating to me when I tell you that the story’s setting is Egypt and, more specifically for large parts, Shepheard’s hotel.

Vidal spent two or three weeks in Egypt in spring 1948. According to his biographer, Fred Kaplan, the writer stayed at ‘El Mint Hotel’, a modest place out near the Pyramids but spent his days hanging out at Shepheard’s, where he wrote in one of the public rooms, and it shows:

Shepheard’s was a long building, several stories high, with big shuttered windows and a porch on the side street, where, at numerous tables, foreigners and rich Egyptians sat at the end of the day, watching the street and drinking aperitifs; but at this time of day the porch was deserted.

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With a show of confidence, he walked up the steps to the main door, glad to be rid at last of the beggars, who now fell into position against the terrace wall, waiting for American and European victims.

The lobby of the hotel was blissfully cool after the heat outside. Negro servants in hotel livery moved silently about the great room, carrying bags, doing errands for the guests. Though it was out of season, there were still quite a few guests here, he saw to his relief. Help would come from them, though he was not sure how.

He sauntered from the main lobby into a vast room with a high domed ceiling, like the interior of a mosque, much decorated, ornate, Turkish in style. It was cool and mysterious with dark alcoves in which people sat doing business: fat stolid Europeans and lean, red-faced British, exchanging papers, peering at small type, murmuring their deals in low voices.

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At the end of the room, to the left, was the famous bar, a wood-panelled room with an oval-shaped bar at which stood a dozen men in white suits, drinking, their feet resting on the shining brass rail.

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It’s in Shepheard’s bar that the American Pete Wells encounters the shifty Brit who introduces him to the world of antiquities smuggling.

One evening at L’Auberge des Pyramides nightclub Vidal saw King Farouk with a blonde European girl on his arm: ‘Like a mafia don, with dark glasses, he was surrounded by plainclothesmen, also in dark glasses.’ This finds its way into Thieves Fall Out (where Vidal cattily remarks that Farouk ‘looks more like a dentist than a king’), as does Luxor, which Vidal visited, and where he must have stayed at the Karnak hotel on the Corniche because he makes it the setting for a series of encounters in the book.

Vidal was always interested in politics and maybe the most interesting thing about Thieves Fall Out is that it is set against the backdrop of the 1952 Revolution. Like the recently released film The Nile Hilton Incident (which I saw again last week and which is even better on second viewing) the chaos of the revolution swarms around the final scenes of the story.

If you can overlook the clichés – Arabs are reliably ‘swarthy’ and women are prostitutes, double-crossing sirens or nightclub singers in need of rescue – then Thieves Fall Out is a breezy time-travelling trip to a more innocent Cairo, in which waking up to find you’ve been drugged and robbed by the girl you met last night, and deciding to smuggle antiquities to raise money for a ticket home is just all part of the visitor experience.

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Filed under Book reviews, Grand hotels, Lost Egypt, Shepheard's

So farewell then, Continental-Savoy

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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:

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Filed under Grand hotels, Hotels then and now

For Sleeping Or ‘Purposes’

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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.

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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.

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Back at the Windsor

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Photo by Jacobs Cindi

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’.

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Photo by Jacobs Cindi

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.

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From left to right: Gadi Farfour, me, Marileez Doss Suter, Wafik Doss and William Doss

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).

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A scene from the filming on the day of our visit

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.

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Photo by Jacobs Cindi

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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

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Dora dines in Cairo

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A pingback linking to this site alerted me to a fascinating post over at the Sydney Living Museums website. It concerns a new book containing correspondence between Dora Sheller and her son Leslie Walford, one of the leading figures in Australian interior design until his death in 2012. In 1929 Dora Walford, a glamorous Sydney socialite, set off on a honeymoon voyage to England, stopping off in Cairo from late December 1929 until the first week of January 1930. She was well-heeled enough to stay at the top hotels, notably Mena House and Shepheard’s. The photo below is Dora on the steps to the tea gardens at Mena House.

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Dora spent Christmas at Shepheard’s and kept hold of the printed and tassel-corded menu for the Christmas Eve dinner at Shepheard’s Grill, with a beautiful cover showing a masqued ball in full swing.

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The Sydney Living Museums post helpfully translates the belt-busting menu:

Blinis with caviar
Tomato soup (served in a cup)
Lobster thermidor
Quail in puff pastry (named for the writer George Sand)
Chicken breast in a rich cream sauce ‘Russian style’
Indian salad (lettuce, cress; a dressing of red wine, vinegar, spices)
Mandarin sorbet with Chantilly cream;
‘Chocolate shoes’ – a novelty chocolate biscuit shaped like a shoe
Chocolate Yule log

A few days later Dora dined at the Mena House and, again, she kept the menu.

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In English:

Consommé garnished with finely diced carrot, turnip, green beans, truffle &c;
Turbot with a tomato sauce
Roast premium cut of lamb cooked with sage
Asparagus
Bresse chicken in a very rich casserole sauce
Ice cream bombe
Fruit basket
Coffee

After getting through all that, you’d imagine Dora wouldn’t have to eat again until she reached England. However there was a trip into the desert – which may have just been across the road to the Pyramids – for which the Mena House provided a picnic that was transported on its own trolley, as seen in the photograph below, which shows Dora’s husband Eric Sheller and son Leslie.

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All these items come from the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. You can read more here.

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Pagnon and the Grand Hotel, Aswan

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A few days back a visitor to this site, Amina Niazi, posted a request for information on the Grand Hotel, which used to be on the Corniche at Aswan, so here’s what I know.

The story starts with Ferdinand Pagnon, who I haven’t written about before on this blog, which is a bit of an oversight given that he was the major hotelier in Upper Egypt at the tail end of the 19th century – so thank you Amina for the prompt.

Albert Ferdinand Pagnon was born on 1 January 1847 in Bourgoin, not far from Lyon in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in France. His family had a hotel there but it burned down the year of Ferdinand’s birth and so they moved to Marseille and then Egypt. The baby was left behind in France in care of an aunt, until at the age of 12 Ferdinand was sent to study in Malta. He returned to France to work in a bank in Romans until in 1868 his father died and the young man was called to Egypt to take his place running several hotels in Ismailia and Port Said. These almost certainly catered to engineers and company officials associated with the Suez Canal, which was then under construction and opened the following year.

Somehow Ferdinand also came to run the Hotel Victoria in Venice, which is where he met John Cook, son and heir of the international travel agent Thomas Cook. John made Pagnon the agent for the company’s growing Nile business in 1876. Pagnon was based down in Luxor, where Cook & Son built its first hotel, the Luxor Hotel, which opened in 1877 and was managed by Pagnon. Not long after, the company bought a second Luxor property, the Karnak Hotel, which I imagine was again managed by Pagnon. He later bought these two hotels from Cook.

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From Luxor, Cooks’ steamers continued south to Aswan, where they stayed for two days before heading back downriver to Cairo. There were no hotels at Aswan, so for passengers wanting to extend their stay the company maintained a permanently moored steamer, the Sethi (above), as a floating hotel. That was until 1894 when, with money borrowed from Cook & Son, Pagnon opened bought the Hotel Assouan, which had opened on the Corniche close to the wharf where the steamers moored a couple of seasons previously. At some later date this hotel would become the Grand Hotel d’Assouan and then just the Grand Hotel. It was not a particularly large property and when the rival Anglo-American Nile Company launched the far fancier Savoy on Elephantine Island, Cook & Son responded by building the Cataract, which opened in 1900.

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Initially, the Cataract was leased to Pagnon, but in 1904 it was sold to the Upper Egypt Hotels Co, a consortium headed up by Charles Baehler, owner of Shepheard’s in Cairo, but in which both John Cook and Pagnon also had stakes. The Upper Egypt Hotels Co also built the Winter Palace in 1907. Pagnon did not live long to enjoy his hotel empire – he caught a chill while boating on the Nile and died of pneumonia in 1909.

He left behind a wife, Kitty, and two daughters who returned to France to live in a farmhouse purchased by Ferdinand in Romans. There’s a small archive of correspondence between Pagnon and his wife held by the Municipal Archives of Romans, while the family property is now a health and therapy centre. A shrewd operator, while in Egypt Pagnon also amassed a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, which were left to his family and fetched decent prices when auctioned off at Christie’s in 1993.

As for the Grand Hotel at Aswan, it survived Pagnon by at least two decades because it was listed in the last Baedeker guide to Egypt, published in 1929. Beyond that, I don’t know. If anyone else has any information, please do drop me a line.

5 JUNE 2017
Some additional information comes courtesy of Dr Cornelius von Pilgrim of the Swiss Institute, Cairo:

Dear Andrew,
The later fate of the hotel goes as following: the Assouan Hotel was renamed some time around 1900 as the Grand Hotel Assouan before it was destroyed by fire on April 23rd 1903. In the summer of the same year it was newly built and reopened as the Grand Hotel that winter. It was a completely new building, with three floors, a fourth floor was added the following year. It burnt down again in summer 1985.

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One for the world

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My first post on this site back in November 2011 concerned Joe Scialom (that’s him, above). Joe was the legendary bartender in charge of the Long Bar at Shepheard’s from 1939 until 1952. In that time he became just about as famous as the hotel in which he worked. I found pieces on him in a 1952 edition of the New York Times and in the Washington Post in 1957 – these are where I drew my information from for what I wrote about Joe in Grand Hotels of Egypt. Since then I’ve got a hold of an issue of Collier’s magazine from 4 September 1953, which also has a piece on Joe, which I’m reproducing in full below because Joe seems such a swell guy everybody should get to know him a little more.

It’s titled ‘One for the World’ and it’s written by Robert Ruark, who would later make his name writing about big-game hunting in Africa and of whom his obituary in the New York Times said he was “sometimes glad, sometimes sad, often mad, but always provocative”. Sounds like perfect Long Bar company.

Anyway, here you go…

 

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Joe Scialom’s Cairo customers come from all over the world – yet he never forgets a face of the drink that goes with it. That’s why he’s probably the world’s most famous barkeep

Happiness to a great many people for a great many years, has been a thing called Joe. Ninety-nine per cent of the happy people have never known his last name, which is Scialom, but he has been an arbiter of barroom culture for so many years in so many places that his face and his fame have become synonymous.

In the older, gentler world, there were a few places where is a man tarried he could see anybody he wanted to see. One was The Long Bar in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo; behind it Joe reigned.

Joe speaks a few languages fluently – English, French, Italian, Greek, Arabic, German, Russian. He also has a faculty for never forgetting a face or the drink that goes with it. From 1939 to 1952 he was the master of the world which travelled through Cairo. Messages were left with Joe. Commissions were given to Joe. Strange duties were entrusted to Joe. Joe became a kind of international bank, post office, underground and extension agent.

Shepheard’s is no more, having been set afire in 1952 by some of the rioting citizens of Egypt. But Joe has remained an institution. The tiny world created by crisscrossing airlines that pause in Cairo badly needed Joe. So the people who ran Shepheard’s created him a shrine in another of their hotels, the Semiramis. It is called Joe’s Bar, and if you are looking for somebody in Cairo, that’s where he’ll be, whether he drinks or not.

On an average evening in Joe’s you will see a brace of Egyptian Cabinet ministers, a dozen airline officials, some high-blown military, a debutante or so, a cotton broker, 20 oil people in from the fields in the Middle East, a sheik in a burnoose and agal ropes and a variety of unidentifiable angle-shooters.

Nobody has ever defined what makes a bar a mecca, as Toots Shor’s is a mecca for one kind of person in New York, as “21” beckons another brand, as the Stork Club attracts another. But Joe’s attraction is obvious: it is his understanding of the international floaters who never look forward to a chicken farm any place, from Long Island to Tanganyika. His background makes him the perfect foil. “I was born,” he says, “at some date which escapes me, of a Venetian father and a Russian mother, on the high seas. I became a legal Venetian but got my birth certificate in Egypt. I was named Giuseppe, after the captain of the ship I was born on. I am an American by adoption, and Scotch by absorption. I am married to a woman who is half French and half Algerian. I look like anybody’s cousin Joe, whether it’s Cousin José, Cousin Giuseppe, Cousin Yusuf, or what.

“I have worked in Paris, New York, London, Khartoum, Johannesburg, Algiers, Istanbul and Rome, not to mention Cairo. I have seen very traveller who drinks, at least twice: once when he comes in, and once when he comes back to see I remember his name and preference in drinks.”

For the barter world, Joe is the one-man brokerage house. You want an apartment? Ask Joe. You want to sell a car, or buy one? Joe’s the boy. You want a ticket on the airlines? Tell Joe I sent you, and he will call Hassan el Samra of TWA or somebody I BOAC or Ethiopian Airlines or Air France and what exactly is it you want?

Joe is never at a loss, which helps explain how he invented a drink I’ll call the Suffering Buzzard, although that’s not precisely its name. It was 1941, and the war was running Joe short of ingredients. A couple of hang-overs came in one day beseeching aid, and Joe looked desperately around him.

“I always thought that gin, which I had, and bourbon, which I had, don’t marry,” Joe says. “But I stuck some gin and bourbon into the vase, and looked about for something to take the curse off. There was some angostura and some lime cordial and some dry ginger ale for fizz. I shook it all up with some ice and decorated it with mint.

“I was most surprised at the result. The customers did not drop dead. They recovered, and clamoured for more. Been clamouring ever since.

“You see,” says Joe, “I am a healer at heart. I started out as a chemist – studied in France–and got bored with it. Merely changed bottles.”

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Joe refers to his domain as St Joe’s Parish, and runs it on somewhat ecclesiastical lines. He is very proud of the fact that in Shepheard’s, during five years of war, there was never a fight amongst all the motley warriors who drank under his aegis. He had some unusual experiences, though.

He remembers one Homeric drinking bout between a Turk and a Canadian. The Turk was holding out for the healing, soothing benefits of honest Scotch whisky. The Canadian was a Martini man. They drank, drink for drink, 52 slaps a piece. The Martini aficionado survived. The Turk went out on a board.

Joe refers to himself as the man in the white coat – a psychiatrist who uses a mixing glass instead of a couch, and some salted nuts instead of the works of the late S. Freud.

“A man in a bar wants to feel important,” says Joe. “I have mastered the art of making a man feel important. I am perhaps the best listener in the world, in any one of seven languages.

“I also flatter him in another way,” Joe continues, melding a Martini with meticulous care. “The fact that I know his name, his face and his language makes him suddenly feel like a prince. I have tried this on princes too, and they feel like kings. We don’t have much king business any more in this locality since Farouk left, but will you tell me what that Arab emir is doing over there with his lemonade if he doesn’t feel a psychic need to be at Joe’s, even if he doesn’t drink the hard stuff?”

The airplane has made things easier for folks with a psychic need to be at Joe’s; today people cross hi path much ore oftener than in the old days of the Orient Express and steamer travel. I was pushing off from Cairo not long ago and dropped in Giuseppe for a farewell pop. I swiped a line from the song. “One for my baby,” I said, “and one more for the road.”

Joe looked his mystic look, and the blue stone in his ring twinkled when he poured the drink.

“Not road, chum,” he said. “One more for the world.”

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The Cataract aka the ‘Grand Hotel’

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Nice to see Aswan’s Cataract hotel enjoying plenty of screen-time as it takes the lead role in the ritzy Ramadan TV series Grand Hotel. I have only seen the first two episodes so far but there are lots of scenes in the hotel’s Nile-side gardens and some on the terrace with its views of the river and desert beyond. But it seems the production wasn’t given permission to film inside the hotel because the interiors – at least in the first two episodes – were definitely not shot at the Cataract.

In honour of the series, here are a few things you may or may not know about the Cataract.

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It was built by Cook & Son

The hotel was financed by the English travel company Thomas Cook & Son. The railway had arrived in Aswan in 1898, bringing far more visitors to the town than the existing hotels could cope with. For a few seasons Cook & Son had been accommodating some of these tourists on one of its Nile cruisers, which was permanently moored on the Corniche at Aswan as a floating hotel. In 1899, the company decided to address the problem by commissioning a grand new hotel.

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Mummies were harmed in the construction
Construction began in 1899 on nine feddans bought from the state. There was considerable controversy when Al-Ahram reported that workmen leveling the driveway to the hotel had come upon two hundred mummies which they then destroyed with their picks.

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It was an immediate hit
The hotel opened to guests on 8 January 1900. It was two storeys high with 120 rooms, the majority south-facing with balconies overlooking the Nile. Forty more bedrooms were added later that year but the following season the number of visitors was so great that tents had to be erected in the grounds to house the overflow. So in 1902, the hotel gained a third story with an additional sixty rooms, bringing the total number of rooms to 220.

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It was critically acclaimed
The architect of the hotel was an Englishman with the very un-English name of Henri Favarger. He was the same architect responsible for the Mena House out by the Pyramids in Cairo. The highlight of the Mena House was Favarger’s Moorish dining hall and at the Cataract he created an even more dramatic dining space, a great octagonal, double-height hall topped by a central dome seventy-five feet high. The press described it as “unmatched even in Europe”. You can still see Favarger’s name etched into a stone at the foot of one of the columns.

…but not by everybody
Not everyone was a fan of the hotel. French travel writer Pierre Loti, who was generally appalled by the Europeanisation of Egypt. “Cook & Son have even gone so far as to conceive the idea that it would be original to give to their establishment a certain cachet of Islam. And the dining-room reproduces the interior of one of the mosques of Stamboul. At the luncheon hour,” he wrote with dripping sarcasm, “it is one of the prettiest sights in the world to see, under this imitation holy cupola, all the little tables crowded with Cook’s tourists of both sexes, while a concealed orchestra strikes up the Mattchiche.” English travel writer Douglas Sladen was almost as scathing: he thought the hotel looked like a county asylum.

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There is no evidence Agatha Christie stayed at the Cataract
Despite the claims of the hotel – and everybody else taking these claims as fact – there is no evidence Agatha Christie ever stayed at the Cataract. She holidayed in Egypt twice in the early 1930s and passed through Aswan on a Nile cruise. Her descriptions of the hotel in her twenty-second novel, Death on the Nile, prove that she certainly visited the hotel but passengers on Nile cruises tended to sleep in their cabins on the boats while in Upper Egypt. I’m not saying categorically she did not take a room at the Cataract, simply that there is no evidence to say she did.

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It attracted repeat visitors
A Lord Benbrook, a regular guest at the hotel, once arrived at the terrace to find his favorite table taken and informed the seated party that the table was reserved. “Since when,” asked the occupant. “Since twenty years,” Benbrook replied. Another regular was regular was Sultan Muhammad Shah, better known as Aga Khan III. After his first stay in 1937, when he and his new bride honeymooned at the Cataract, he reserved a suite at the hotel every year during the winter months. Before his death in 1957, he requested to be buried in Aswan and his mausoleum faces the Cataract from the top of a sandy hill across on the far side of the Nile.

…and repeat offenders
Egyptian royalty, on occasion, also favored the Cataract. King Farouk visiting for the 1941–42 season took an entire floor. According to stories doing the rounds at the time, the King enjoyed taking potshots from his balcony at the little Nubian boys paddling their boats on the river below. True or not, it says a lot about Farouk that such a story was so widely circulated.

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There is a painting of it in a Cairo museum
Maybe because it is so far from Cairo, but the Cataract was never written about or photographed as much as most of Egypt’s other grand hotels. It is, though, the only hotel to feature in a Cairo museum. This is a painting done in 1948 by Shaaban Zaky, a self-taught artist and railway employee, who travelled Egypt with his easel and brushes, and you’ll find it in the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art on Gezira.

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Shepheard’s in photographs

Although no physical trace of the original Shepheard’s hotel remains, it was well documented while it stood. It was the subject of several photo essays in international magazines including Life and, I think, Picture Post. The hotel’s earlier incarnation (before the 1890 rebuild) was captured by several of the pioneering Middle Eastern photographers including Bonfils and Sebah. When it came to selecting images for Grand Hotels, we were spoiled for choice, and we were only able to include the merest fraction of what was available. I thought I might post some of those images that did not make the cut here. This particular set, below, dates from 1948, so just four years before the hotel was burned down.

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The chap behind the counter here is bartender Joe Scialom: if you don’t know about Joe, then go here.

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Wonderful things

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I mentioned a few posts back that there had been some amends made for the paperback edition of Grand Hotels. Chief of these was correcting a big mistake of mine, which was to attribute the design of the 1890 rebuild of Shepheard’s hotel to the English architect George Somers Clarke. I was repeating a claim published elsewhere without testing the truth of it. In my defence, information on the architects of hotels built in the 19th century was and is hard to come by.

You’d imagine that for an institution as famous as Shepheard’s, everything about it would be thoroughly documented but this is not the case. Not even the daily newspapers of the time, which reported at length on the remodeling and relaunch of the hotel, bothered to credit the architect. Hats off then to Tarek Ibrahim, a researcher at the Humboldt University of Berlin who has succeeded where I failed and managed to identify the real architect. A name in an old Shepheard’s brochure led him to a castle in Bavaria where he gained confirmation that the architect was a German named Johann Adam Rennebaum. This is not a well known name. In fact, I think few architectural historians that specialise in 19th-century Cairo have even heard of him. But apparently he was a long-term resident of Egypt, who designed villas for members of the German community in Alexandria and a number of buildings for Belgian enterprises in Cairo. It appears he was also involved in restorations of some of Cairo’s most important mosques including Ibn Tulun, Sultan Hassan and Al-Azhar.

But Tarek’s real find was in Bavaria. He discovered that Rennebaum’s ancestors still had a dusty tower room filled with their ancestor’s belongings (he died in 1937). These include sketchbooks, photographs, and plans and preparatory drawings for details of the décor in Shepheard’s, as well as items of furniture that may possibly have come from the hotel. Tarek told me he felt like Carter discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb. The pictures in this post were sent to me by Tarek.

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Tarek is now hoping to find sponsors to fund the restoration of the furniture, which is in a fairly bad way, with a possible view to a future exhibition. He’s also hoping to write a book on Rennebaum and Shepheard’s. It’s amazing news.

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