Category Archives: Grand hotels

Stories about and from the grand old hotels of Egypt.

New Shepheard’s book

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Tarek Ibrahim’s book on Shepheard’s hotel is finally available. Back in 2016 I wrote about Tarek’s dogged research to uncover the identity of the hotel’s architect and of the trail that led to a castle in Bavaria containing the architect’s archive (such as it is). Here’s the link. All of this was done for his doctoral thesis, which has now been published by the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo.

The book – which was presented at the American University in Cairo earlier this year – focuses on the systematic documentation and analysis of the building and the different styles employed in its extravagant decoration. As Tarek writes, “More than merely lodging for travellers, Shepheard’s was a means to ‘step through the looking glass’, the very embodiment of Cairo and the tourist attractions along the Nile, and an essential part of the journey to Egypt in the golden age of travel.”

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The other Gezira Palace Hotel

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Egyptian diplomat Hussein Roshdy was recently in touch with me asking about the Gezira Palace Hotel. Not the original Gezira Palace Hotel that opened in the former royal residence built for the visit of Empress Eugenie, but the “fake” Gezira Palace Hotel, which stole the name when the original closed. This was a new hotel that occupied part, or maybe all, of a 1940s (I’m guessing at the date) apartment block on the Corniche at Bulaq, exactly across from the real Gezira Palace. In the photo above, which is taken from the roof of the old Semiramis hotel some time in the 1960s, the building with the new Gezira Palace Hotel is one of the pair just to the right of the Aboulela Bridge in the distance. I wrote in Grand Hotels that “After the Suez War of 1956, this hotel was used almost exclusively by UN troops until their withdrawal after 1973. The hotel was demolished around 1980.” That is the sum total of my knowledge as far as the hotel goes. I also have these two photos, below, the second of which is taken on the hotel roof and shows Aboulela Bridge and Zamalek in the background. If anybody has any memories of this building, please get in touch.
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Meanwhile, Hussein directed me to one of his favorite movies, a little known drama from 1964 directed by Youssef Chahine called Fagr Yom Gedid (Dawn of a New Day). It features plenty of beautifully shot footage of Cairo, including a brilliant and dizzying sequence on the stairs of the recently completed Cairo Tower. Towards the end of the movie, there is some aerial footage of the Aboulela bridge and you can briefly spot the original Gezira Palace in a decrepit state, half covered with scaffolding., before the camera sweeps down the Corniche at Maspero and past the fake Gezira Palace Hotel and the empty lot where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would later be built.

 

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More sad news from the Windsor

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The Windsor Hotel in Cairo is closed. I haven’t been by for some months now, but I saw an article in the online Arabic-language Mantiqi magazine that details what’s going on. I know that for years now, the Cairo governate has been digging up Alfi Street right next to the hotel as part of the new Metro line construction. Inevitably, this has caused subsidence and the Windsor building has suffered slippage. Marileez, one of the Doss family that own the hotel told me, “On the 30th of September as I was sitting with my father and taking care of some business, I heard a cracking sound, looked around and saw the walls opening with big cracks. We immediately evacuated everyone, transferred my father and most of the guests to The Lotus, our other hotel, and never went back.” The Metro people have apparently since shored up the foundations but nobody is allowed back in the hotel and the Doss family have no idea what happens next.

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Photos from Mantiqi

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William Doss 1915-2020

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Sad to hear recently of the death of William Doss, owner of the Windsor Hotel. He died on 30 January at the age of 105. I interviewed Mr Doss twice while researching Grand Hotels of Egypt and ever since I have continued to drop by the Windsor, where he lunched every afternoon with his children, to say hello. In recent years he was too frail for conversation, but when I interviewed him around ten years earlier he was full of terrific stories. As a young man he studied in England and he had brilliant recall of his time there. He bought himself a car and explored the country, and he could clearly remember where he visited, where he stayed and what it all cost, down to the penny. When it was time for him to return to Egypt he had the car – a stylish and sporty little thing, he told me – shipped with him to Port Said. But when the ship docked the car wouldn’t start and had to be towed. So, William made his grand return home in a sports car pulled through the streets by a donkey. He was a living link to the era of the grand hotels of Egypt and Cairo will feel diminished for his passing. My best wishes go to his children Wafik, Wasfi and Marileez, and their families. Photo of William Doss by Hossam el-Hamalawy

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Vintage Cairo from the BnF

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.

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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.

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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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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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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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