Category Archives: Grand hotels

Stories about and from the grand old hotels of Egypt.

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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The Alexandria Savoy

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Speaking of the Savoy (see last post), Egypt had no less than four hotels that borrowed the name of the original London establishment – which took its name from a palace that formerly stood on the site, founded by the royal Savoy family back in the 13th century. I’ve already posted about the Cairo Savoy and Aswan Savoy, and in passing the Luxor Savoy, but not yet written anything about the Alexandria Savoy, or more properly, the Savoy Palace Hotel. There’s good reason for this, which is that I really don’t know much about it.

The reason I don’t know much is because the life of the Alexandria Savoy, despite being the grandest of the city’s hotels when it opened, was a short one. That opening was on 23 February 1907. The previous day’s edition of The Egyptian Gazette carried a story on Alexandria’s new hotel: “It is a curious fact that although palatial and luxurious hotels are to be found throughout Egypt and even in the suburbs of Alexandria, the port itself is singularly deficient in similarly first-class houses of accommodation. But in the Savoy Palace Hotel, which opens its doors tomorrow, the public will find a hostelry which will compare most advantageously with the best of those in Cairo and Upper Egypt.­”

The address was 35 rue de la Porte de Rosette – now Tariq Horeyya – which was somewhere near the junction with An-Nabi Daniel; in other words just about as central as it was possible to get. The hotel occupied a building that had only been constructed three years previously, for a personage the Gazette identifies only as “Baron Cumbo”, an obviously ridiculously wealthy individual given that after a bit of structural rejigging the Savoy ran to 180 bedrooms. Some of this, it seems, was accommodated in two new wings that were added at the back, in what was the garden, with the space between the wings being covered with a high, glass-domed roof to create an enclosed winter garden. Off this, according to the Gazette, were reading and billiard rooms on the left, and, on the right, a restaurant described as having enormous gilt electroliers, a crimson carpet over the parquet floor and a high stand of palms in the centre of the room. There was a handsome marble staircase leading from the entrance hall to the upper floors, where the bedrooms were furnished by Maple & Co of London and Krieger of Paris. Which all sounds rather splendid.

And that, for the moment, is about the sum of knowledge on this hotel. There were some ads that ran in the press but they add nothing (while contradicting the Gazette’s count of 180 rooms).

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The best image of the hotel is the beautiful luggage label that heads this post, which is very rare, although one did pop up on eBay last month – the first I’ve seen in years – where it sold for $167. There are also a couple of postcards that show up in online searches, one of which was obviously used as the main source by the artist responsible for the luggage label.

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Archival material I’ve dug up online suggests the Alexandria Savoy, like its Cairo counterpart, was used by the British Army in Egypt as a temporary headquarters during World War I and there’s a mention elsewhere of a meeting that took place at the hotel in 1920. That, however, is the last reference I have come across to it. The hotel appears in Baedeker’s guides to Egypt for 1911 and 1914, but has disappeared by the next edition, in 1929. I suspect that like many hotels in Egypt – again, the Cairo Savoy included – the Alexandria Savoy was a victim of the Great War and the vacuum it created where tourism used to be, which wasn’t filled until the early 1920s. If anybody knows different or has any other information to add, I’d love to hear from you.

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Once grand, still grand

The River Front circa 1904,  by artist Harold Oakley

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to get to stay a night at the London Savoy. I was writing a story on it for Celebrated Living, the inflight magazine carried in the premium-class cabins of American Airlines. I have visited the hotel before but only to drink at the American Bar, plus once to attend an awards ceremony held in the ballroom, and once in 2007 when the whole place was thrown open for a viewing of lots in advance of the auction of around 3,000 pieces of the hotel’s furniture prior to it closing for three years of refurb. This then was my first visit since the Savoy reopened in 2010 after being taken over by the Fairmont chain.

Charlie Chaplin and wife Oona on the roof

Charlie Chaplin and wife Oona on the roof

Unlike the grand hotels of Egypt, where these days more than a little imagination is required to conjure up any glamour or opulence (or, for that matter, any life), the Savoy still buzzes. The American Bar remains one of the best bars in the world and the Savoy Grill, despite being operated by the group headed by the asinine Gordon Ramsay, remains a truly special restaurant. Fads and fashions hit London’s dining scene with the regularity of January rains but after more than a century in existence the Grill still feels like the place to be. I love that at around 10pm it receives a new rush of energy as a post theatre crowd turns up for a 400g rib-eye or sirloin and a decent bottle of red before bedtime.

Fred Astaire and sister Adele, also on the roof

Fred Astaire and sister Adele, also on the roof

Our room was a river suite, next door to the Monet suite, in fact, and if the view didn’t include the Pyramids or the Nile plus Theban Hills/First Cataract, there was at least Cleopatra’s Needle on the Thames Embankment below. The element of the Savoy I enjoyed most was the lifts, one red, one blue, one green; I don’t know if they are original but they are wooden and certainly old. The Savoy was the first hotel in England to install electric ‘ascending rooms’, which apparently used to take eight minutes to rise up seven floors, each with a lift boy offering cognac stiffeners to calm passengers’ nerves.

Marilyn Monroe with Laurence Olivier at the Savoy for a press conference in 1956 conference

Marilyn Monroe with Laurence Olivier at the Savoy for a press conference in 1956

There are a whole host of firsts associated withe Savoy, a hundred of which are listed out in an article on the hotel’s website, including the following:

* The Savoy was the first hotel to have its own artesian well, 420 ft deep.

* On an infamous evening in 1896, the Savoy was the where the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre became the first woman to smoke in public at the dinner table.

* The first ‘Gondola Party’ not in Venice was held in the Savoy in 1905; the courtyard floor was made watertight and flooded to a depth of 4 feet, scenery erected around the walls, and gondolas floated for a party hosted American millionaire George Kessler.

* The first flight within the hotel took place on New Year’s Eve, 1906, when on the stroke of midnight, an aero-mobile (a hybrid motor-car and aeroplane) set off on rails fitted to the roof of the foyer, landed and ran between the diners as two ladies on board showered party-goers with gifts.

The Savoy entrance, added in 1929 and still a beacon of elegance today

The Savoy entrance, added in 1929 and still a beacon of elegance today

Read the rest here.

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Looking for the heirs of Samuel Shepheard

I’ve posted many times here on Shepheard’s hotel, which, until it was burned down in 1952, was not only the most famous hotel in Egypt but one of the most famous in the world. But what about its founder, the man who gave his name to the hotel, Samuel Shepheard?

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He was born on 21 January 1816 in the village of Preston Capes, Northamptonshire, in the English Midlands. As a young man he was apprenticed to a pastry cook but chose instead to abandon the parochialism of country life and run off in search of adventure at sea. He found more of it than he bargained for when, in January 1842, serving as a junior officer aboard a P&O mail ship he took the crew’s side in a mutiny and was charged by the captain with insubordination and thrown off at Suez. From here he made his way overland to Cairo. He may have been intending heading up to Alexandria where he could board another ship for England, but he never got that far, instead he found employment in Cairo with a Mr Hill who ran the British Hotel.

Although still only in his twenties the marooned sailor proved himself capable enough that by 1846, when English social reformer and journalist Harriet Martineau passed through Cairo on a tour of the East, Hill’s hotel was already being referred to as “Shepheard’s”.

Officially though, it was still the British Hotel. We know this for sure because a couple of years later, in 1848, it moved premises to a new location on the Ezbekiya and there’s an image of it with the name clearly painted above the door (click on the image below to enlarge).

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Business must have been good because within just another couple of years Shepheard was looking for somewhere bigger again. The opportunity came through a chance meeting between Shepheard and Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive Abbas, in which the two discovered shared a love of hunting. Soon afterwards, in November 1849, Shepheard wrote to his brother that the Pasha “has given me a grant of a large college to build an Hotel on the site. I am busy making a plan” (the letter is reproduced in Michael Bird’s 1957 biography of Shepheard).

The site granted was the Palace of Alfi Bey, which overlooked the recently created Ezbekiya Gardens. This was the residence commandeered by Napoleon when he rode into Cairo in July 1798. Following the departure of the French, the building was occupied by a daughter of Muhammad Ali and later became a school of languages, which was closed during the reign of Abbas, leaving the premises empty and free to gift to Samuel Shepheard. The new establishment (pictured below), the first to bear the name of Shepheard’s Hotel, opened its rooms to guests in July 1851.

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Samuel Shepheard would stay on in Cairo for just another nine years before selling up in 1860 and returning to England. There, he retired to the Midlands, not far from where he grew up, buying a grand Georgian house called Eathorpe Hall. For all that, he was not a lucky man: no less than four of his children died in infancy in Cairo, and another at the age of ten. One possible reason he sold up so early in his career was that he feared to lose any more children to illness in Egypt. But ill luck followed him to England and he hardly had time to enjoy his bucolic surroundings before he also died, in 1866 at the age of 50.

He was survived by three daughters, but only one of them went on to marry, the other two dying as spinsters. She married a man called Arthur Bird and I’m presuming the Michael Bird who wrote the Samuel Shepheard book in 1957 is a descendent. I have managed, or rather my mother, who is good at this sort of thing, has managed to piece together a Shepheard family tree.

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If we’ve got this right then it seems there are definitely some descendents of Samuel Shepheard out there – if so, and if any of them ever come across this blog post, I would dearly love to hear from you. In the past I have had emails from descendents of other Egyptian hoteliers I’ve blogged about, so fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, Samuel Shepheard’s old home Eathorpe Hall still survives. It remains a beautiful place, as can be seen in the photographs below which were posted on an estate agent’s site last year when the property came up for sale. The asking price was £2,750,000, which is one historic hotels of Egypt souvenir I couldn’t stretch to.

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The other, other Savoy

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I’ve posted previously on Cairo’s Savoy hotel, at one time the flagship for George Nungovitch’s Egyptian hotel empire, here. I’ve also mentioned in passing the Luxor Savoy, here, which used to stand on the east bank, a little north of the Luxor Temple, and survived, albeit in a sorry state, until the 1970s when it was gutted by fire and subsequently demolished to make way for a shopping development. But there was a third Savoy. This was in Aswan and by all accounts was quite a grand affair. Here’s Amédée Baillot de Guerville writing in the first years of the 20th century: “At Assouan there are three excellent hotels, two of which are large modern houses. The Cataract, belonging to Cook, is admirably looked after by M. Pagnon (proprietor of the hotels at Luxor) … On the Elephantine Island, in the midst of a charming  garden, there is another palatial building, the Savoy Hotel, belonging to the Anglo-American Company, and which enjoys equal popularity with the Cataract.”

(The third hotel was the Grand, which was apparently misnamed.)

The Anglo-American was a recently formed Nile steamer company, which came into being toward the end of the 1880s and entered into direct competition with the well established Thomas Cook & Son passenger services. Naturally enough, having transported boatloads of tourists up the Nile, the last thing the new company wanted was to hand them over to its rival to accommodate, so the Anglo-American took to building hotels of its own. Its Savoy was a palatial, boomerang-shaped structure with accommodation for 80 guests and a riverfront setting among the palm groves at the northern tip of Elephantine. There was a magnificent dining hall, bar, ladies’s lounge and a billiard room. Any inconvenience arising from being separated from the town by water was more than made up for by a luscious terraced garden coloured with golden-plumed parkinsonia, crimson poinsettia, and bushes of chrysanthemums which had to be drowned every day to keep them alive; a long hedge of oleanders overhung the river.

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Officially opened on 20 January 1900, the hotel was affiliated to the Nungovich Hotel Company, which supplied its manager, a Mr Brey, formerly of the Savoy Hotel, Cairo, and handpicked the staff. In 1905, the hotel became part of the Upper Hotels Company, of which Nungovich was a founder board member and shareholder.

Thomas_Cook-Sudan approaching Aswan (1930)

Although I’ve never heard of anyone staying there, the Aswan Savoy survived until modern times, only being demolished in the 1970s. It was replaced by a new Oberoi hotel, notable for being the worst eyesore in the whole of Egypt (and that is a hotly contested title); it recently changed hands and is now the Mövenpick Resort Aswan, although it still looks as hideous. (With thanks to Cornelius Von Pilgrim)

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Victor’s watch

Today I received another email from Peter Kuonen – who sent me the wonderful images of his grand-uncle Victor, who was concierge at the Winter Palace in its heyday (see here). Here’s the text of Peter’s email:

Much to my surprise, I found the gold watch which Victor received with a dedication from Charles Baehler for his excellent work during 30 years in Egypt. You surely wonder how and where I found it. In my research, I have of course spoken with many relatives. Thus, it happened that I was talking about this watch and then I held it in my hand. You cannot imagine how I felt. It was just great… like getting a reward for my work. The person that keeps this memorable piece is Toni Kuonen, a hotelier in Sierre, Switzerland. He received it from his father Richard, a son of Victor Kuonen.

And here is the watch, courtesy of photos from Peter.

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Incidentally, the Charles Baehler who Peter mentions in his email was the king of Egyptian hotels. A former accountant from Switzerland, he arrived in Egypt on 21 October 1889, aged eighteen. He went to work at Shepheard’s in a junior role but so impressed his employer with his confidence and knowledge of hotel administration that he was soon appointed manager. By 1905, he owned the hotel. By the time he died, in 1937, his companies not only owned every major hotel in Egypt (including the Winter Palace), but also 72 shops and 130 flats, a stable of race horses, a kennel of prize-winning St. Bernard dogs, and a museum-worthy collection of paintings and tapestries. He married three times and fathered three sons. His obituary in The New York Times on 28 September 1937 called him “one of the world’s greatest hotel men.”

Now if any of his descendents read this, I would love to hear from them.

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Fire in Cairo

I knew that Shepheard’s was severely damaged by fire in 1868 from a dramatic illustration that ran in the London Illustrated News, below. But I was never able to find any further details, so the event only receives a passing mention in my book Grand Hotels of Egypt. Recently, however, I managed to find not one but two newspaper accounts of the event, one of which, from the 21st August 1868 edition of The Coventry Herald and Free Press, and Midland Express I’m going to post in full because it’s full of interesting detail. For instance, in 1868 Shepheard’s had a stock of wine that was worth fully half as much as the entire hotel?

Cairo_Fire

A correspondent at Cairo, in a letter dared the 7th furnishes some particulars of the burning if Shepheard’s Hotel, which occurred on the previous night: “The building was constructed by Mohamed Ali for a school of languages on the site of a former building occupied by Napoleon as his headquarters while in command of the French expedition in Egypt; and a well now subsisting in the garden of the hotel is said to be the identical well in which the assassin of General Kleber momentarily concealed himself after stabbing the general and those who were in the company walking up and down one of the garden paths. On the breaking up of Mohamed Ali’s schools the building passed to Kamal Pasha, his son-in-law, and now one of the Sultan’s ministers. In 1850 Abbas Pasha, then Viceroy of Egypt, rented it from Kamil Pasha, and granted it, at the suggestion of Sir Charles Murray, then Her Majesty’s agent and consul-general in Egypt, for a nominal rent, to the late Mr. Shepheard (who resided until his death at Eathorpe, near Leamington), for the purpose of a hotel. In a few years Mr. Shepheard was enabled to retire, and in 1859 he transferred the hotel for a premium, it was understood of £12,000 to its present proprietor, Mr. Zech, who has further laid out much money upon it. It is said he is insured in French offices to the amount of £14,000. The building was of two floors in height, and in plan in the form of a hollow square round an inner quadrangle, which was laid out as a garden. On the lower floor was a wine closet containing a stock of wine valued at between £6,000 and £7,000.

AH_1850_Shepheards

The fire began at half-past eleven last night, the first alarm preceeding from an explosion from a store closet containing parafine – or, as it called in Cairo, gas – candles, and other combustible matters. The servants were at the moment preparing to close the house. In an instant flames shot forth in several directions at once. The people of the house could do nothing, there having been no fire-extinguishing apparatus of any kind on the premises. The preparations against fires are so ineffectual in Cairo that it was stated to be two hours before an instrument, consisting of a hand-carried box with a pump in it, which passes for a fire engine, arrived. The stream projected by such a pump is certainly not thicker than an ordinary hand garden pump. Fortunately there was no wind. Had the northerly wind which had been blowing for some nights previously continued, Kamil Pasha’s house must have gone, and very probably the new hotel, constructed and furnished at a cost of £120,000, and not yet completely finished. On visiting the scene at eight O’clock this morning, I found the east and south fronts a roofless burnt-out ruin – thin columns of smoke curling up here and there from the materials which had fallen in between the walls. The north and west blocks are uninjured, but the furniture they contained having been thrown as best it could, out of the windows, will yield little salvage.

Some suspicions are entertained that the fire may have been the act of an incendiary. Fires are of rare occurrence in Cairo; but it so happens that for the last nine days a fire has been reported in different parts of the town every evening. There is a great discontent among the people at the arbitrary exactions to which they have been subjected in order to satisfy the Pasha’s requirements for meeting his liabilities at home and abroad, while at the same time they hear of his wasting enormous sums of money at Constantinople. A firdeh or trade tax of 8 1/3 per cent per annum on the profits from trade, calculated in many instances much in excess of the true profits, and weighing with excessive hardship on a large class of the inhabitants of the town, has lately been imposed.

The Glasgow Daily Herald of Wednesday 2nd September 1868 ran a very similar story, probably from the same correspondent, but it chose to include this excellent detail:

I am told of one guest in the hotel putting an appearance, in sorry plight, at one of the windows flanked by flames from others on either side of it, and by aid of extemporised ladders and mattresses and things for his to jump on, he was got out in safety and nudity.

The hotel was not out of commission for too long because just a few months later, in January 1869, travel impresario Thomas Cook was in Cairo leading his very first Egyptian tour party, and from a diary left by one of its number, we know that Shepheard’s was up and running again by this time.

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Filed under Grand hotels, Shepheard's