Monthly Archives: June 2012

Then and now: Hotel d’Angleterre

Unreasonable if you think about it, but you somehow expect a handwritten document penned a century ago to offer a little insight into how greatly different life was back then. The letter above, written in the first decade of the last century, just complains about a missing key. What is evocative of another era though is the hotel’s illustrated notepaper, which is just gorgeous (click to enlarge). The hotel in question, the Angleterre, originally stood on the northeast corner of Cairo’s Azbakiya Gardens, but this is its second incarnation, after it had been relocated to premises on Maghrabi Street (now Adly Street), next door to the Turf Club and the site on which the local Jewish community would shortly raise the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue.

Hotel du Nil 01 map

The proprietor of the Angleterre was a Greek-Cypriot from Limassol named George Nungovich. His name is all but forgotten these days but he was one of Egypt’s greatest hoteliers, a man who embodied the glamour and get-rich-quick spirit of Cairo as it hustled from the 19th into the 20th century.

Nungovich arrived penniless in Egypt in 1870, aged fourteen, but by the end of the century he was said to be worth over a million pounds sterling. His entry into business came courtesy of the British Army, which was then campaigning in Sudan. He was engaged in the officers’ mess of a Highland regiment and was so successful he returned to Cairo in the late 1880s with enough money to purchase the lease of the Hotel d’Angleterre. Not long after, Nungovich learnt that a British regiment had arrived in Cairo unexpectedly with no accommodation arranged. He rushed over to the station and offered to take all the officers at his hotel. When they were leaving and requested their bill, Nungovich refused to issue one, saying that he was only too honored to have had the officers of the British Army as his guests. It was a shrewd bit of PR that ensured his popularity with Her Majesty’s subjects, who were at that time pouring into Cairo, both in uniform and civilian attire.

Screen Shot 2012-06-17 at 16.52.44

In 1894, the year after he moved the Angleterre to its new Adly Street premises (above), he was able to add a second Cairo hotel to his portfolio, which was the Continental on Qasr al-Nil Street; when the lease on this building expired he moved the business to new, far larger premises, reflected in the new name, the Grand Continental (the hotel was later renamed the Continental-Savoy, which I wrote about last post). By the time of the letter at the head of this post, Nungovich’s empire numbered eight establishments, including the Savoy Hotel, also in Cairo, which he built in 1898, the San Stefano in Alexandria, which he bought in 1900, and the Mena House out by the Pyramids, which he acquired in 1904.

hotel_dangleterre

By the early years of the 20th century – boom years for Egypt – Nungovich’s interests had outgrown the hotel business, and he was speculating heavily in land, property and shares. The slump when it came, came quickly. The panic of 1907 began in New York but the shock reached even Egypt, where shares on the stock market plummeted. Millions were lost and lives ruined. A no-longer wealthy George Nungovich suffered a heart attack in summer 1908 and died. His hotel empire passed into the stewardship of a protégé, Auguste Wild – his name appears as General Manager on the letterhead above – before being bought out by Charles Baehler.

The Angleterre didn’t make it that far. It had never been a particularly glamorous hotel. Located away from the hum of the Azbekiya it appealed to a serious and sober clientele, and it provided them with spacious apartments rather than just bedrooms (in the letter, the author refers to the ‘doors of our flat’). Gertrude Bell stayed here in 1911. I don’t know the exact date of its closure but the last reference I’ve found to the hotel is in 1914. Many hotels failed to survive the lack of guests caused by World War I and the slowness of tourism to return in its aftermath, and I’m guessing this was the fate that befell the Angleterre. The building still survives – here it is:

Angleterre building

If you compare this photograph with the postcard above, you can just about recognise the Angleterre under all the clutter. A clothes store occupies the space that was the front terrace and portico, and the other street façade has been obliterated at ground and first-floor level by more shop fronts and ugly, ill-mannered signage. Perhaps the name of the man who was once called ‘the Napoleon of hoteliers’, George Nungovich, means nothing any more, but really, no building should be treated with such disrespect.

16 Comments

Filed under Hotels then and now

Then and now: Continental-Savoy

Through the first half of the 20th century the Continental-Savoy (known as the Grand Continental before 1924) on Opera Square was the great rival to Shepheard’s, just up the street. Like Shepheard’s it had a busy street-front terrace, hosted fabulous balls and dances, and attracted its fair show of famous guests. TE Lawrence lodged here when he first arrived in Cairo in December 1914, Lord Carnarvon succumbed to the malady brought on by an insect bite in Luxor in one of the Continental-Savoy’s suites in 1923, while in 1941 Major Orde Wingate attempted suicide in his bedroom by stabbing himself in the neck, twice, but survived. While Shepheard’s was burned down in the rioting of January 1952, the Continental-Savoy survived unscathed. Instead, it suffered a slow, painful decline into decrepitude eventually becoming so rundown that it had to stop accepting guests altogether by the early 1980s. Since then this massive, four-storey, 300-plus room hotel has stood largely empty.

It’s a crazy situation – it occupies a whole city block on one of Downtown Cairo’s busiest squares. There have been several attempts to have the building demolished but each time the developers have been thwarted by legal challenges made by the owners of the shops that fill what was formerly the hotel’s front terrace and its back garden.

So there it stands, crumbling. Until recently the only visitors were there to receive inoculations against cholera and yellow fever at the International Vaccination Centre, which occupied a small office at the rear of the former hotel’s dust-covered lobby – ‘bring your own needles,’ advised the Lonely Planet guide.

I’ve been wanting to get inside the building for years but have always been stopped by one of the security guys who sit around watching TV behind what was the reception counter. Last month I tried again, only this time I had Gadi with me to explain, in Arabic, that I was the author of a book about Egypt’s hotels and had written all about the Continental-Savoy and so could we have a look around. Plus we offered money.

We didn’t get to see too much. All the upper floors and the halls on the ground floor are out of bounds for safety reasons. Instead we were led through a series of derelict rooms just off the lobby that had been stripped back to just the bare concrete and brick. The only structural details we saw that seemed to have any historical provenance were a set of pharaonic-styled columns that looked like they could have perhaps dated to the late 19th century (there has been a hotel on this site since 1870). We went out of a door and up a crumbling external staircase and onto the roof of the shop units that now fill the area where the original street terrace would have been; we were allowed to take just one photo, which I took from roughly the same spot as another photographer had almost a century ago – see below.

Back in 2010, when EGOTH, the government organisation responsible for Egypt’s hotels, pledged over $368m for the renovation of nine of the country’s historic properties (currently on hold), there was talk about also tackling the Continental-Savoy. There was a suggestion that it be saved and returned to use as a hotel. Sadly, even the most cursory look around makes completely clear what a total fantasy this is. As much as it grieves me to say this, there is no saving the Continental-Savoy – Cairo’s oldest surviving, if non-functioning, hotel. The building is too far gone. If we’re honest, it’s also of little architectural merit and totally unsuited to modern usage. The big fear is what might replace it. The omens are not good. The last time a historic building on Opera Square was razed and replaced, Cairo lost an exquisite little opera house and gained only a concrete muli-storey car park.

26 Comments

Filed under Hotels then and now