Monthly Archives: October 2012

I’ll have what he’s having

Back in the ’30s if a company marketing booze in the US wanted to imbue its product with a bit of glamour and sophistication then one way to do it was to suggest the drink was just the sort of thing being downed on the terraces of the hotels of Cairo. In the magazine ads below Hennessy cognac and Gilbey’s gin grace the tables at Shepheard’s, while Canadian Club is favoured at the Mena House.

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The Baron

The previous pair of posts were about TE Lawrence’s stays in Cairo hotels – a year at the Grand Continental, a year and a half, on and off, at the Savoy and two weeks at the Semiramis. In the Middle East it’s not an Egyptian hotel, though, that he’s most associated with but the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, thanks to an unpaid bar bill that to this day is displayed framed on the lounge wall. I’ve stayed at the Baron a couple of times, most recently in 2009 when I wrote the following text for Jazeera Magazine (the photographs are by Damascus-based John Wreford):

In 1880, when Aleppo was the great cosmopolitan metropolis of the region, the Mazloumian family from Turkish Armenia halted here on the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They found only crude accommodations and seeing an opportunity started a small hotel. In 1909 they built a bigger hotel. They called it the Baron because in Armenian baron means “sir”, which was how the Egyptian construction workers addressed the owners.

Exactly 100 years on, reading the entries on website, courtesy is no longer a strong suit of the hotel. Nor it seems are plumbing, furnishings, cuisine or service. But in recompense, how many hotels can boast of having played a part in the formation of the country? (In 1918 King Faisal declared Syria’s independence from a balcony at the Baron.) And can waiters at the Four Seasons in Damascus honestly boast that guests used to shoot duck from the hotel roof?

One can almost excuse the dilapidated air of the hotel’s rooms and hallways as fidelity to a century of history. A tour of the second floor is a walk through the passage of the Middle East during the 20th century. The balcony in Room 215 is where King Faisal made his proclamation. Room 203 was favoured by Agatha Christie, although she preferred to sit out on the terrace to do her writing (part of Murder on the Orient Express was supposedly written during stays at the hotel). Lawrence of Arabia slept in Room 202, while the Presidential Suite was once variously occupied by the Shah of Persia, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahayan (principal architect of the United Arab Emirates). Before the Ottoman withdrawal, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, mounted machine guns on the roof during World War I in case the British or the Arab Legions broke through. These are the claims of the hotel, anyway.

Hard evidence for at least one of the stories is offered in the hotel lounge, where visitors can examine a framed copy of a drinks bill signed by Lawrence. Otherwise, staff (many of whom have been with the hotel for two, three or even four decades) have a blasé attitude to history – the guest books, filled with past signatures, are stuffed along with piles of yellowed, scrunched up newspaper clippings in the top of an old dusty radiogram.

The hotel is still owned by the Mazloumian family, who have always resisted buy-out bids. Baron Street, on which the hotel stands, has recently seen the loss of several neighbouring buildings, torn down by developers, and the old hotel is beginning to look a little besieged. The current owner, a direct descendent of the Baron’s founders, has always insisted he will never sell – after all, it was his family who founded the hotel business in Syria.


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More people on Pyramids

Following on from one of the posts of last month, here’s another evocative image of Bright Young Things on a Pyramid. No idea of the date but given the dress, it has to be the 1920s. This image was also recently used on the cover of a book: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell. There’s a bit of Photoshop jiggery-pokery gone on to remove one of the two ladies, presumably so it looks like the girl alone gazing wistfully over the sands is having the sort of ‘personal awakening’ described in the blurb underneath. The designer has also shifted one of the Pyramids about 30 metres to the right, which is going to throw off anybody’s astronomical calculations.

The book, incidentally, is a historical novel set in Egypt at the time of the Cairo Peace Conference of 1921. The protagonist, Agnes Shanklin, a 40-year-old American spinster, meets and falls into the company of TE Lawrence, who was present at the Conference (held at the Semiramis hotel, dismissed by Lawrence in a letter to his mother as, “a marble and bronze hotel, very expensive and luxurious: horrible place: makes me Bolshevik”). The title is taken from Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” It’s a good one to have handy when caught staring out the window at work.

The Semiramis – the hotel that made Lawrence of Arabia a Bolshevik



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Lawrence of Arabia: stamp designer

David Lean directing Peter O'Toole on the set of Lawrence of Arabia

David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is back in the cinemas in a new, digitally restored, 50th anniversary edition (the film was first released in the UK on 10 December 1962). I’m looking forward to watching it again on a big screen, because that’s really the only way to see it. It’s unlikely any studio today could ever make a film like it again – 3hr 40 mins long and featuring a cast of hundreds charging across the sands on camels (no CGI back then). It is epic in every sense of the word.

The film’s most closely associated with Jordan, which is where much of the action takes place, and the whole thing was originally planned to be shot there. Cost and illness, however, resulted in much of the filming being done elsewhere – the show-stopping scene of the Arab charge on Aqaba was restaged in a dry river bed in southern Spain. While the production was in Jordan, King Hussein visited the set several times and met a 21-year-old English switchboard operator named Toni Gardner. She became the king’s second wife, taking the name Princess Muna al-Hussein and bearing him four children, the first of whom was Abdullah, the present king of Jordan.

In Lean’s film Spain also stands in for Cairo. The Cairo officers’ club where a haggard Lawrence marches in in Bedouin dress accompanied by his young Bedouin guide to announce, “We want two large glasses of lemonade” – and by the way, “We’ve taken Aqaba” – is played by the Plaza de España in Seville. I’ve no idea whether such a scene ever took place in reality (I’ve never been able to get beyond the first few pages of Seven Pillars of Wisdom) but, if it had, chances are it would have in fact taken place in the bar of Cairo’s Savoy Hotel.

The man who would become ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ arrived in Egypt in mid-December 1914. Formerly a practicing archaeologist with extensive experience of the Middle East, he had been posted to the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo where he became, among other things, an expert on Arab nationalist movements. He was given an office at the Savoy, a hotel on what’s now Talaat Harb Square, which had opened in 1898 but since the outbreak of World War I had been serving as the headquarters of the British Army in Egypt.

The Savoy Hotel on what was then Suleiman Pasha Square and is now Talaat Harb Square

Initially, his job involved drawing and overseeing the drawing of maps, coding and decoding telegrams, interviewing prisoners and writing reports. For the first year he was billeted at the Grand Continental on Opera Square but in December 1915 he moved into rooms at the Savoy. He didn’t care for Cairo much: “Anything fouler than the town buildings, or its beastly people, can’t be,” he wrote home, although he found some pleasure in Groppi’s garden café, which lay between the two hotels (it’s still there today) and where he liked to stop off for an iced coffee and chocolate when the weather wasn’t too hot.

Thomas Edward Lawrence in uniform in Cairo

Before Lawrence took off for the desert and transformed himself into a legend, he launched his first fusillade in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire from his desk at the Savoy – by designing and printing postage stamps. Initial declarations of independence by the Arabs from the Turks were not being recognised, so – and how British is this? – it was decided that one sure proof of self rule would be having their own ‘Arab’ stamps. Take that you Turkish philatelists! Lawrence was tasked with the project. He spent time in the Islamic Museum in Cairo researching suitable motifs, then drew up the designs himself and oversaw the issue from start to finish.

Three of the stamps designed by Lawrence

How much better would David Lean’s film have been had he included a dramatic stamp designing sequence?

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The informal charms of the Bristol

When Evelyn Waugh stayed at Cairo’s Bristol Hotel in 1929 he was less than complimentary about the place (see here). However, when it opened 35 years previously, in December 1894, it was by all accounts a homely and comfortable sort of establishment. It wasn’t a top-tier hotel like nearby Shepheard’s, or the Gezira Palace or Mena House, with their frequently aristocratic, high-living clientele. Rather, it was one of several modest hotels clustered around the Place de la Bourse at the north-east corner of the Ezbekia Gardens, which catered to the more financially cautious traveller. A three- maybe four-star sort of place in today’s ratings. The author of a 1910 overview of Cairo society wrote that it was somewhere that would appeal to “people to whom the rigid observance of formalities is irksome” – by which the writer probably meant people who didn’t own a dinner suit (the Bristol advertised “evening dress for dinner optional”). But the place was not without its charms: almost all its 100 rooms were south facing with balconies, and the public rooms included a ladies’ room and a winter garden filled with exotic vegetation. The proprietor was the splendidly named Chevalier Aquilina, a Maltese who’d previously spent 25 years as an agent for Thomas Cook & Son in Alexandria.

Aquilina paid for a booklet to be produced by the Neapolitan company Richter & Co promoting the hotel. Dating from around 1900, it’s a lovely thing (cover above), containing a bit of background on the hotel and plenty of advice on what to see and do in Cairo and Egypt. Page 18 also contains the following Important Notice: ‘Some unscrupulous hotel keepers appoint during the Season, travelling agents between Alexandria & Cairo and Ismailia & Cairo, mostly with a view to carry on an undignified competition. To divert to their own houses Visitors who may be directed to the Bristol or other such first class establishments, they quote ridiculously cheap terms but passengers would do well to bear in mind that in the long run their interests will best be served by paying a reasonable price and get its full value.’

Now compare with this, which I wrote in 1997 for a Lonely Planet guide to Cairo: ‘On arrival at the airport, you may be approached by someone with an official-looking badge that says ‘Egyptian Chamber of Tourism’ or something similar. These people are not government tourism officials, they are hotel touts. They’ll ask where you’re staying and then tell you all sorts of porkies, like the hotel you want is full, too expensive or closed down. They will then steer you to an alternative, cheaper, better hotel, one that will pay them a very nice commission.’ It’s not just the Pyramids in Egypt that are timeless, the scams are too.

Sadly, the Bristol wasn’t so enduring. I don’t know exactly when it closed but I suspect in the 1940s – several hotels that were requisitioned by the British Army during World War II never reopened to guests afterwards, and the Bristol may have been one of them. The site, just to the left of the Sednaoui department store on Khazinder Square, is now occupied by a modern apartment block. The hotel is survived only by a couple of particularly gorgeous luggage labels.



Filed under Hotels then and now, Lost Egypt, Memorabilia