Monthly Archives: May 2013

Then and now: the Eden Palace

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Although it was hotel for only around 20 years, and the last guests checked out 93 years ago, the name of the Eden Palace lingers in Cairo – it’s there in large letters on the pediment of a corner building on modern Khazindar Square, across from the Sednaoui department store. It’s passed every day by thousands of people but likely noticed only by a very few.

The hotel opened around 1900 in a grand new building raised on the site formerly occupied by the original Hotel d’Angleterre, the first hotel run by George Nungovich (see earlier post). It was a good site, overlooking the Ezbekiyya Gardens; guests in the better rooms would wake to birdsong, and a view of trees and greenery when they opened the shutters. It had 145 rooms, with a lift and steam heating. Shepheard’s, the epicentre of the city’s social scene was just a stone’s throw away. Unlike Shepheard’s, which attracted a fashionable crowd, the Eden Palace catered to businessmen and long-term residents, who would sacrifice a little glamour for cheaper room rates – the 1914 edition of Baedekers gives Shepheard’s charging 80 piastres per night, same as the nearby Continental, while the Semiramis charged 90 pias and the Savoy 90-120 pias; by comparison, the Eden Palace was just 50 pias.

Hotel du Nil 01 map

eden palace card

An insight into the kind of person who stayed at the Eden Palace comes from a letter held by the Albany Institute of History and Art in upstate New York. Dated March 1909, it’s from Samuel W. Brown, a noted local businessman in the coffee, spice and mustard trade who was also on the board of trustees of the Institute. It’s addressed to Cuyler Reynolds, the curator of the Institute, and it concerns the attempt to acquire a pair of Egyptian mummies on the cheap:

Letter_from_Samuel_W_Brown_to_Cuyler_Reynolds 1909 AIHA

My Dear Mr. Reynolds

I received your letter with enclosures as stated I called at the U.S. Consulate several times but did not find Mr. Berry; later on learned that he was not connected with the Consulate but was a “Judge” of the Tribunal Court here. I called at his hotel then but did not see him there. He called on me at my hotel last evening. He did not hesitate to inform me that he could do little to assist me as he was not acquainted with the Director of the Museum. I am at a loss to understand why you should expect to get any of the Museum Curios for nothing. The Museum is a Government affair and everything going out of the Museum must be paid for at a fixed price whether for a museum or private collection. These people are not in the Museum business for their health, and I fully learned of that fact when I was in Cairo four years ago.

I called on the Director the following day and made my wants Known to him and have secured two Mummy’s [sic] which I am having packed for shipment. I have written to Mr. Ten Eyck the details of the transaction and I hope that they will be in Albany before I reach home.

We are having a delightful time Bright warm weather.

Sincerely Yours

Samuel W. Brown

Whatever his frustrations, Brown was successful and the pair of mummies he brought back form the centerpiece of the Institute’s Ancient Egypt collection until today.

While the front entrance of the Eden Palace was on Sharia al-Genaineh, facing the Ezbekiyya, the back door let out onto Wagh al-Birket, which at this time was notoriously a street full of brothels. This can’t have done much for the hotel’s reputation. And when Cairo became flooded with British and Commonwealth soldiers following the outbreak of World War I, it seems the Eden Palace might have taken on the character of some sort of Wild West saloon:

“We had our first pay day on Christmas Eve and leave was general and everybody went straight into Cairo. Our own party of four really disgraced outselves, AWOL for three days, finally and very ignominiously dragged out of the Eden Palace Hotel in the early hours of the morning by the picket and made to walk it home into the guard tent.”

Letter from an Australian soldier quoted in Peter Hart’s Gallipolli

Troops in the Birka by Edward Ardizzone, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

Troops in the Birka by Edward Ardizzone, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The hotel seemingly never quite recovered, and trade post-World War I was sufficiently bad that when, in 1920, British Army HQ decided to vacate the Savoy for budgetary reasons, the owners of the Eden Palace made them an attractive offer. The army didn’t stay long in residence but after the uniforms left the place never returned to use as a hotel.

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Eden Palace 02

The building today is in a wretched state, but with its arcaded pavements and low-rise, Italianate architecture, if your imagination can dust things off a little, then this dilapidated corner still gives a good impression of what the city once looked like when the Ezbekiyya was a pleasure garden and birds still sang in Cairo squares.

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Filed under Hotels then and now, Lost Egypt

On Shepheard’s balcony

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Old timers may get tired of Shepheard’s Hotel, and find more repose and quieter pleasures at the Savoy, the Semiramis, or the latest architectural wonder, The Heliopolis, but it still remains the most popular hotel in the country. No tourist to Egypt fails to pay a visit to this old-established home. Americans are particularly attracted to it, and would just as soon cut out of their programme the Sphinx or Pyramids, as return home without having put in at least one night there. The balcony is a great feature of the hotel. Every afternoon in the season it is packed with people taking tea and enjoying the passing show. Nothing more interesting or amusing can be imagined than this strange medley of the East and West; nothing more fascinating than studying the picturesque types of the East as they move along the roadway in a ceaseless stream.

From ‘A Series of 10 Egyptian Sketches by Lance Thackeray’, a Players Navy Cut Cigarettes card, issued by John Player & Sons of Nottingham, England, in 1910 or thereabouts

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Filed under Art and artists, Memorabilia, Shepheard's

The marvelous Jules Guerin

There are a handful of artists whose names are familiar to anybody interested in travel in Egypt in the 19th and early 20th centuries: the David Roberts and Robert Hay, of course; the watercolourist Augustus Lamplough and orientalist R. Talbot Kelly; and the lesser known but more commercially minded Tony Binder, Willy Burger and Lance Thackeray, all of whom produced designs for postcards and advertising. I’ve posted on most of these artists before. Recently I came across a new (to me) and exciting addition to that list.

Jules Guerin (born in St Louis, Missouri in 1866) was an American illustrator who studied art in Chicago, where he shared a studio with cartoonist Winsor McCay of Little Nemo fame. He specialized in architectural illustration and provided spectacular birds-eye perspective drawings for the monumental Plan of Chicago in 1907. He produced competition drawings for Henry Bacon’s proposed Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, and when Bacon triumphed Guerin was asked to paint two large murals on its ceiling.

From 1909 to 1911 the painter travelled with British journalist Robert Hichens through Egypt, the Holy Land, and the Near East. The trip resulted in several books, including Egypt and its Monuments, published in 1908. Hichens text is negligible, but Guerin’s illustrations are astonishing. They manage to be both incredibly precise (as you’d expect from an architectural illustrator) but at the same time beguilingly romantic thanks to the dramatic perspectives and set-like design, and an Impressionistic colour palette.

 

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guerin_medinetabu

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Last days of the Semiramis

Semiramis_1976

The caption for this vintage news photo, issued by the Associated Press in January 1976, reads, “Nile landmark to go: The Semiramis Hotel, for years a landmark along the Nile River in Cairo, will soon disappear. The hotel, named for an Iraqi princess and built by Europeans in the the early 1900s, closed last summer and will be pulled down and replaced by a pyramid-shaped, 850-room, $18 million hotel.”

The Swiss-built Semiramis, opened in 1907, was demolished in 1976, and it was replaced by a new 800-room hotel – thankfully, however, this did not take the form of a pyramid. That was left for Las Vegas.

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Filed under Grand hotels, Lost Egypt