Then and now: the Savoy

Savoy

For the brief 16 years it was open to guests, the Savoy was Cairo’s most aristocratic hotel. It was a third venture for the indefatigable George Nungovich, the earliest of Cairo’s hotel czars (who I’ve blogged about earlier, here).

A palace belonging to Prince Djemil Toussoun didn’t meet requirements and the building and its grounds were bought up by Nungovich. The site was at the heart of the new Ismailia quarter, on Qasr al-Nil Street, overlooking the Rond Point Qasr al-Nil (see map below). Nungovich had the palace pulled down and replaced with a grand new building of three stories topped by a rotunda.

Hotel du Nil 01 map

This he named the Savoy Hotel and it opened on 28 November 1898. It was described at the time as being remarkably modern with a large dining room and smaller restaurant, spacious lounges, smoking rooms, a reading room in ornamental Egyptian style, electric lift and a wide terrace overlooking Qasr al-Nil Street. Each bedroom had a fireplace and new furniture from Waring and Gillow of Oxford Street, London, and there were suites with private bath and toilet on each floor.

AVQ-A-004137-0056

It was aimed at the class of people who might find Shepheard’s and the Grand Continental, then Cairo’s leading hotels, a bit vulgar. High society checking in at the Savoy in its early years included a young Winston Churchill, fresh from his adventures as a war correspondent in South Africa, Sir Benjamin Baker and Sir John Aird, the architect and contractor of the Aswan Dam, then under construction, and African colonialist Cecil Rhodes. When General Kitchener and his officers arrived in Cairo triumphant after victory at the Battle of Omdurman in September 1899, they were honored with a grand banquet on the Savoy’s terrace.

Flags were flown over the hotel whenever a royal was staying. First to be hoisted was the white elephant on red, in respect of the visit of the King of Siam. King Albert of Belgium, however, objected to the practice and demanded the flag be removed or he’d leave. In 1905, when the white-haired, 80-year-old ex-empress Eugénie returned to Egypt 36 years after opening the Suez Canal, she took rooms at the Savoy. King George V and Queen Mary, then Prince and Princess of Wales, stayed on their way back from India a couple of years later.

The Crown Prince of Germany being greeted by the manager of the Savoy, Auguste Wild

The Crown Prince of Germany being greeted by the manager of the Savoy, Auguste Wild

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, in October 1914, the hotel was taken over by the British Army – as I noted in a previous post, TE Lawrence worked out of an office here from December of that year. When the war ended, the British Government elected to hold on to the hotel and it became a business address for British-owned companies. In 1924 it was sold to Charles Baehler, chief shareholder of Egyptian Hotels Ltd, who tore the building down. He replaced it with a grand commercial and apartment complex that still stands today facing onto what’s now Talaat Harb Square. Ironically, the Baehler Buildings, as they’re known, have themselves now become a totem of modern Downtown’s architectural heritage, cherished by conservationists, who are possibly unaware that the buildings in fact took the place of an establishment of far greater pedigree.

The Baehler Buildings on Talaat Harb Square now occupy the site of the former Savoy

The Baehler Buildings on Talaat Harb Square now occupy the site of the former Savoy

4 Comments

Filed under Hotels then and now

4 Responses to Then and now: the Savoy

  1. I am wondering about the statute that was in the square in front of the Savoy hotel , before the Talaat Harb Statute
    Do you know anything about it ??

    • The statue that was on this square before the statue of Talaat Harb was the statue of Soliman Pasha al Faransawi (1788-1860) formerly Colonel Joseph Anthelme Sève. The statue portrays Soliman Pasha in the uniform of the French Zouave infantry, recalling his dual nationality. Born French, a convert to Islam, he lived a soldier’s life in France, serving under Bonaparte, but rose to prominence as Muhammad Ali Pasha’s military chief-of -staff. The statue is by French, Henri Alfred Jacquemart and was erected in 1874 in the square also named after Soliman Pasha. More about Cairo’s statues in Cairo’s Street Stories, by Lesley Lababidi, AUC Press 2008.

  2. alexander hed

    One have the feeling that Cairo was an European city during la Belle Epoque…today its a polluted,noisy city of the Middle east..must have been very interesting to have visited before WWI…

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