In the footsteps of Lawrence in Cairo

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A gentleman called Frank Bird posted elsewhere on this site to alert me to a passage in Michael Asher’s Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia in which the author pays a visit to the Continental-Savoy in Cairo, which is where, of course, Lawrence stayed for some time. Asher found the place in a similarly decrepit state as I did, although he did better than I (see this post) in that he got to see the old dining room and bar. The book was published in 1998, so I imagine Asher’s visit may have been a year so previously. Here’s the extract:

“When the black and white taxi deposited me in Ezbekiyya Square, Cairo, I had some difficulty at first in spotting the Grand Continental Hotel. I suddenly realized I suddenly realized that it was the dismal, mouldering heap opposite the Ezbekiyya Gardens, half hidden by a row of very drab shops. In the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I had seen a picture of the place as it had been in 1914, embossed on the head of a letter written by T. E. Lawrence, and it was difficult to equate this mildewed tenement before me with that great colonial château whose guest-list – A. & C. Black’s guidebook for 1916 had assured me – once read like a page out of the Almanac de Gotha. That grand world of Egypt’s belle époque, when Cairo had been a fashionable winter resort rivalling Nice and Monte Carlo, was lost, hidden like the hotel itself beneath the seedy façade of a hectic modern city. In the dark lobby, a fly-blown man with a two-day stubble showed brown teeth when I pressed him for the price of a room: ‘This place hasn’t been a hotel in ten years,’ he said. In what had been the Front Desk Manager’s office – a place of peeling paint and faded velvet upholstery – a wizened man called Khalid groped in some filing cabinets and brought out a colour postcard of the hotel as it had looked ten years precisely as neglected as it looked now, I thought. ‘They said it was beyond repair he told me. ‘They couldn’t use it as a hotel any more, so they turned it into offices.’ There was no chance of me seeing the rooms upstairs, he said, but he would show me the downstairs area, and fetching a great ring of keys, he led me like a gaoler across the lobby and unlocked a steel flange nailed across the dining-room doors. The room was astonishingly vast, with a plush carpet, once wine-red perhaps, but now faded and rotten and covered in rat droppings and bits of plaster fallen from the ceiling. ‘I was a bellboy here in the old days,’ Khalid said. ‘Kings and princes used to come from all over the world. It was the best hotel in Egypt.’ He showed me the fine frescos of ancient Egyptian gods and pharaohs which adorned the walls. ‘Italian artist,’ he said. ‘Done more than a hundred years ago.’ Lawrence must have known them well, I thought, for the Grand Continental had been his base for nine months from 1914 to 1915, and he had taken breakfast, lunch and dinner in this room almost every day. In the lobby, you could see the remains of a travel-agent’s kiosk, a worn-out sign announcing Nile cruises, and a jeweller’s shop, and Khalid showed me what had been the bar – though all that was left were the mirror-mosaic shelves where the bottles would have been on display. ‘Here they had whisky,’ he said, and I imagined the great and good of Cairo in 1914 – Ronald Storrs, Bertie Clayton, George Lloyd, Aubrey Herbert, Stewart Newcombe and others – nursing their drinks and turning over in the eminently civilized heads their dreams of Empire, their dream of the Arab Revolt.”

Thank you Frank.

2 Comments

Filed under Hotels then and now

2 Responses to In the footsteps of Lawrence in Cairo

  1. Bill Manson

    My wife and I stayed at the Continental in Nov. 1982 for four weeks. We dined in the main dining room with its frescos of Eygptian gods and pharaohs and our room was huge with beautiful turn-of-the century light fixtures etc. My father and grandfather had both stayed there as well, but that was during the time of Kitchner and Lawrence. We were told that a Saudi prince had bought it and that it would soon be returned to its former glory. It saddens me to hear that nothing has happened and it is slowly falling apart. Such a pity since, as you say, it was a real part of Egypt’s early 20th Century world.

  2. Beste redactie,

    Mijn overgrootvader Willem Carel van Boetzelaer heeft een reisverslag gemaakt van zijn reis naar Egypte in 1870-1871. Ik typ het uit en zoek foto’s van die tijd op internet en plaats die bij het verslag. Een bijzonder verslag. Willem Carel zat onder andere in het “(Grand) Hôtel des Ambassadeurs”. Is dat hetzelfde hotel als het Grand Continental Hotel? Ik kan daar niks over vinden. Consul-generaal der Nederlanden (in Alexandria), Samuël Willem Ruyssenaers en Dhr. J.N. Anslijn hadden het hotel geregeld.

    In afwachting van uw reactie,

    Vriendelijke groet,

    Wendela van Boetzelaer
    Maartensdijk (prov. Utrecht)

    ENGLISH TRANSLATION:
    My great-grandfather Willem Carel van Boetzelaer made ​​a travelogue of his journey to Egypt in 1870-1871 . I type it out and looking for photographs of that time on the Internet and place it in the report. A special report . Willem Carel was include in it “( Grand ) Hotel des Ambassadeurs ” . Is this the same hotel as the Grand Continental Hotel? I can not find anything about it. Consul General of the Netherlands ( in Alexandria ) , Samuel William Ruyssenaers and Mr. J.N. Anslijn had arranged the hotel.

    Awaiting your response,

    Best regard,

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