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.

19 Comments

Filed under Hotels then and now

19 Responses to Then and now: Continental-Savoy

  1. Janne Sterner

    I read your piece about Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo. As I am myself interested in Cairos old hotels, I tryed during the summer of 2012 get inside for a look, but was stoped by guards at the old receptiondesks. I tryed to bribe them, but no.
    On my first visit to Egypt in 1973, I stayed at the hotel , but was ignorant about its grand history.
    Since then, I have visited Egypt many times and became interested in the Azbakiya area. Around this (today) destroyed park, there was plenty of more or less classic hotel, like Eden Palace, Bristol, Shepheards, Hotel d´Nil, Khedivial Hotel, Continental……….
    The problem I have today is how to find information/pictures to use on my upcoming website about this area with its palaces, hotels, brothels (like sharia Wagh al-Birka), department stores like Tiring and Sednaoui (the last one has an ongoing renovation, and will soon be reopen).
    The only light at the end of the dark tunnel today is Windsor Hotel and the Barral bar. Hotel Victoria is ofcourse stil in place, but…..
    There is ofcourse many other hotels, closed since long time back, like Hotel Metropole, Hotel d´Anglaterre, Hotel Royal, Hotel d´Voyage in the area, and ofcourse, east of Azbakiya in “Quartier Rosetti” a lot of differant churches. Most of them gone, sadly to say.
    If someone have more information about this area please let me know
    b.r Janne

    • gran8512

      Janne
      There’s plenty of information on the area in my book Grand Hotels of Egypt. You should also take a look at Samir Raffat’s website (egy.com), and his excellent book, Cairo: the Glory years.
      Andrew

      • Valerie

        Hi,
        I am preparing the monograph of Mahmoud Said’s oeuvre and it seems that he took part in an art exhibition of ‘Independant Art’ organized by the so-called Egyptian Surrealists from 21st to 30th May 1942 at the Hotel Continental – I was wondering whether you would have any information on this exhibition or perhaps photos or any other related archival material ?
        Many thanks
        Valerie

        • Sama

          Valerie,

          I’m working on a similar project and am also looking into finding anything about the exhibition that took place at the hotel. Have you been able to find anything out about the site of the exhibition?
          Would love to discuss further with you via email…
          mine is: sama.twaly@gmail.com

          Looking forward to hearing from you,
          Sama.

  2. Wendy Walsh

    Hello Andrew,
    I am Australian. I travelled to Egypt with a girlfriend in 1984. We stayed in The Continental-Savoy Hotel on Opera Square, Cairo from 6-16 November, 1984. We loved it – 10 days of living almost graciously in a grand old dame of sprawling, faded opulence. Our room was huge, in the recessed section with the large arched open balconies shown in your photo. I have 3 photos looking out through the balcony doors. If you are interested, I can relate to you what I have written in my travel diary about various details and events.

    • gran8512

      Wendy, I’d love to see the photos and hear more about your stay. You can find my email on the Author page. I look forward to hearing from you.
      Andrew

  3. Doaa Al sharif

    Why was it closed in 1980s & who’s the responsible for that closure?

    • gran8512

      Doaa
      By the 1980s the Continental-Savoy was in a bad state. Its facilities were aged and totally unsuited to the demands of modern tourism. It would have taken a huge investment to bring the hotel to scratch. In the meantime, the centre of tourist life in Cairo had shifted away from Ezbekiyya/Opera Square to the banks of the Nile, which is where most hotels after the 1950s were constructed. EGOTH, the state-owned agency responsible for the Continental-Savoy, probably rightly assumed it was not worth spending the sums required to upgrade the property .

  4. Zeina

    I’m doing my masters on continental-savoy, well on the history of the place, and how it used to be and what it became. My father works there since they rent the rooms for small businesses and such. I would love to know what you found out and all the history of the place to include in my paper.
    I could also help you out if you want to take a look on the in side, they still have rooms with the same set up and the furniture, it would be interesting to see how things used to look back then.
    Thankyou in advance
    Zeina

    • gran8512

      Hi Zeina,
      I’m sending you a reply by personal email.
      Andrew

      • Marina Maged

        hii andrew i’m doing a research about the continental savoy hotel and i’m searching for pics for the elevations and interior shots and plans so if you please have any of these would you please send me whatever you can find helpful :)
        Thank you in advance :)
        Marina

    • Ali Almoghazy

      Zeina,

      I was wondering if you had achieved any success on the Continental-Savoy story. I am quite interested in the architecture of that epoch and I am willing to help you in whichever way you please.

      Sincerely,

      Ali Almoghazy

  5. Douglas Watson

    This brings back some fond memories for me. I stayed at the Continental on a couple of occasions in the late 70s. It was very easy to imagine the grand days when you walked around the building. Particular memories are a receptionist that could switch between faultless accent free english and french as required (as well as his native arabic of course) and the bill for my room which was a large sheet written out in longhand. There was young lad–slightly disabled– who patrolled the building at night with a large broom that he used to flatten the cockroaches on the stairs.
    The head waiter was an affable chap from the south of Egypt who went to a lot of trouble to get me boiled eggs for breakfast. He went on holiday for a few days and the other waiters tried to be equally obliging but had not grasped that the eggs were supposed to boiled first rather than served cold! I don’t think that would have happened in the old days.
    Douglas

  6. William Matteson

    Is it still there? Looking at google Earth, I can’t find it. There seems to be an empty lot to the NW and I am wondering if it hasn’t been demolished?

  7. William Matteson

    Never mind – using an old map I was able to locate it. “Opera square” seems to have changed location with the construction of a newer opera house. It was just west of the Ezbekiya Garden but now can be found looking SW of the Al Ataba Metro stop.

  8. Sabine Schleichert

    I spent four or five nights at the Continental Savoy in November 1979, when I was twelve years old, fascinated by the pyramids and all that stuff, and taken by my father (who, as an air traffic controller, had access to cheap standby flight tickets). I had no idea what it was, then. Dim memories include a soft drink in kind of a bar, and old-fashioned lift – of a kind I had never seen before -, a funny smell, a bathroom, and indeed a kind of decrepit feeling all over it.
    I had forgotten the name of the hotel, only remembered that it was located on Opera Square (I remember, as a twelve-year-old, wondering why a city like Cairo would have an opera, and anyway a hotel named Continental Savoy). It only came back just a few days ago when I had a book about Howard Carter’s discoveries in hands, which mentioned that hotel name – and I suddenly knew that was it, and that I had, unknowingly, spent nights in just the spot where all these famous folks had spent time, too – them and their stories at the same time being the exact reason why I was so fascinated by everything.
    (I need to admit that I later studied history, not archeology – which, however, likewise is kind of digging into the past, not knowing what one might find.)

  9. Maria T.

    My father was stationed there during WWII and I have some of the unused stationery that he brought back with him. (US Merchant Marine) Thus is my inquiry into the history of the hotel. Too bad it is not being cared for.

  10. Neil Albaugh

    My father was in cairo, Egypt in 1944. I have scanned a business card that was in his papers, from “Sayed Mabrouk” of the “Nanbu Brothers, Agents in Cairo” located in the “Continental Savoy Hotel”.
    I can e-mail you a copy if you like.
    Regards, Neil Tucson, AZ

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