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So farewell then, Continental-Savoy

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I was in Cairo two weeks ago when the demolition crews were moving at uncommon speed, rapidly erasing the building that was the Continental-Savoy from its Downtown site of over 150 years. There has been a sizeable hotel here on Opera Square since 1865, when the foundation stone for the New Hotel was laid in anticipation of the hordes of international dignitaries and freeloaders who would be hitting Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal (read all about it here). That was demolished and replaced by the Grand in 1890, which then became the Grand Continental and eventually the Continental-Savoy. I’ve written on the history of the hotel elsewhere on this site (here) and there’s a meaty chapter on it in my book Grand Hotels of Egypt, so no need to repeat it here. Suffice to say that those rooms and corridors have witnessed a lot of history. I’m gratified to see that this has been acknowledged in the local media, where there has been a lot of fuss made about the building and its demolition. Typically, a lot of it is nonsense. An article in Egypt Today called it “one of the most beautiful buildings in Egypt,” which is just rubbish and Zahi Hawass has weighed in demanding the building must be preserved. He’s a little late. The building has been in a parlous state as long as I’ve known it – which goes back to the 1980s, when there was a clinic down one decrepit corridor where inoculations against yellow fever were issued to African travellers. The building was beyond saving even then. It had already ceased functioning as a hotel because who would want to stay on Opera Square? Back when the hotel was built this was the social hub of modern Cairo, with the opera house and the park-like Ezbekiyya Gardens, with actual trees, lawns and a lake. By the 1980s, the only park was the car park where the opera used to stand; half the Ezbekiyya had been concreted over and the rest was a dusty wasteland. Tourists now preferred to stay beside the Nile, where the river breezes made the air more breathable. The only surprise is that it has taken so long for the Continental-Savoy to go. While I’m sad to see it disappear, I completely understand that it had to go. It was a rotting carcass of something that had long-since died. The big fear, of course, is what replaces it. Cairo does not have a good track record when it comes to new architecture. Just take a drive around New Cairo. Or closer to home, take a look at what they have built on the former site of Shepheard’s or the National (here).

For now, let’s just remember it as it was:

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The diary of Charlotte Riggs

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From the unpublished diary of Mrs Charlotte Riggs of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, who with her husband Reverend Alexander B Riggs sailed from New York to the Holy Land in 1907 aboard the White Star Line steamer Arabic.

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Launched in 1902, the ship was only in service thirteen years before being torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat on 19 August 1915. It was used mainly on Atlantic crossings between Liverpool and New York, but was also used for Mediterranean winter cruises. The ship berthed briefly in Alexandria to allow passengers to make an excursion down to Cairo.

March 20, 1907
We left the boat this morning & took a ride in the steam cars, reaching Cairo about 2 PM.  We have a fine room with bath.  Took a walk, sat on the hotel veranda & then dressed for dinner.  ‘Tis lovely here.  To think of my being in that terrible Jerusalem, making my trip, at least this part, so unpleasant, but ‘tis past now.

Thursday, March 21
We made to Pyramids through a lovely road lined with large trees & along the river Nile.  We crossed the river twice on five bridges.  Saw the Sphinx.

Friday morning
Saw Coptic church, Old Cairo, Nilometer, place where Moses was found, Mosque & Citadel, Bazaar.

Saturday, March 23
Took a walk in morning, afternoon drove to Bazaar.  Took tea with the Warthys.  Buchanans called last evening.

Sunday, March 24
Went to Church of Scotland this morning.  Sat on [hotel’s] veranda after church.  Also after lunch a while saw several funerals.  Street full of all sorts of people.  The people who live at this hotel are very dressy.  At six o’clock attended service at American Mission.  Dr. Kennedy of Pittsburgh preached.  Took our last dinner here tonight.  Leave the Grand Continental Hotel in the morning.

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Monday, March 25
We left Cairo this morning at 8:20 by steam cars & reached the boat about one o’clock safely. We were rushed through Alexandria as they have smallpox there, we hear.  It was good to get back to ship though we had a lovely time at Cairo.  The greeting of friends on the boat was pleasant after my being away twelve days.

The hotel in which the Riggs stayed was the Grand Continental on Opera Square, which some years later would change its name to the Continental-Savoy. Thank you to Charlotte’s great-nephew Douglas Brookes for sending me the images and the diary extract.

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Opera Square in the 1940s

h4145-l103686233The painting above (click to enlarge) is of Opera Square from a balcony at the Continental-Savoy. It’s by François Krige (1913–1994), an artist I had never heard of, but a quick Google reveals he was a South African who painted in a ‘Post-Impressionist style which formed early in his career, influenced by his travels and studies in Europe’. He was in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Italy as a wartime artist during the Second World War, which is possibly when this painting dates from. I love the vitality and life about it, and the fact that there across the square, you can make out the terrace of the legendary Madam Badia’s casino.

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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.

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A Burger and a fancy dress invitation

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Another piece by the prolific Willy Burger, whose postcards and Egyptian Hotels Ltd brochure I’ve posted previously. In this case, it’s a single-sheet brochure for the Continental-Savoy dating from the late/early ’30s. The dealer I bought it from also threw in his’n’hers party invitations for a fancy dress ball at the hotel for the evening of 30 January 1932.

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The New Hotel

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I recently managed to acquire the interesting photo, above. If it looks familiar but at the same time something seems slightly off, that would be because you might recognize the view but not necessarily the hotel. The scene is Cairo’s Opera Square – in most photos and postcards the large building across the empty expanse of carriage way would be the well-known Grand Continental/Continental-Savoy (see pic below). Except this a very early photograph, dating from the 1880s, and what you are looking at is the forerunner of that hotel, the New Hotel.

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Here are extracts from a description of the hotel from the Scientific American magazine dated 2 September 1871.

As the opening of the Suez Canal is turning men’s minds towards Egypt, our readers may be glad to know something of the Oriental Hotel Company’s new hotel at Cairo, in Egypt, which has recently been opened for the convenience of travelers to the Nile, and by the overland route to India, as also for the reception and accommodation of the many invalids who find benefit from a winter residence in Egypt.

The hotel is beautifully situated, facing the gardens of the Ezbekieh and the Rue de Boulac, and commands a good view of the Pyramids. The foundation stone was laid with great ceremony by His Excellency Nubar Pasha, Minister of Pubic Works, on the 10th of January, 1865, being the anniversary of the accession of his Excellency the Viceroy.

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The hotel, when completed, is intended to form a quadrangle, with a large open garden in the centre. The building is Franco-Italian in style, and has been erected from the designs under the superintendence of Mt. Christopher G. Wray of London, who, from a long residence in India as an officer of the Public Works Department had knowledge that enabled him to arrange an hotel suitable to the requirements of the climate.

It is constructed with stone from the neighbouring quarries, with terra cotta enrichments, which were sent from London, as also were all the woodwork and fittings. The hotel is surrounded on all floors by wide verandahs, affording a passageway around the building and supplying a comfortable lounge. The table d’hôte room is supplied with an orchestra for evening entertainments, and is laid with parquetrie, so as to afford a dancing floor. The various apartments throughout are supplied with Bregnet’s patent electric bells.

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Those verandahs that offered guests fine views over the city also ensured the sun never warmed the interior; one traveller wrote, “We found the hotel exceedingly cold and damp, and we were made ill by it”.

What’s also fascinating about the photo at the top of this post is how undeveloped Cairo is. This is the period in which what’s now Downtown was first being developed; look at the map below, from 1878, and the street and squares that define modern Cairo are already in place, but the areas between them are plots, most empty, some with villas in large gardens.

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The New Hotel lasted until the 1890s, when it was pulled down and replaced by the similarly sized and proportioned Grand Hotel, which within a year of opening would be bought by George Nungovich and renamed the Grand Continental.

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Burger classics

We reproduced the postcard above in Grand Hotels of Egypt. It shows Cairo’s Opera Square seen from one of the terraces of the Continental-Savoy. It dates, I’m guessing, judging from the cars, from some time in the 1930s. Over on the far left is the old Khedivial Opera House, where Verdi’s opera Aida had its world premiere on 24 December 1871, with costumes and accessories designed by Egypt’s Director of Antiquities Auguste Mariette. (Just two months short of the opera’s centenary, on 28 October 1971, the opera house was completely destroyed by a fire.) It’s a lovely little painting, interesting because artists of the time rarely painted the modern city, saving their canvases instead for more picturesque (ie saleable) subjects like ancient temples and medieval mosques. The painter in this case was the Swiss Willy Friedrich Burger (1882-1964), a graphic artist of some talent, responsible for numerous beautiful posters advertising the attractions of his homeland, such as the one below, which sell for a fortune these days at auction.

It was only after Grand Hotels had gone to print that I discovered the Continental-Savoy wasn’t the only hotel Burger painted and that it was, in fact, part of a set. I now have four more Burger cards and they are all equally lovely. All employ the same dusky, Cairo-sunset palette of pinks and purples. The Semiramis card (top one, below) is the only representation I’ve ever seen of that old hotel’s Nile terrace. The really intriguing card though is the one below it, which unlike the others (the third card shows the Moorish Hall at Shepheard’s, the bottom the pool at the Grand Hotel Helwan) is not a Cairo hotel. It is the view of the Dormition Abbey at Mount Zion from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Why include a Jerusalem hotel in a set of postcards showing Cairo hotels? Because the postcards were put out by Egyptian Hotels Ltd, owned by Charles Baehler, which in 1929 extended its activities into Palestine with the building of the King David. At what point the King David ceased being owned by an Egyptian company I don’t know, but it’s pretty unlikely this arrangement extended beyond 1948 and the creation of Israel. If anybody knows more, I’d love to hear from you.

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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.

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The prolific Douglas Sladen and his overachieving friends

The scene in front of the terrace at the Continental Hotel complete with the boy with the crocodile on his head

What does a person have to do to make their mark on posterity? Douglas Sladen was an author and a journalist who was nothing if not prolific. Born in 1856, he turned out more than 60 books before his death in 1947. He was for a while the editor of Who’s Who, and also the literary editor of To-Day. He was at the centre of Edwardian London literary life and yet who now has ever heard of him?

I encountered him, figuratively speaking, in Egypt. He wrote a book called Oriental Cairo (1911) that contains some entertaining descriptions of what a tourist would have seen in that city back in the first decade of the 20th century. His second chapter is called ‘Street Life in Cairo as seen from the Continental Hotel’:

There is one great advantage in staying at the Continental Hotel for the two or three months of the Cairo season: you can see, without dressing to go out, the most roaring farce ever presented off the stage. The great hotel has a nice sunny terrace with a balustrade which looks out on the Street of the Camel—the Regent Street of Cairo—and the Eskebiya Gardens and a regular museum of touts. It is doubtful which could be satirised more successfully as a human Zoological Gardens, the people who sit on the terrace behind the railings, Americans chiefly, with a strong dash of Jews, Turks, and Infidels, which last name the Mohammedan applies to the Levantine—or the extraordinary collection of parasites in the street below.

Those of the parasites, who are not dragomans have something to sell, generally something that no sane person would want to buy. The street Arab who walks about with a stuffed crocodile on his head must by this time be convinced of its unsaleability. He exhorts you to buy it, but so soon afterwards, without a real bargainer’s delay, invites you to take his photograph with it for a shilling.

I have seen stuffed crocodiles offered often, and once at least a live boa-constrictor and a live leopard—not a very old one—in a cage. Pigs in cages are comparatively common, and, as weight presents no difficulty to the Egyptian educated as a porter, men carry round all sorts of furniture for sale. I have seen men with quite large tables and cabinets on their backs patiently waiting for purchasers. I once saw a man with a palm-tree fourteen feet high on his head. Strawberry sellers are insistent in February, in spite of the fact that every foreigner knows or believes that their Egyptian vendors moisten the strawberries in their mouths whenever they look dusty.

You can read the whole of Oriental Cairo online here.

I assumed Sladen must have spent a considerable time in Egypt because he wrote no less than three weighty travel books about the place (the other two being Egypt and the English, 1908, and Queer Things About Egypt, 1910), as well as two novels set in the country. In fact, he was there just six months.

Portrait of Douglas Sladen by René de l'Hôpital, which hangs in the Octagon Room at York House in Twickenham

I was curious to find out more about him. I discovered the existence of an archive of his personal papers and then was bowled over to learn that this was held in the local-history library in my own neighbourhood of Richmond, on the Thames in southwest London. It turns out that Sladen was my near neighbour – at a century’s remove – living on Richmond Green from 1911 to 1923. (He lived in the rather grand Avenue House, long since demolished.) I spent a few Saturday afternoons looking through the contents of several boxes from the archive relating to his time in Egypt. They didn’t yield much – most of what they contained were yellowing clippings of reviews of his books and typed exhortations to his publisher to do more to promote them. But there were also handwritten and signed letters from fellow authors to whom Sladen had sent copies of his books, and these include Arthur Conan Doyle, H Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling; the creators of Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quartermain and Mowgli – that is some impressive peer group. If only Sladen could have taken the Arab boy with the crocodile on his head and thought up some adventures for him, he could have been the most famous of the lot.

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St Joe’s Parish

One of the joys of writing on Egypt’s historic old hotels was discovering some truly picaresque characters. Like Barbara Skelton. An English femme fatale, she reputedly slept her way around the fringes of London’s bohemia in the post-war years, earning herself the most excoriating of obituaries in The Independent in 1996, which described her as “selfish, sulky, socially unmanageable, agreeable only when she was in the mood – the victim of the incurable boredom which fostered her promiscuity and her notorious rudeness”. She was attached to the cipher department of the British Embassy Cairo during World War II and initially lodged at the Continental-Savoy – she described the scene from the window of her room in one of her autobiographies, which is how she comes to be in my book. While in Cairo one of her conquests was Egypt’s King Farouq, who told her approvingly that she was “a real minx” and flogged her outside the palace with the cord of his dressing-gown.

The person I really wish I’d been around to meet was Joe Scialom. From 1937 on he presided over the Long Bar at Shepheard’s Hotel (that’s him there, below, in 1942). He worked in white jacket, black bowtie and eight languages, acting as banker, adviser, umpire and father confessor to his clients. During his tenure the Long Bar was known as St Joe’s Parish and he ministered according to a philosophy of “Mix well, but shake politics”. His place in bar-tending history was secured by the invention of the Suffering Bastard, a potent cocktail that continues to be included in all good mixologist manuals. Joe was tending bar on Black Saturday, 26 January 1952, when the hotel was one of many foreign-owned businesses set on fire by rioters. He escaped the inferno “slightly ruffled and really annoyed”. He subsequently found work across town at the Semiramis but after being imprisoned by Nasser during the Suez Crisis of 1956 he quit the country.

During Joe’s time at Shepheard’s one of the many guests he befriended was Conrad Hilton, and when he left Egypt the acquaintance was renewed leading to Joe taking up a job in Puerto Rico at the Caribe Hilton. From there he moved to Cuba and the Havana Hilton, until he was displaced by revolution once again and chased out of the country by Fidel Castro. He moved to New York and the Waldorf Astoria and travelled frequently opening bars for Hilton hotels including in Paris, Rome and London. Joe’s final job was at Windows on the World in the then-newly opened World Trade Centre before he finally retired to Florida where he lived into his 90s. He survived to see the destruction of another of his bars on 9/11, passing away as recently as 2004.

Although it’s doubtful anyone now remembers Joe in Cairo, over in the US he’s venerated among connoisseurs as one of the world’s great barmen. Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry, author of a host of cocktail books (and source of much of the info in this post on Joe’s post-Shepheard’s life), keeps the memory alive and delivers the occasional talk and slide-show on the subject of ‘Joe Scialom, International Barman of Mystery’.

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