Tag Archives: Gezira Palace

Panorama of the past

I was doing some research on the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits this week, the outfit best known for operating the Orient Express and other luxury train services. Less well known is that in 1894 the directors set up a subsidiary, the Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hotels, through which they began operating luxury hotels around the world. In Egypt, they took up the lease on what had been one of Ismail’s numerous palaces until it had been seized following his abdication in 1879. The CIGH had the former khedivial residence remodeled, refitted and opened to paying guests in October 1894 as the Gezira Palace Hotel—or Gheezireh Palace Hotel, as in those days the more letters in a word the more authentically foreign it was thought to be.

Gezira Palace

The image above is part of a CIGH advertising poster and it is one of the most unique and beguiling views of Cairo I’ve ever seen. It must date from the very last years of the 19th century, soon after the CIGH acquired the Palace, which is at the centre of the panorama. If you don’t yet recognize it, the Gezira Palace would eventually – after a long spell as a private home – become the Cairo Marriott, and the island is what’s now Zamalek. The bridge in picture is Qasr el-Nil. It’s as though the artist is hovering above the east side of 26th of July Bridge.


Behind the U-shaped building are the extensive khedivial gardens with twin lakes overlooked by the Kiosque, a large free-standing pavilion that was originally used as guest accommodation, but later became function rooms and a casino. South of the ornamental gardens, the Khedive’s private park has already became a sports and recreation ground, for polo and horse riding – it’s now the Gezira Club. Missing is the 6th October flyover that now cuts across its middle. Beyond, the west bank is largely desert, apart from the thread of greenery that indicates the road running straight to the Pyramids on the horizon.


I love the detail, like the dahabiya just setting off from the moorings at Bulaq bound for Upper Egypt, and the lions at the end of the bridge. So many feluccas too – it looks more like Aswan than Cairo.


Filed under Lost Egypt, Memorabilia

Lions in the garden

In Grand Hotels of Egypt, I tell the story of two roaming lions. One morning, just before the 1914–18 War, the Gezira Palace hotel was visited by Lord Kitchener, then the British Consul-General, who was escorted around the grounds by hotel impresario Charles Baehler. Baehler asked his guest if he would allow himself to be photographed at the hotel, but Kitchener said no. A short time later Baehler received a message from Kitchener’s office saying he would reconsider the photo if the hotel would make him a present of a pair of marble lions that he’d spotted in the grounds. Baehler agreed and the statues were transferred to the grounds of the British Embassy in Cairo, where they remain today, one either side of steps leading up to the garden entrance to the Residence.

We searched long and hard for a photograph of the lions for the book and, eventually, one was found, supplied by the British Embassy in Cairo itself. Now I find another (below), this one in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London; it shows British ambassador Sir Miles Lampson with Lady Lampson in the garden of the Embassy at Cairo, taken possibly in 1942 but definitely by Cecil Beaton, of whom more in a future post.


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The Fishing Fleet

Her first season

Before writing Grand Hotels of Egypt, I’d never come across the term ‘fishing fleet’ to mean anything other than the obvious. But as I discovered, it was also a term widely used in the 19th century to describe the boatloads of single women who arrived in Egypt each Season on the hunt for a husband. This is a forgotten bit of colonial history that’s now been put in the spotlight thanks to a book published last year, called The Fishing Fleet, and written by Anne De Courcy.


De Courcy’s book doesn’t mention Egypt at all because it turns out the Fleet actually has its origins in India, 200 years previously. It existed from the late 17th century when the East India Company first shipped women out to Bombay as prospective brides for its officers out there. The Company was staffed by large numbers of young men sent out from Britain – they outnumbered the women four to one – who had little opportunity of finding a British bride, possibly not until until they retired and returned home. These men were well educated, well bred and well paid – in short, perfect husband material. The Company saw this as a business opportunity and charged British families desperate to make a match for unmarried daughters a fee to sail them out to India. There, they maintained the women for a year, during which time they were expected to find a mate. Women who failed to make a catch were sent back home and known as ‘Returned Empties’.

De Courcy doesn’t make success sound like much fun either. She quotes a Lady Canning who married and settled in Calcutta where her shoes turned ‘furry with mildew’ in a day and there were so many cockroaches that the wine glasses on the dinner table had to have lids to cover them. There’s a Waughesque account of a ball that suffered an invasion of blister-flies (earwig-like insects that could leave large and painful blisters on the skin): ‘Some crept up gentlemen’s sleeves, others concealed themselves in a jungle of whisker. One heard little else all evening but “Allow me, Sir, to take off this blister-fly that is disappearing into your neckcloth” or “Permit me, Ma’am, to remove this one from your arm”. This however did not stop the dancers and they polka’d and waltzed over countless myriads of insects that had been attracted to the white cloth on the floor, which was completely discoloured by their mangled bodies at the end of the evening.’

The Fishing Fleet began targeting Egypt after 1882, when Britain made the country a protectorate and flooded the place with civil service and soldiers (prior to this, India-bound husband-hunters had temporarily alighted at Port Said, where they stocked up on tropical supplies, like sun hats and fly whisks, at the large Simon Arzt store).


Chaperoned by her mother, 19-year-old Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller came husband-hunting to Cairo for the 1910-1911 Season. The pair took up residence at the Gezira Palace. They went to five dances a week, and attended the races and polo games every afternoon at the neighbouring sports club. Her mother tried to broaden her mind by taking her to the Egyptian Museum, but when she suggested they should go up the Nile to see Luxor, the young girl protested passionately, saying that she was enjoying herself far too much to want to go and kick around dusty old monuments. Shortly after returning to England, she wrote a novel, which she called Snow Upon the Desert, which she set in Cairo and populated with characters modelled on people she’d seen at the Palace. It possibly wasn’t up to much because it never made it into print. Perhaps had she gone husband hunting in India rather than Cairo she might have had more colourful source material. Not that it mattered, because her next novel, written after she found herself a husband back in England, did considerably better, being published to some acclaim under her new married name of Agatha Christie.

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Filed under Book reviews, Travellers' tales

Cairo’s lost cathedral

In the epilogue to Grand Hotels of Egypt there’s a photo (detail above, click to enlarge) of the then newly built Nile Hilton in Cairo, taken, I think, some time in the 1960s. Visible behind and to the right of the hotel is the Egyptian Museum with its low-rise neo-classical façade and dome above the entrance hall. Behind and to the left is a less-familiar structure of a square tower with a pyramidical cap; this is the old Anglican Cathedral, long since gone and almost entirely forgotten – at least, I’ve never heard anybody mention it. Which is ironic given that it was one of the few Cairo buildings ever to be designed by an architect of international renown.

Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963), who as a major in the Royal Engineers served in the first World War at Gallipoli and in Palestine, winning the Military Cross, was the grandson of Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), one of the leading English architects of the Victorian age. Sir George designed the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station, as well as the Albert Memorial and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, all in London. Adrian’s older brother Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) designed Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, Battersea Power Station and Bankside Power Station (now the Tate Modern), both also in London, and Britain’s iconic red telephone box.

Adrian assisted his brother on the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, completed in 1938, and was later appointed to adapt the designs of Sir Edwin Lutyens for a Catholic cathedral in the same city (regarded by some as one of the greatest buildings never built). Lutyens had intended to create a massive structure that would have boasted the second largest dome in the world after St Peter’s in Rome but it proved too expensive and Adrian Gilbert Scott was asked to work on a smaller design, which would have meant he had a hand in two cathedrals in one city. In the event the building didn’t go ahead, but by then he already had a completed cathedral to his own name.

The British church in Cairo dates back to the mid 19th century. In 1862 Albert Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, visited Egypt as a guest of Said Pasha. He earned much admiration by climbing the Great Pyramid unassisted – at the time it was customary to make the ascent with the aid of three locals, two pulling and one pushing. He also attended mass held in a small room at the Coptic Patriarchate, which the English colony in Cairo were allowed to use for their services. On reflection this was seen to be a poor state of affairs, and from then on English services were transferred to Shepheard’s hotel (and, after 1869, also the New Hotel). In 1863, Said was succeeded by Ismail Pasha who agreed to donate land in Boulaq for the site of an English church. It took a while but the church was finally ready for use in 1876. It was later superseded by St Mary’s in Garden City, but that also was soon outgrown.

A site for a new cathedral was obtained in July 1928 when the Egyptian government authorised the sale of a plot of land just to the north of the Kasr al-Nil barracks on the east bank of the Nile. Adrian Gilbert Scott was selected as the architect. He reported, ‘The site is a very fine one and by far the best of the various ones considered. Its frontage to the Nile is a very fine asset while gardens should provide a very peaceful atmosphere rarely obtainable in a town site’.

A foundation stone was laid on Friday 20th November 1936 and just 18 months later, on 25th April 1938 (St Marks Day – an appropriate tribute to the acknowledged founder of Christianity in Egypt), in a ceremony attended by the architect, the cathedral was consecrated and dedicated to All Saints.

The peaceful atmosphere promised by the site did not last long. The cathedral had been built on the site of a disused lock on the Ismailia Canal, long since filled in but with earth but subject to uneven settlement. By the 1950s cracks had started to show in the building. Relations between Britain and Egypt were strained by first Independence then the Suez affair, and no serious steps could be taken by the Church to make the necessary repairs. Meanwhile a new riverside highway, the Corniche, was created between the river and the cathedral, with all the attendant noise and vibrations. The threat caused by traffic didn’t stop there. Further road-building plans of the Cairo Governorate involved the creation of a Ramses Bridge (since renamed the 6th October Bridge) crossing the Nile at the very site of the cathedral itself.

The news was received with shock by the British community in Egypt. There were lengthy negotiations to try to keep the cathedral on its site but it’s not hard to imagine how much satisfaction it must have given the new native rulers of Egypt to brush aside this prominent landmark to the influence of the old colonial masters.

The governorate did however provide an alternative location as well as cover the cost of constructing a new church. The deconsecration of Gilbert Scott’s Cairo Anglican Cathedral took place on 10th February 1978, not even 40 years after the opening ceremony. Its replacement began celebrating mass some ten years later on a new site in Zamalek, built on a plot that used to be part of the Gezira Palace gardens. For anyone curious, the library there has a copy of a slim booklet Cathedral on the Nile by Arthur Burrell, which is where most of the history in this post comes from.

As I said earlier, the old cathedral is these days largely forgotten. Its ghost lingers on, occasionally to be glimpsed in some old photo, and sometimes also in the strangest of other places. Several years ago I was in Miami and happened to visit the Wolfsonian Museum at the heart of South Beach’s art deco district. It’s an excellent institution dedicated to art and design, and there on one of its walls was a particularly beautiful large architectural drawing depicting an Eastern church; it was credited to Adrian Gilbert Scott and the label explained it was a design for the Anglican Cathedral in Cairo. It looks nothing like the cathedral as built and I assume it shows an early discarded proposal. Wonderful to discover though that if Gilbert Scott’s fine cathedral is gone from Cairo, it is at least in some small way remembered elsewhere.

Courtesy of the Wolfsonian-FIU

For more on Cairo’s Anglican Cathedral, past and present, visit the excellent Cairo Observer website.


Filed under Lost Egypt