Tag Archives: Lawrence of Arabia

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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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.

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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

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The Baron

The previous pair of posts were about TE Lawrence’s stays in Cairo hotels – a year at the Grand Continental, a year and a half, on and off, at the Savoy and two weeks at the Semiramis. In the Middle East it’s not an Egyptian hotel, though, that he’s most associated with but the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, thanks to an unpaid bar bill that to this day is displayed framed on the lounge wall. I’ve stayed at the Baron a couple of times, most recently in 2009 when I wrote the following text for Jazeera Magazine (the photographs are by Damascus-based John Wreford):

In 1880, when Aleppo was the great cosmopolitan metropolis of the region, the Mazloumian family from Turkish Armenia halted here on the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They found only crude accommodations and seeing an opportunity started a small hotel. In 1909 they built a bigger hotel. They called it the Baron because in Armenian baron means “sir”, which was how the Egyptian construction workers addressed the owners.

Exactly 100 years on, reading the entries on website tripadvisor.com, courtesy is no longer a strong suit of the hotel. Nor it seems are plumbing, furnishings, cuisine or service. But in recompense, how many hotels can boast of having played a part in the formation of the country? (In 1918 King Faisal declared Syria’s independence from a balcony at the Baron.) And can waiters at the Four Seasons in Damascus honestly boast that guests used to shoot duck from the hotel roof?

One can almost excuse the dilapidated air of the hotel’s rooms and hallways as fidelity to a century of history. A tour of the second floor is a walk through the passage of the Middle East during the 20th century. The balcony in Room 215 is where King Faisal made his proclamation. Room 203 was favoured by Agatha Christie, although she preferred to sit out on the terrace to do her writing (part of Murder on the Orient Express was supposedly written during stays at the hotel). Lawrence of Arabia slept in Room 202, while the Presidential Suite was once variously occupied by the Shah of Persia, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahayan (principal architect of the United Arab Emirates). Before the Ottoman withdrawal, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, mounted machine guns on the roof during World War I in case the British or the Arab Legions broke through. These are the claims of the hotel, anyway.

Hard evidence for at least one of the stories is offered in the hotel lounge, where visitors can examine a framed copy of a drinks bill signed by Lawrence. Otherwise, staff (many of whom have been with the hotel for two, three or even four decades) have a blasé attitude to history – the guest books, filled with past signatures, are stuffed along with piles of yellowed, scrunched up newspaper clippings in the top of an old dusty radiogram.

The hotel is still owned by the Mazloumian family, who have always resisted buy-out bids. Baron Street, on which the hotel stands, has recently seen the loss of several neighbouring buildings, torn down by developers, and the old hotel is beginning to look a little besieged. The current owner, a direct descendent of the Baron’s founders, has always insisted he will never sell – after all, it was his family who founded the hotel business in Syria.

 

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More people on Pyramids

Following on from one of the posts of last month, here’s another evocative image of Bright Young Things on a Pyramid. No idea of the date but given the dress, it has to be the 1920s. This image was also recently used on the cover of a book: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell. There’s a bit of Photoshop jiggery-pokery gone on to remove one of the two ladies, presumably so it looks like the girl alone gazing wistfully over the sands is having the sort of ‘personal awakening’ described in the blurb underneath. The designer has also shifted one of the Pyramids about 30 metres to the right, which is going to throw off anybody’s astronomical calculations.

The book, incidentally, is a historical novel set in Egypt at the time of the Cairo Peace Conference of 1921. The protagonist, Agnes Shanklin, a 40-year-old American spinster, meets and falls into the company of TE Lawrence, who was present at the Conference (held at the Semiramis hotel, dismissed by Lawrence in a letter to his mother as, “a marble and bronze hotel, very expensive and luxurious: horrible place: makes me Bolshevik”). The title is taken from Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” It’s a good one to have handy when caught staring out the window at work.

The Semiramis – the hotel that made Lawrence of Arabia a Bolshevik

 

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Lawrence of Arabia: stamp designer

David Lean directing Peter O'Toole on the set of Lawrence of Arabia

David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is back in the cinemas in a new, digitally restored, 50th anniversary edition (the film was first released in the UK on 10 December 1962). I’m looking forward to watching it again on a big screen, because that’s really the only way to see it. It’s unlikely any studio today could ever make a film like it again – 3hr 40 mins long and featuring a cast of hundreds charging across the sands on camels (no CGI back then). It is epic in every sense of the word.

The film’s most closely associated with Jordan, which is where much of the action takes place, and the whole thing was originally planned to be shot there. Cost and illness, however, resulted in much of the filming being done elsewhere – the show-stopping scene of the Arab charge on Aqaba was restaged in a dry river bed in southern Spain. While the production was in Jordan, King Hussein visited the set several times and met a 21-year-old English switchboard operator named Toni Gardner. She became the king’s second wife, taking the name Princess Muna al-Hussein and bearing him four children, the first of whom was Abdullah, the present king of Jordan.

In Lean’s film Spain also stands in for Cairo. The Cairo officers’ club where a haggard Lawrence marches in in Bedouin dress accompanied by his young Bedouin guide to announce, “We want two large glasses of lemonade” – and by the way, “We’ve taken Aqaba” – is played by the Plaza de España in Seville. I’ve no idea whether such a scene ever took place in reality (I’ve never been able to get beyond the first few pages of Seven Pillars of Wisdom) but, if it had, chances are it would have in fact taken place in the bar of Cairo’s Savoy Hotel.

The man who would become ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ arrived in Egypt in mid-December 1914. Formerly a practicing archaeologist with extensive experience of the Middle East, he had been posted to the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo where he became, among other things, an expert on Arab nationalist movements. He was given an office at the Savoy, a hotel on what’s now Talaat Harb Square, which had opened in 1898 but since the outbreak of World War I had been serving as the headquarters of the British Army in Egypt.

The Savoy Hotel on what was then Suleiman Pasha Square and is now Talaat Harb Square

Initially, his job involved drawing and overseeing the drawing of maps, coding and decoding telegrams, interviewing prisoners and writing reports. For the first year he was billeted at the Grand Continental on Opera Square but in December 1915 he moved into rooms at the Savoy. He didn’t care for Cairo much: “Anything fouler than the town buildings, or its beastly people, can’t be,” he wrote home, although he found some pleasure in Groppi’s garden café, which lay between the two hotels (it’s still there today) and where he liked to stop off for an iced coffee and chocolate when the weather wasn’t too hot.

Thomas Edward Lawrence in uniform in Cairo

Before Lawrence took off for the desert and transformed himself into a legend, he launched his first fusillade in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire from his desk at the Savoy – by designing and printing postage stamps. Initial declarations of independence by the Arabs from the Turks were not being recognised, so – and how British is this? – it was decided that one sure proof of self rule would be having their own ‘Arab’ stamps. Take that you Turkish philatelists! Lawrence was tasked with the project. He spent time in the Islamic Museum in Cairo researching suitable motifs, then drew up the designs himself and oversaw the issue from start to finish.

Three of the stamps designed by Lawrence

How much better would David Lean’s film have been had he included a dramatic stamp designing sequence?

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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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