Tag Archives: Mena House

A hospital in a palace

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During World War I the British military command saw Egypt, its industries, businesses and people as resources to be drawn upon to assist the war effort. The tourist industry was not exempt. Hotels around the country were requisitioned, as military headquarters in the case of the Cairo Savoy (which I’ve written about previously, here), but more commonly for use as hospitals (San Stefano in Alexandria, the Mena House and Heliopolis Palace in Cairo, Al-Hayat in Helouan) or as places where injured troops could be sent to convalesce (the Winter Palace in Luxor).

Opened to guests a month over four years previously, in January 1915 the 500-room Heliopolis Palace became Cairo’s main military hospital. Renamed the 1st Army General Hospital (1st AGH), it was operated by the Australian Army Medical Corps. It was reorgainsed to provide accommodation for 1,000 sick, every door on every corridor opening to rooms of neat white beds and the grand dining-hall converted into a great convalescent ward with room for one hundred. Even so, within a very short time the hospital had to expand into additional premises, including buildings at the aerodrome, Luna Park and Heliopolis Sporting Club. Why was so much room required? Because Egypt was receiving the wounded from ongoing campaign in the Dardanelles, including the landings at Gallipoli. Hospital ships transported the injured and dying the five or six days it took to get to Alexandria, from where patients were forwarded to local hospitals or on to Cairo.

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The Indiana, which belonged to the Anglo-American Nile Company, was requisitioned to ferry wounded soldiers on the Suez Canal.

They came in so fast the system couldn’t cope. “Men were poured into the wards, and they were crowded together until the place became overpowering,” reported a correspondent for Australia’s The Register newspaper in 1915. “They overflowed into a skating rink enclosure, five, six, eight hundred of them; also into a galvanized building with a glass roof; out to Helouan to a convalescent home. Very soon the crowding at the main building rendered the place septic, a statement I make on the authority of the doctors resident in it. They were afraid to operate.”

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Not everyone was so downbeat. In April 1915, The Queenslander newspaper published a letter from a corporal in the Army Medical Crops who was billeted at the Heliopolis Palace.

It is said to be the most beautiful hotel in Egypt. We have been told that it cost £2,500,000 to build. The King of the Belgians, with an English and a Belgian syndicate, built the hotel about three years ago. It was to be run as a casino, and the idea was to rival Monte Carlo. The syndicate was unable to get a license for the casino, and the hotel has been a white elephant. The war interfered with the tourist season this year—it should be in full swing now—and the very costly carpets and furniture have been carefully stowed away. It is possible that the King’s room, which cost £1000 to furnish, with a bed, a chest of drawers, and a washstand, will be made into an operating theatre, and there is talk of providing 800 beds for the hospital, which will be one of the very best.

As to the size of the building, if you put the Treasury and Executive buildings together they would require the largest part of Parliament House to make the group equal in size to this palace. And the exquisite marble, and alabaster, and granite! The ballrooms and reception rooms are things of rare beauty, and when you climb the marble stairs, of which there are many flights, and look down on the marble, and granite, and alabaster, and the richest of stained electric lights and clusters, it needs little imagination to call the building a palace. Some of it is like an artist’s dream. If I had any knowledge of architecture I might attempt a description of the palace within and without, but can only say it is wonderfully beautiful. There are perhaps 10,000 electric lights throughout the building, and, of course, all the appointments are on a lavish scale. We have hot and cold baths and showers, and are comfortably settled in rooms with tables and chairs. The nurses and doctors occupy some of the rooms on the first, second, third, and top floors, and have the most perfect accommodation. We, of inferior ranks, have the servants’ quarters in the basement, and are the envy of our less fortunate comrades in the other hospital, who are in tents pitched on sand in which you sink up to the ankles. The corporals have a private sitting room, where one can read and write at ease. Altogether the conditions are too comfortable for active service, but I suppose we should be glad on that account. (Extract courtesy of the Queensland State Library)

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The rear of the Heliopolis Palace with ambulances lined up on Al-Ahram Street alongside.

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Tents at the rear of the hotel/hospital catering to the overflow of patients.

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Ambulances parked at the rear of the hotel/hospital.

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The grand dining hall turned into a grand hospital ward.

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Some of the patients in the grand dining hall, possibly Australians who had taken part in the fighting at Gallipoli.

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A room at the hotel converted into an operating theatre.

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Australian nurses arrayed for a photo op at the rear of the hotel/hospital.

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Parked ambulances with the Heliopolis Company offices on Ibrahim al-Laqqani Street in the background.

In March 1916, the decision was made that the Australian forces should serve in France. The various medical units were ordered to pack up, transfer their patients elsewhere and depart. On 29 March, staff from the 1st AGH sailed out of Alexandria on HM Hospital Ship Salta bound for the battlefields of Europe, where operating conditions were certain to be far less palatial. (The images in this post are courtesy of the Australian War Memorial website)

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Dora dines in Cairo

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A pingback linking to this site alerted me to a fascinating post over at the Sydney Living Museums website. It concerns a new book containing correspondence between Dora Sheller and her son Leslie Walford, one of the leading figures in Australian interior design until his death in 2012. In 1929 Dora Walford, a glamorous Sydney socialite, set off on a honeymoon voyage to England, stopping off in Cairo from late December 1929 until the first week of January 1930. She was well-heeled enough to stay at the top hotels, notably Mena House and Shepheard’s. The photo below is Dora on the steps to the tea gardens at Mena House.

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Dora spent Christmas at Shepheard’s and kept hold of the printed and tassel-corded menu for the Christmas Eve dinner at Shepheard’s Grill, with a beautiful cover showing a masqued ball in full swing.

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The Sydney Living Museums post helpfully translates the belt-busting menu:

Blinis with caviar
Tomato soup (served in a cup)
Lobster thermidor
Quail in puff pastry (named for the writer George Sand)
Chicken breast in a rich cream sauce ‘Russian style’
Indian salad (lettuce, cress; a dressing of red wine, vinegar, spices)
Mandarin sorbet with Chantilly cream;
‘Chocolate shoes’ – a novelty chocolate biscuit shaped like a shoe
Chocolate Yule log

A few days later Dora dined at the Mena House and, again, she kept the menu.

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In English:

Consommé garnished with finely diced carrot, turnip, green beans, truffle &c;
Turbot with a tomato sauce
Roast premium cut of lamb cooked with sage
Asparagus
Bresse chicken in a very rich casserole sauce
Ice cream bombe
Fruit basket
Coffee

After getting through all that, you’d imagine Dora wouldn’t have to eat again until she reached England. However there was a trip into the desert – which may have just been across the road to the Pyramids – for which the Mena House provided a picnic that was transported on its own trolley, as seen in the photograph below, which shows Dora’s husband Eric Sheller and son Leslie.

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All these items come from the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. You can read more here.

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Cairo in the war

EGYPT. Cairo. W.W. II. Servicemen relax on the Hotel Shepheards terrace. 1941

Not too much to say about the photo above except it depicts British officers (no non-ranked soldiers allowed) relaxing on the terrace at Shepheard’s in 1941 and it’s new to me. It was shot by British photojournalist George Rodger (1908–1995), who went on to photograph the mass graves at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of World War II and later became famous for his images of tribal Africa. Rodger also shot the images below of soldiers relaxing at the other grand Cairo hotel, the Mena House.

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Graphics before graphic designers

Although the term was not coined until 1920s, graphic design existed long before there were any graphic designers. The art of combining text and pictures for a range of printed material has been at the heart of the printer’s craft for hundreds of years. While the early pioneers of printers focused on books, others began using their presses for more humble uses, from handbills, signage, trade cards and timetables to popular reading material, games, advertisements and packaging. From Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman 1700–1914 by David Jury (Thames & Hudson, 2012)

The same printers that provided Egypt’s hotels with their fabulous posters and luggage labels, also designed some terrific letterheads and decorated envelopes (click and click again to enlarge).

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Mena House 1900(ish)

The images below come from a small advertising booklet issued by the Mena House some time soon after 1900, which was when the electric tram, mentioned on one of its pages, first starting running on Pyramids Road. Note, in addition to horses, donkeys and camels, the hotel keeps its own herd of cows to supply guests with nutritious milk – how many hotels can boast that these days?

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It’s for you

A bunch of envelopes posted from the Mena House: the first is from 1891, just five years after the hotel opened, the second from 1894, then two from 1901 and the last is from 1939.

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It’s called adaptive reuse

Some years back, well before the calamity that has befallen the country, I stayed at the Zenobia hotel at Palmyra in Syria. It has the most extraordinary location, away from the modern town and right on the edge of the Roman ruins. It is possible to sit up in bed and look out of the window of your room at grand colonnades silhouetted against the moonlight. It seems natural that pieces of antiquity should find their way into the hotel, and so in the garden the ancient carved capitals of columns serve as bases for tables. I think I remember something similar in the garden of the Palmyra hotel at Baalbek in Lebanon.

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An image kindly sent to me by Susan Allen reminds me it used to be like that in Egypt too. It shows the garden of the Hotel du Nil and, in it, two great stone sarcophagus lids.

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The terrace at Shepheard’s used to boast a pair of sphinxes, reputedly from Saqqara, while the Luxor Hotel in Luxor had two statues of Sekhmet in its garden, most likely brought over from Karnak. Probably nobody at the time thought this an inappropriate employment of Egypt’s archaeological heritage. What was contentious, though, and stirred up comment in the press of the time, was architect Henri Favarger’s usage of stones from the Pyramids to build the Mena House hotel. He didn’t deny it, but in an address given to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1892, claimed it was rubble gathered from the foot of the Pyramids that was collected, and only then with the approval and close supervision of the Egyptian museum authorities.

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I’ll have what he’s having

Back in the ’30s if a company marketing booze in the US wanted to imbue its product with a bit of glamour and sophistication then one way to do it was to suggest the drink was just the sort of thing being downed on the terraces of the hotels of Cairo. In the magazine ads below Hennessy cognac and Gilbey’s gin grace the tables at Shepheard’s, while Canadian Club is favoured at the Mena House.

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Waugh in Egypt

Recognise the picture on this book jacket? It’s the same pic that headed my last post. Not that you can make much out with the type obscuring most of the image (the designer also chose to flip the photo). It’s the right choice for the book though, which is a collection of Evelyn Waugh’s travel writing from the 1930s. The photo was taken in 1938, and the exotic hedonism on display (what a wheeze, a picnic on top of a pyramid! And in bathing togs!) is a good fit for the reputation Waugh had at this time, which was as the satirical chronicler of England’s party-happy, silver-spoon set, otherwise known as the Bright Young Things. Funny thing is that the author himself had a mostly miserable time when he visited Egypt.

It was 1929 and on the back of rave reviews received for his first novel, Decline and Fall, Waugh had been commissioned to write travel articles in return for a free Mediterranean cruise, which he and his new wife (bizarrely, also called Evelyn) were treating as a delayed honeymoon. But She-Evelyn contracted double pneumonia and had to be put ashore and hospitalised in Port Said. She was so critically ill Waugh didn’t expect her to survive. When he wasn’t at his wife’s bedside Waugh was exploring the town, spending more time there than probably any other travel writer before or since. He escaped to Cairo for a brief overnight stay, putting up at the Bristol Hotel. He was not impressed – the furniture in his room, he wrote, consisted of three double beds under high canopies of dusty mosquito netting and two derelict rocking chairs. None of the servants spoke a word of any European language but Waugh considered this a negligible defect since they never answered the bell anyway.

Young fogey Evelyn Waugh

A little time later, when She-Evelyn was declared fit to be discharged, the couple travelled to Cairo together, this time checking in to the Mena House – a hotel sufficiently grand that it almost came near to justifying its terrific expensive, thought Waugh. He grumbled a lot about things, like there not being enough pens in the writing rooms and She-Evelyn’s dinner in bed being brought all on one tray instead of as separate courses, heinous things like that, but he was smitten by the hotel’s situation (as guests still are today): “The Pyramids were a quarter of a mile away, impressive by sheer bulk and reputation; it felt odd to be living at such close quarters with anything quite so famous – it was like having the Prince of Wales at the next table in a restaurant; one kept pretending not to notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there.”

On the Mena House terrace, pretending not to notice the Pyramids

Despite being terrifically snobbish and curmudgeonly beyond his years (he was only 26 at the time), he is funny: his observations on the porters for example, whose aim, he establishes, is to carry away the smallest piece of luggage possible, so the strongest and most fierce gets away with carrying a bundle of newspapers or a small attaché case, while the puniest end up with the trunks and large cases.

The Waughs’ trip to Egypt forms part of a book called Labels (later collected with three other travelogues and reissued as When the Going Was Good), except the odd thing is She-Evelyn doesn’t appear. Just a month after they returned home to England, without warning, she revealed that a mutual friend had become her lover. The couple promptly divorced and a devastated He-Evelyn wrote his wife out of his account of their honeymoon, presenting it as a bachelor’s journey.

This wasn’t the end of Waugh and Egypt. He borrowed the name of Cairo’s most famous hotel, Shepheard’s, and gave it to the Mayfair hotel where the aristocrats, eccentrics and bored rich of London gather pre and post party in his 1930 novel Vile Bodies. His description of the fictional London Shepheard’s could just as easily apply to the real one in Cairo: “One can go to Shepheard’s parched with modernity any day and still draw up, cool and uncontaminated, great healing draughts from the well of Edwardian certainty.”

Just over a decade later he was back boozing on the terrace of the original when in 1941 he returned to Cairo as one of a 2,000-strong commando division known as Layforce. He took part in the evacuation of Crete, an episode that would later find its way into his Sword of Honour trilogy, published in the 1950s. Layforce was disbanded only a few months after arriving in the Middle East but one of its senior officers, David Stirling, almost immediately created a new desert commando unit in Egypt that would go by the name of the Special Air Service, or SAS. But that’s another story – and one Waugh had no part in as by this time he was back in England at work on his sixth novel.

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Judging a book by its cover

So Grand Hotels of Egypt is out. We had the launch party last Sunday at the Windsor Hotel in Cairo and I’m sorry if you weren’t there because it was a terrific evening (thank you Neil, Trevor and Nabila at the AUC Press). First reactions to the book were fantastic – although, at this point nobody had, of course, read any of it and it was all based on appearances. A lot of people, in particular, said how much they liked the cover. But the praise wasn’t unanimous. Word was someone had objected to the fact it shows a dark-skinned waiter serving white folk. I thought nothing of this until the following morning when Gadi (the book’s designer) and myself were interviewed by a local journalist. He and I had a straightforward chat about the subject matter of the book but when it came to Gadi’s turn to talk about the design the very first question was, ‘Why did you chose to show a black servant on the cover?’

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The cover was chosen because it’s a striking and appropriate image. It’s a genuine poster from the 1930s and the scene is of the terrace at the Mena House, one of the hotels covered at length in the book. The original poster (above) was designed by the graphic artist Ihap Hulusi Gorey. Born in Cairo in 1898 to a Turkish family, Hulusi left Egypt to study art in Munich before setting up his own studio in Istanbul in the latter half of the 1920s. He was one of the first graphic designers of modern Turkey and a fervent supporter of nationalist leader Kemal Atatürk. He was hugely influential, initially producing endless propaganda and educational posters for the new republic, later doing a lot of work for major international brands such as Cinzano, Haig whisky and Fernet Branca. At some point he was also commissioned to produce a series of posters for the Egyptian government and Misr Air, some of which are below.

The poster we used for the cover of my book is an artfully executed portrayal of the hotel life of the time: the dignified sufragi in uniform bearing tea things on a silver tray past a table of pale-skinned foreigners enjoying afternoon refreshments. A bit of a cliché perhaps, but beautifully done and very evocative of the era covered by the book. Ironically, the Thirties graphic style aside, the thing that really dates the image is the clothing and accessories of the Westerners – the pipe, trilby and ladies’ suit hat. The fancy garb worn by the waiter – or a variant of – is still uniform in plenty of upmarket hotels in Egypt today, where serving staff are still often Upper Egyptians starting careers on the lower rungs of the ladder. Is this racism? I don’t think so, I think most people would just recognise it as tourism.

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