Tag Archives: Savoy Hotel

The other, other Savoy

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I’ve posted previously on Cairo’s Savoy hotel, at one time the flagship for George Nungovitch’s Egyptian hotel empire, here. I’ve also mentioned in passing the Luxor Savoy, here, which used to stand on the east bank, a little north of the Luxor Temple, and survived, albeit in a sorry state, until the 1970s when it was gutted by fire and subsequently demolished to make way for a shopping development. But there was a third Savoy. This was in Aswan and by all accounts was quite a grand affair. Here’s Amédée Baillot de Guerville writing in the first years of the 20th century: “At Assouan there are three excellent hotels, two of which are large modern houses. The Cataract, belonging to Cook, is admirably looked after by M. Pagnon (proprietor of the hotels at Luxor) … On the Elephantine Island, in the midst of a charming  garden, there is another palatial building, the Savoy Hotel, belonging to the Anglo-American Company, and which enjoys equal popularity with the Cataract.”

(The third hotel was the Grand, which was apparently misnamed.)

The Anglo-American was a recently formed Nile steamer company, which came into being toward the end of the 1880s and entered into direct competition with the well established Thomas Cook & Son passenger services. Naturally enough, having transported boatloads of tourists up the Nile, the last thing the new company wanted was to hand them over to its rival to accommodate, so the Anglo-American took to building hotels of its own. Its Savoy was a palatial, boomerang-shaped structure with accommodation for 80 guests and a riverfront setting among the palm groves at the northern tip of Elephantine. There was a magnificent dining hall, bar, ladies’s lounge and a billiard room. Any inconvenience arising from being separated from the town by water was more than made up for by a luscious terraced garden coloured with golden-plumed parkinsonia, crimson poinsettia, and bushes of chrysanthemums which had to be drowned every day to keep them alive; a long hedge of oleanders overhung the river.

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Officially opened on 20 January 1900, the hotel was affiliated to the Nungovich Hotel Company, which supplied its manager, a Mr Brey, formerly of the Savoy Hotel, Cairo, and handpicked the staff. In 1905, the hotel became part of the Upper Hotels Company, of which Nungovich was a founder board member and shareholder.

Thomas_Cook-Sudan approaching Aswan (1930)

Although I’ve never heard of anyone staying there, the Aswan Savoy survived until modern times, only being demolished in the 1970s. It was replaced by a new Oberoi hotel, notable for being the worst eyesore in the whole of Egypt (and that is a hotly contested title); it recently changed hands and is now the Mövenpick Resort Aswan, although it still looks as hideous. (With thanks to Cornelius Von Pilgrim)

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Just as the card says

Heureux_Noel

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In Luxor, 106 years ago today

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From the Egyptian Gazette, of 6 December 1907.

From Our Own Correspondent

Whatever the weather is elsewhere, no one can have any excuse for grumbling about it in Luxor; and no wonder that day by day fresh visitors are arriving from the North. Each day here is more beautiful than the last, from the rising up of the sun until the last moment of the fading away of its afterglow, there is no moment when Luxor is anything but gorgeous. The atmosphere is dry and invigorating, the temperature warm without being torrid, there is sight seeing and exercise for the healthy and energetic and the most luxurious dolce far-niente for the quasi invalid, and one of the finest and most complete hotels at the command of all.

It is less than a year ago that the Winter Palace Hotel was opened to the public* and indeed it seems but yesterday that the workmen were swarming through it night and day to finish it in time for the inauguration. The approach which we remember cumbered with heaps of broken bricks and debris is now adorned with grass and flower beds; the wide waste behind the hotel s now taking shape as an ample garden; and before many weeks are over will be verdant with grass and rich in flowers.

Already there are many guests at the hotel which has been open now for several weeks. Close upon a hundred covers were laid for dinner only yesterday, and many other arrivals are expected shortly. The old Luxor Hotel is to be re-opened shortly, and the Karnak on the river bank will again be sued as an annexe by both the Winter Palace and the Luxor. The Savoy Hotel formerly under the direction of Mr Runkovitz is to be reopened under new management this season. It has well established clientele, and certainly its situation overhanging the river and away from the town are attractive points in its favour.

The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire with their party on board the dahabeah ‘Serapis’ spent some time in the vicinity of Luxor on their way South. Mr Robert Hichens** is still here, living on board his dahabeah moored on the further side of the river; but often coming on shore and frequently taking his meals at the Winter Palace. It is said that he does not intend going further south this trip; but in all probability will leisurely find his way down river to Cairo, storing the while many valuable impressions for future use.

Mr Douglas Sladen*** is also gathering materials for a book on Egypt, for though a great traveler in other lands this is his first visit upon the Nile. He is on his way to Khartoum accompanied by his wife, and by Miss Norma Lorrimer (also an authoress) and Miss Potter. They intend returning to Cairo about the middle of January and will in all probability remain there for the rest of the season.

* And still the Winter Palace website persists in claiming the hotel was built in 1886.

** Author of Egypt and its Monuments, which would be published the following year with illustrations by Jules Guerin, who I blogged about here.

*** Who the following year would publish Egypt and the English, the first of a number of books about Egypt – I blogged about him here.

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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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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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Scandal at the Savoy

Sticking with the last post’s theme of London hotels, I’ve been rereading Andrew Rose’s book Scandal at the Savoy (Bloomsbury, 1991). It deals with an infamous murder case of the 1920s that took place at the London Savoy involving an Egyptian playboy who was shot dead by his French wife of six months.

Ali Fahmy, born in Cairo in 1900, was the sole male heir to a family fortune built on real estate and cotton. He came into his inheritance at the age of 16 and spread it around at the clubs and smart hotels of his hometown such as Shepheard’s, the Semiramis and Grand Continental. He bought a fleet of fast cars, imported from Europe, including two Rolls-Royces, and a 450-horsepower racing boat in which he’d tear up and down the Nile. Then in 1921 he saw something else he fancied. She was Madame Marguerite Laurent (pictured below), a fashionable Parisian woman 10 years his senior, who was staying at the Semiramis in the company of a rich businessman. He pursued his quarry back to France where he subjected her to a whirlwind courtship. Although he returned to Egypt alone, further persistent wooing by mail eventually paid off. On 20 November 1922, Marguerite disembarked from the SS Helouan onto the quayside at Alexandria and was whisked away to Ali’s seaside villa before transferring to his grand residence in the newly established Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek.

To cut a long story short, they got married in Cairo on 26 December 1922. It’s this bit of Rose’s book that appeals to me. The pre-wedding reception and dinner took place at Shepheard’s on Christmas Day 1922. The author has done his homework and he sets the scene beautifully. Just the previous month Howard Carter had announced to the world the finding of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Egypt’s hotels were packed with the international press and with wealthy rubberneckers who wanted to be on the spot when the tomb was opened early in the New Year. There must have been a huge sense of anticipation charging the conversation in the hotel lounges and restaurants, and provoking even greater animation in the dancers foxtrotting their way around the ballrooms.

Five nights after the civil marriage, Shepheard’s was packed with 1,200 diners celebrating the arrival of 1923. Drawing on a report in the following day’s Egyptian Gazette, Rose describes the scene: ‘There was barely room for dancing under the great chandelier, which had been decorated in “magnificent cascades of bougainvillea”. At midnight the lights were dimmed and two dozen white doves released from a balcony above the hotel foyer, an effect rather spoiled by the wags who lowered a squealing piglet on a rope from an upper fanlight. Bags of red and white confetti were emptied on the heads of the crowd, “everybody whistled and screeched, cushions were thrown about and a rugger scrum indulged in by the men”.’

A few weeks later Ali and Marguerite sailed up to Luxor, where they moored their boat across from the Winter Palace and gave lavish parties for the international jetset that had lately descended upon the sleepy Nileside town. Howard Carter attended one of the parties and Lord Carnarvon came over for lunch. But it was not a happy marriage and the two fought constantly – Rose paints Marguerite as a compulsive flirt and venal gold-digger, while Ali was attracted to young men and closer to his private secretary, Said, than he was to his wife. Onboard a steamer bound for Europe, escaping Egypt’s summer heat, the ship’s captain had to step in and keep the peace between the pair. In first Paris and then London the two traded blows in public. Ali appeared with scratches on his face, Marguerite sported livid bruises. She threatened to smash him over the head with a wine bottle over supper at the Savoy restaurant and he threatened to throw her in the river at a Thames-side garden party. It all came to a messy end at around 2.30am on a hot July night in a corridor outside suite 41 at the Savoy – Marguerite fired three shots in quick succession and killed Ali Fahmy. A night porter had just passed the room and he turned and ran back to see Marguerite throw down a large black handgun. When the assistant manager arrived minutes later she was cradling her husband’s head and repeating ‘Qu’est-ce que j’ai fait, mon cher?’ (What have I done, my dear?).

The shooting provoked a mass of publicity – it was the OJ Simpson case of its day. The papers were full of lurid details of sexual jealously, squandered riches and assorted vices – notably Ali’s alleged homosexuality, and Marguerite’s past as a serial mistress and likely prostitute. The trial was a sensation, the verdict a scandal – in a truly appalling exhibition of racism, Marguerite was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter and walked free.

Scandal at the Savoy (you can find it on eBay or abebooks.com) gives an excellent account of the courtroom drama, and provides a fascinating portrait of the sexual and racial attitudes of London society in the 1920s. For more on the antics that went on in the ballroom at Shepheard’s and other Cairo high-society hang-outs, that’s all in Grand Hotels of Egypt.

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Sweet stuff

Published last month, The West End Front by Matthew Sweet is, as its subtitle makes plain, all about ‘The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels’. I was eager to read it to see how life in London’s hotels compared with that in the Egyptian hotels I have written about. Unsurprisingly, there are characters who inhabited both worlds. Sweet begins by introducing us to César Ritz (the Ritz, Savoy, Dorchester and Claridge’s are the cornerstones of his book), who also gets a walk-on role in my book as a colleague of George Nungovich, Egypt’s leading hotelier at the beginning of the 20th century. Also cameoing in both of our books is Ritz’s partner, the godfather of cheffery Georges August Escoffier – although Sweet is the one who unearths the lovely detail that he ‘wore high heels to enable him to see into the pans at the back of the ranges’. We have, predictably, Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh in common. My book has the better quotes from Waugh (‘All the hotels in Egypt are bad but they excuse themselves on two contrary principles. Some maintain, legitimately, that it does not really matter how bad they are if they are cheap enough; the others, that it does not really matter how bad they are if they are expensive enough’), but then Sweet manages to include the writer in a sentence about a third party that ends with the untoppable flourish that this person ‘in a state of advanced refreshment, once mistook the Ritz bar for a row of urinals’. Noël Coward is spotted in both books and Winston Churchill is equally inescapable in London and Cairo.

Unlike Grand Hotels, which lets the hotels themselves provide the structure for the chapters, Sweet puts the inhabitants centre-stage, arranging them by type – aliens (the foreign workers), players (the socialites), subterraneans (the gay scene), cons – with each chapter concentrating on a couple of key characters and their individual stories. It’s an acknowledgment that the book is not really about hotels and, in fact, the text spends a lot of time well away from them. The chapter on traitors for instance focuses on Stella Lonsdale who is, according to her MI5 handler, ‘a woman whose loose living would make her an object of shame on any farmyard’. The story makes it into the book on the grounds that the interrogation of Lonsdale took place in a room at the Waldorf.

Which isn’t meant as a criticism. Sweet has been attracted to the idea of hotels for the same reason I was – they are places in which the broadest cross-section of people are gathered together in one place, all sharing the same address for a night or two. Then the following day the cast-list changes. It’s a set up guaranteed to throw up great stories, comic, tragic, and everything else besides, and The West End Front is packed full of them. Sweet also has an enviable way with a phrase – an army officer has ‘a taste for raw onions, violence and nudity’ – and an endless stock of killer anecdotes, like the one about the young boy who requested a kiss from a male guest who was staying the weekend at his parents’ home and then dismissed the chaste peck on the forehead as inadequate: ‘No, kiss me like you kissed daddy’.

Can I recommend you read both our books?

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