Tag Archives: Semiramis

Tahrir as it might have been

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I’ve recently being doing some work in the American University in Cairo archives, which is where I found the above drawing (click to enlarge). It was in a folder of miscellaneous documents relating to the AUC buildings on Tahrir Square. It shows an alternative reality for a Tahrir Square that might have been. On it are some recognizable landmarks, notably the Egyptian Museum, and the blocks labeled Semiramis Hotel and AUC, while the block labeled ‘Municipality’ corresponds to the Mugamma, Cairo’s hated administrative fortress. What is labeled ‘Parliament’ was at the time the plan was made (it is dated 14 June 1950) the Qasr el-Nil barracks, evacuated by the British Army in 1947 and torn down in 1951–52 to be replaced by the Nile Hilton. (Another document in the AUC archive, dated 1948, refers to a plan to replace the barracks with Cairo’s answer to New York’s Central Park.) None of the other structures shown on the plan – the Arab Museum, Broadcasting House, National Library, Cultural Museum, Premier’s House – were ever built. The drawing is titled ‘View of Proposed Development’ and it is signed JS Badeau – John Badeau was then president of AUC. Why would the president of the American University be replanning Cairo’s central square? Was this ever a serious plan or was it just a bit of presidential doodling? There is nothing else in the archive’s folder relating to the plan and it is a mystery. I’d love to know more.

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Garden City riverscape

I was at the Thomas Cook Archives in Peterborough, 45 minutes north of London, recently, doing some last-minute picture research for my forthcoming Nile steamers book. I came across the images below, of a dahabiya against a low-rise river bank of what look like villas. I couldn’t identify where it was at first until I noticed in the background of the top image the distinctive silhouette of the Citadel (click on the pics to enlarge). So Cairo then. And then I noticed on the extreme left of the middle picture a familiar building: it’s the old Semiramis hotel. So this is Garden City, some time post 1907. The building on the right in the bottom picture is the British Residence, now the embassy. But what is the building in the middle, anyone know?

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The view from (and of) the Semiramis

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In a column headed ‘Hotel Life: Semiramis Hotel’, the Egyptian Gazette of 27 November 1907 ran the following:

Many additions and alterations have been made to this enormous hotel, which before the end of December should be completely finished. Already the roof garden is planted out with flowers and shrubs; and when the little tea kiosks etc are finished there should be no pleasanter spot in Cairo wherein to while away a lazy hour. And no more beautiful bird’s eye view of Cairo can be imagined than from that lofty vantage ground, the wide panorama stretching away on every side, distant desert and pyramids melting away into the sky line on one hand, the Citadel backed by the Moqattam Hills on another, and the broad expanse of the river flowing peacefully below.

And here are those views, front and back:

Front

Back

The best view of all though is the one below, taken from the air, which shows the Semiramis hotel itself, on the east bank of the Nile right beside the Kasr el-Nil bridge. Immediately north of the hotel is the reverse-E shape of the Ismailia barracks, now the Hilton/Ritz-Carlton hotel and, beside that, the Egyptian Museum. Two blocks south of the Semiramis is the British residence, now the British Embassy, with its lawns rolling right down to meet the river because this is well before the creation of the Corniche. I don’t know the exact date of the photo but it’s pre-1936 because the Anglican Cathedral has yet to appear on the plot just north of the barracks. (Click on the pic to enlarge.)

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Last days of the Semiramis

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The caption for this vintage news photo, issued by the Associated Press in January 1976, reads, “Nile landmark to go: The Semiramis Hotel, for years a landmark along the Nile River in Cairo, will soon disappear. The hotel, named for an Iraqi princess and built by Europeans in the the early 1900s, closed last summer and will be pulled down and replaced by a pyramid-shaped, 850-room, $18 million hotel.”

The Swiss-built Semiramis, opened in 1907, was demolished in 1976, and it was replaced by a new 800-room hotel – thankfully, however, this did not take the form of a pyramid. That was left for Las Vegas.

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Kipling’s Egypt

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Eighty-four years ago today, The Egyptian Gazette of 14 February 1929 carried a notice of the arrival of well known author Rudyard Kipling (that’s him, above) and Mrs Kipling at Port Said. They’d landed the previous day and proceeded direct to Cairo. “Mr Kipling exhibited his well-known dislike of publicity,” reported the paper. “The British Vice Consul Mr Williamson-Napier went out in a special police launch to meet the distinguished visitors, but Mr Kipling seeing the interested crowd gathered for his arrival chose to go ashore in a smaller and less conspicuous launch, by which means he escaped popular attention.”

This wasn’t Kipling’s first visit to Egypt. He’d first passed through at the age of five, before the Suez Canal had been made. He also made a visit in 1913, when he’d stayed at the Semiramis (opened just six years previously) but since the weather was cold and wet, he didn’t stay long in Cairo, and instead made his way up the Nile to Luxor and Aswan on Thomas Cook’s SS Rameses III.

The 1913 trip inspired a series of letters, that were collected and published (Letters of Travel: 1892-1913), and include some typically pithy statements on matters relating to tourism in Egypt.

On sightseeing:
“For three weeks we sat on copiously chaired and carpeted decks, carefully isolated from everything that had anything to do with Egypt, under chaperonage of a properly orientalised dragoman. Twice or thrice daily, our steamer drew up at a mud-bank covered with donkeys. Saddles were hauled out of a hatch in our bows; the donkeys were dressed, dealt round like cards: we rode off through crops or desert, as the case might be, were introduced in ringing tones to a temple, and were then duly returned to our bridge and our Baedekers.”

On Americans in Egypt:
“Since the bulk of our passengers were citizens of the United States, Egypt in winter ought to be admitted into the Union as a temporary territory.”

On the Swiss in Egypt:
“The Swiss are the only people who have taken the trouble to master the art of hotel-keeping. Consequently, in the things that really matter – beds, baths, and victuals –they control Egypt.”

On Cairo:
“Modern Cairo is an unkempt place. The streets are dirty and ill-constructed, the pavements unswept and often broken, the tramways thrown, rather than laid down, the gutters neglected. One expects better than this in a city where the tourist spends so much every season. Granted that the tourist is a dog, he comes at least with a bone in his mouth, and a bone that many people pick. He should have a cleaner kennel”

By 1929, Kipling had obviously got over his dislike of Cairo because he and Mrs Kipling spent 13 days there, staying again at the Semiramis. Also at the hotel at that time, reported the Gazette, were the HH Aga Khan and large party, American mining magnate and millionaire Chester Beatty and future professor of Islamic art AC Cresswell. Quite a line up.

Cook's Nile Steamer

On 27 February, the couple boarded the SS Egypt (pictured above) for a 20-day voyage to Luxor and Aswan. Two years to the month later, in February 1931, they were back in Egypt once more: Kipling’s wife suffered from rheumatism and a doctor had recommended the Helwan as a health resort. They found it too cold and went once again up the Nile in search of warmth, spending 10 days in Aswan.

Thanks to books such as Kim and The Jungle Book, the name may always be associated with India, but Rudyard Kipling spent a significant amount of time in Egypt too.

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A hotel for amphibians?

Last month I posted a complete early 20th-century promotional booklet for Shepheard’s hotel. It was put out by Egyptian Hotels Ltd, who at this time owned several major Cairo properties, another of which was the Semiramis.

A riverside location is now almost a perquisite for any five-star Cairo hotel, but when it opened in February 1907, the Semiramis was the first hotel in the Egyptian capital to be built beside the Nile – previously all the hotels had been clustered around the Azbakiya or close by in Downtown. The insightful entrepreneurs behind the project were Franz Josef Bucher-Durrer and Josef Durrant, founders of a hotel chain with properties in their native Switzerland as well as Genoa, Milan and Rome. Unfortunately, Bucher-Durrer died before the new Cairo venture could be completed and just three years after its inauguration his heirs decided to sell the Semiramis to Charles Baehler of Egyptian Hotels Ltd.

It was the most aristocratic of Cairo’s hotels, attracting the highest class of clientele. It had a handsome wide veranda that overlooked the river and, at roof level, accessed by electric lifts, a garden terrace planted with flowers and shrubs, and with a café-restaurant and ‘tea-kiosks’. The roof had views across the city to the Citadel in one direction, and over the Nile to the Pyramids and desert in the other. Even at only four stories, at the time of its opening the Semiramis was the highest hotel in Cairo.

It would be soon after Baehler bought the hotel that the booklet below was published. Note that the text boasts that of the 200 bedrooms, 100 have ensuite bathrooms and lavatories. When London’s Savoy was under construction in the 1880s, its financier D’Oyly Carte also requested one bathroom for every two bedrooms, leading his contractor to ask if Carte was expecting his guests to be amphibious. Note also in the lists of ‘principal’ sights, number 8 includes an ostrich farm at Matarieh (sadly missing from the attractions of modern Cairo). It is also notably more expensive to board servants without their Masters.

 

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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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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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