Fire in Cairo

I knew that Shepheard’s was severely damaged by fire in 1868 from a dramatic illustration that ran in the London Illustrated News, below. But I was never able to find any further details, so the event only receives a passing mention in my book Grand Hotels of Egypt. Recently, however, I managed to find not one but two newspaper accounts of the event, one of which, from the 21st August 1868 edition of The Coventry Herald and Free Press, and Midland Express I’m going to post in full because it’s full of interesting detail. For instance, in 1868 Shepheard’s had a stock of wine that was worth fully half as much as the entire hotel?


A correspondent at Cairo, in a letter dared the 7th furnishes some particulars of the burning if Shepheard’s Hotel, which occurred on the previous night: “The building was constructed by Mohamed Ali for a school of languages on the site of a former building occupied by Napoleon as his headquarters while in command of the French expedition in Egypt; and a well now subsisting in the garden of the hotel is said to be the identical well in which the assassin of General Kleber momentarily concealed himself after stabbing the general and those who were in the company walking up and down one of the garden paths. On the breaking up of Mohamed Ali’s schools the building passed to Kamal Pasha, his son-in-law, and now one of the Sultan’s ministers. In 1850 Abbas Pasha, then Viceroy of Egypt, rented it from Kamil Pasha, and granted it, at the suggestion of Sir Charles Murray, then Her Majesty’s agent and consul-general in Egypt, for a nominal rent, to the late Mr. Shepheard (who resided until his death at Eathorpe, near Leamington), for the purpose of a hotel. In a few years Mr. Shepheard was enabled to retire, and in 1859 he transferred the hotel for a premium, it was understood of £12,000 to its present proprietor, Mr. Zech, who has further laid out much money upon it. It is said he is insured in French offices to the amount of £14,000. The building was of two floors in height, and in plan in the form of a hollow square round an inner quadrangle, which was laid out as a garden. On the lower floor was a wine closet containing a stock of wine valued at between £6,000 and £7,000.


The fire began at half-past eleven last night, the first alarm preceeding from an explosion from a store closet containing parafine – or, as it called in Cairo, gas – candles, and other combustible matters. The servants were at the moment preparing to close the house. In an instant flames shot forth in several directions at once. The people of the house could do nothing, there having been no fire-extinguishing apparatus of any kind on the premises. The preparations against fires are so ineffectual in Cairo that it was stated to be two hours before an instrument, consisting of a hand-carried box with a pump in it, which passes for a fire engine, arrived. The stream projected by such a pump is certainly not thicker than an ordinary hand garden pump. Fortunately there was no wind. Had the northerly wind which had been blowing for some nights previously continued, Kamil Pasha’s house must have gone, and very probably the new hotel, constructed and furnished at a cost of £120,000, and not yet completely finished. On visiting the scene at eight O’clock this morning, I found the east and south fronts a roofless burnt-out ruin – thin columns of smoke curling up here and there from the materials which had fallen in between the walls. The north and west blocks are uninjured, but the furniture they contained having been thrown as best it could, out of the windows, will yield little salvage.

Some suspicions are entertained that the fire may have been the act of an incendiary. Fires are of rare occurrence in Cairo; but it so happens that for the last nine days a fire has been reported in different parts of the town every evening. There is a great discontent among the people at the arbitrary exactions to which they have been subjected in order to satisfy the Pasha’s requirements for meeting his liabilities at home and abroad, while at the same time they hear of his wasting enormous sums of money at Constantinople. A firdeh or trade tax of 8 1/3 per cent per annum on the profits from trade, calculated in many instances much in excess of the true profits, and weighing with excessive hardship on a large class of the inhabitants of the town, has lately been imposed.

The Glasgow Daily Herald of Wednesday 2nd September 1868 ran a very similar story, probably from the same correspondent, but it chose to include this excellent detail:

I am told of one guest in the hotel putting an appearance, in sorry plight, at one of the windows flanked by flames from others on either side of it, and by aid of extemporised ladders and mattresses and things for his to jump on, he was got out in safety and nudity.

The hotel was not out of commission for too long because just a few months later, in January 1869, travel impresario Thomas Cook was in Cairo leading his very first Egyptian tour party, and from a diary left by one of its number, we know that Shepheard’s was up and running again by this time.

1 Comment

Filed under Grand hotels, Shepheard's

One Response to Fire in Cairo

    Dear Mr Andrew,
    yesterday in the morning I happened to find in a drawer some old pictures I had shot at Cairo in 1979, when I was entering in my forties.
    Remembering the old Shepheard’s Hotel, where I slept for some time, I was looking in the net for any piece of news about it’s history, so I’ve been brought to your site. In one of your replies to someone (in 2013) I got a private e-mail address. If that’s not working, now I try posting on this site.

    Maybe you’ll love to hear something about that fascinating building? Here I am…
    In those years my job was interior design and furnishing, for private houses and commercial activities. We – a couple of clients of mine from Bologna, and me – went to Cairo where we had to redesign and restore some furniture shops. Our hotel was the fabulous Shepheard’s!
    At first, entering the hotel, I received a great impact from the Hall and the Restaurant Room: they both were enormous, but the last was at least 12/14 meters high. With, it seems to me, a balcony all around. The biggest portion of it had tables and a host of waiters, while in the farthest part there was a tent, a tall, huge, picturesque one. I never went inside nor near it, because it was too FAR (!) from the tables in which we used to eat. I think it was used to give room for weddings, banquets etc.
    The food from the restaurant was good, but not delicious: I remember that one of the last evenings we ate there, they served me with an “egyptian beer” that literally exploded when they tried to open it: it was rotten and the smell it gave off was terrible.
    Our room was a large suite in the upper floors and there I really found the spirit of ancient years, when travel, as you say, was in its golden age. The rooms (3) were on different levels and three short staircases led to them from a spacious living room of irregular shape. The door of each room opened on a single square landing, protected at the sight by a brickwork grill: a typical islamic feature, I dare say…
    The furniture was very simple, almost monastic, yet pleasant, in its absolute lack of those showy decorations that make to me unbearable all those today’s luxury hotels. But in every room and in the living we had a little stone basin with three taps: for drinkable, undrinkable and warm water (this last was very old, and off duty except in the bathroom).
    One day I asked someone how many employees were working for the hotel. The man said about 1,500 and to my further quest he replied: They all live inside the walls. Maybe slaves?? Our pleasure had a very high cost!

    We left the Shepheard in the same day (March 9th, 1979) in which the hotel was “invaded” by the people of President Jimmy Carter, who came in Egypt for a very important meeting with Anwar al-Sadat.
    Some years later I found out that it was being distroyed and substituted by another more modern and functional building.

    Thanks, Mr Andrew, for your attention.
    Sincerely Mario Cacciari
    from Italy, August the 10th, 2014

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *