Tag Archives: Cairo

Making notes on Cairo


In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day sixteen.

Tuesday, 9 February
After breakfast went to Turkish bazaars, up Muskee St. near our hotel – most wonderfully oriental and novel to English people – miles of winding narrow streets covered over with matting to protect from the sun and some so narrow that the projection from shops overlap each other. People of all nations and tongues there and all costumes – camels driving through and donkeys – no horses generally, and ladies mounted astride on the donkeys enveloped in black …

… All the hotels surround the same square called El-Esbekiah– trellis fence around it. It used to be flooded by inundations but a canal is now made to prevent it. On the west of the square is the palace of Muhammed Bey – in that garden the unfortunate Kleber was assassinated. On the north of the square is the Copt quarter. The town is divided into quarters, the Copt, the Jews, and the Franks, each quarter separated by gates, which are closed at night …

The area around the Ezbekiya from the 1874 Plan général de la Ville du Caire

The area around the Ezbekiya from the 1874 Plan général de la Ville du Caire

… The picturesque old latticed windows standing out from the houses like our oriels are called mushribuh, where the women look through, their faces covered very much, often all over with green, black, or yellow muslin with large coloured patterns on them. … All the natives in Cairo mount donkeys and fine fellows they are … The Cairene mode of building is to project each storey beyond the other so that in the 2nd or 3rd stories the houses often touch or at all events you can shake hands across the street.

Touists on donkeys

Miss Riggs filled about ten pages of her diary with notes today. After visiting the bazaars she and her colleagues dropped in on another American Mission school, recording in her diary that the children there had “not the vivacity and brightness of an English child”. She scribbles information on the khamseen, feast of Bairam, the departure of pilgrims for Mecca and other celebrations. She also comments on the habits of local dogs (they are of “the wolf nature, sandy in colour”) and of the food at Shepheard’s (“tolerable”). Had she been travelling in 2019 she would have been a prolific Instagrammer.

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Sightseeing in Cairo


In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day fifteen.

Monday, 8 February
Started at 8 o’clock by train to Cairo – 5 hours journey, 150 miles – through the Delta … We first passed large swamps and Lake Mareotis, close to Alexandria; flat country – the first mud villages I had ever seen – the same all through the Delta. Arrived at Cairo at 2 o’clock, omnibus and carriage to Hotel Shepheard – not room for all so I, Miss Porter, Mr. Brewin, Dr. Lorne, Mr. Frith, Mr. Luckie and a few others to the Hotel l’Orient. Ours a very curious hotel – sale at the back and dark, but did very well.


After lunch we went for a drive to the grand mosque of Mehmet Ali, standing on a hill with commanding view of the country, the green winding outline for miles which showed the course of the Nile – the pyramids at Gizeh – the pyramids of Sakara and Dashour and the grand and endless desert; this hill is called the Citadel. We descended what is called Joseph’s Well – hewn in the rock 260 ft. deep – a circular descent. A very deep well indeed and very tiring coming up; a winding cutting in the solid rock. From there drove to the bazaars – too late – they close at 5. Table d’hote at 6 – spent evening in bedroom.

So, 15 days and countless trains, carriages and boats to get from London to Cairo in 1869. It shows just what an undertaking travel was 150 years ago. Had Miss Riggs been travelling thirteen years earlier, she could have added another couple of days to the trip because prior to 1856, which was when the railway between Alexandria and Cairo opened, she would have had to be punted slowly up the Nile between the two cities.

The party finds Shepheard’s full because this is not the grand hotel of later fame with its 300-plus rooms, but a previous, smaller incarnation of the hotel. The alternative hotel to which Miss Riggs and some of the others are directed, the Hotel l’Orient, was on the far side of the Ezbekiyya Gardens, on the edge of the old city.


The Mohamed Ali Mosque she visits is not long completed (1857). She provides a lengthy description in her diary, which I’ve left out. More interesting is her descent into Joseph’s Well. This, of course, has nothing to do with the biblical Joseph and was sunk during the era of Salah ad-Din. It is an 87-metre deep shaft wound around by a spiraling staircase. It was a big tourist attraction in the 19th-century but has long been closed to the public because its decrepit state makes it extremely dangerous.

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Oh, what a lovely war

More delving through online photographic archives, this time over at the Australian War Memorial site. The riches to be found there are amazing and I’ll be posting a bunch of finds from the archives in the coming weeks. First though, a handful of random images that I’m posting for no better reason than they are lovely photographs. They are all from 1942 and show Australian nurses and soldiers off duty and relaxing in Cairo.




Rollerskating was hugely popular at this time and Cairo had several purpose-built rinks.





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Schindler’s guides to Cairo and Alex


A couple of posts back I mentioned the Schindler publishing company of Egypt and the guides it produced to Cairo and Alexandria, covers above. These were put out in 1942/43 to take advantage of the tens of thousands of Allied soldiers that had flooded the city since the outbreak of World War II. So they are light on history and sightseeing and mostly concentrate on restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping and useful information like postal rates and train times. They are filled with ads for many of these businesses. In the case of Cairo, except for Groppi’s and the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop, the advertised businesses are all long gone. Not so with Alexandria – among the ads in that guide are many for bars and restaurants that still just about hang on today, including the Cap d’Or, Badrot, Santa Lucia and a few others. For all the lamenting that goes on for lost Alexandria, the city manages to cling on to its past far more securely than Cairo.












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Schindler of Cairo


It is a name usually associated with lifts and lists, but in Cairo in the 1930s and ’40s the most prominent Schindler was a printer and publisher of English- and French-language books. From a Downtown office at 41 Sharia Madabegh (now Sharia Sherif), E & R Schindler put out a variety of books on Egyptian subjects, including regularly updated guides to Cairo and Alexandria, along with what were possibly the company’s best-selling titles, Rambles in Cairo and Moslem Builders of Cairo, both by Mrs RL Devonshire. Mrs Devonshire was a rather formidable French lady, born Henriette Caroline Vulliamy, who married a British lawyer, Robert Llewellyn Devonshire, and who was a great expert in Islamic architecture. According to Artemis Cooper in Cairo in the War 1939–1945, a tour of the city’s mosques in her company was a must for any cultivated visitor to Cairo. Mrs RLD was a historic monument in her own right, like Gertrude Stein in Paris. On three afternoons a week, in both world wars, she took members of the armed forces round the major Islamic monuments free of charge.


Schindler’s most curious book, though, was something called From Siwa to Cairo: Across the Libyan Desert with Armoured Cars by Major MTI Dun, dso, mc, ramc. It is not so much the subject matter – a drive across the desert to Siwa and back that took place in late 1932 – as the presentation. An officer in the XIIth Royal Lancers, Major Dun was also a man of culture. His book is part travelogue, part art book. Packaged between golden covers, the pages are embellished with deco-style page ornamentations, woodcuts by members of Cairo’s School of Fine Arts and, running along the bottom of the text, small pen-and-ink sketches of the convoy of 10 Rolls Royce armoured cars, one Leyland radio truck, three Austin Seven cars and a motorcycle making its way across the sands.











The charming convoy drawings are credited to N Strekalowsky, but the book offers no further information about the artist. The expedition was completely uneventful, with no accidents or emergencies – the only action was a football match between the British soldiers and their Egyptian counterparts at Sollum. It’s all a bit of wheeze.

Cairo to Siwa map

Cairo to Siwa also contains this excellent map (click to enlarge). As the text rightly points out, ‘We know a town better by its buildings and shops than by the names of its streets’ and this map is heavily annotated with all the landmarks that played a role in the lives of many foreign residents in Cairo in the 1930s. You can reconstruct those lives from it: the restaurants Groppi’s, Gattegno, Aval de Venise; Shepheard’s, the Continental-Savoy and National hotels; Davies Bryan, Circurel and Chemla department stores; the bars and restaurants on Alfi Bey Street; and the branches of P&O, Cox & Kings and Thomas Cook for tickets home again. There are a few mysteries too: the lady with her legs astride a building that is being torn apart at the corner of Suleiman Pasha and Fouad al-Awal streets, what’s that about? And the squatting chap with a beard and turban on the corner of Emad ad-Din and Fouad al-Awal? I can get lost for hours here.


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Striking the right note

It’s just one of those odd combinations: Louis Armstrong and the Sphinx. But then why not? Everybody who can visits Egypt at some point in their lives, and everyone who visits Egypt visits the Pyramids. Except this was no casual holiday. Armstrong was in Cairo as a player in the Cold War. He was one of a number of Jazz Ambassadors sent out by the US State Department around Africa and the Middle East to counter Soviet propaganda, a programme that also included Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. In 1960-61, Armstrong and the All Stars performed in 27 cities in Africa, including Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan and, as pictured above, Egypt. For more on America’s jazz diplomacy, click here.

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Shepheard’s Hotel: British Base in Cairo

The photo that headed up the last post shows Shepheard’s streetfront terrace. It’s an evocative scene, full of character and detail, such as the officer in shorts and knee-length socks with the bandaged ear at right, the slightly sinister slim guy in round shades consulting his watch at left, and, centre, the violinist who is the only one to have noticed the photographer. He’s across the street using a telephoto lens, not wanting to be too obvious because it’s 1942, right in the middle of the Desert War, and the military in Cairo is getting a bit touchy over comments about the battle for Egypt being ‘fought from Shepheard’s terrace’. The time is just after 12:30pm, which is the time dictated by local licensing laws after which alcoholic drinks are permitted to be served. Among the sprinkling of military types and civilians here might well be a spy or two. (Cairo’s favorite bellydancer, Hekmet, has lately been arrested as a spy.)

How do we know all this? Because the photo is part of a set that ran in the 14 December 1942 issue of LIFE magazine (pictured above) accompanying a story with the same title as this post. I managed to track down a copy and buy it; here’s the text and some more images with their captions:

‘The well-to-do British officers in Egypt, the ambassadors with letters plenipotentiary, the Americans with fat purses, the glamor girls of the Middle East, the Russian commissars the famous war correspondents and the civilian tank experts, all stay at just one hotel in Cairo: Shepheard’s. When the war in the desert went really badly, a favorite criticism back home was that it was being fought from the terrace at Shepheard’s. The high officers did not stay there because it was too conspicuous, but nearly everyone else did.

‘The first impression of Shepheard’s is that for a renowned a hotel it looks dowdy and down-at-heel. The second is that behind this artful effect of musty Victorianism is concealed a massive outlay of money and attention to detail. The food is as good as anything at Paris’ Ritz, or Berlin’s Adlon or Rome’s Grand. The service, by silent slippered Egyptians and the Swiss elite of hotel experts, is unmatched. Solid money has gone into the Oriental rugs and tapestries, the silver service, the imported grouse, the Khartoum ducks, the vast wine cellars.

‘Against the last fantastic century of Egypt’s history, Shepheard’s gas stood where it is today just over 100 years. It was found as a caravan tavern in 1841 [not true] by one Samuel Shepheard before Cairo had a railway or the Suez Canal had been built. It has remained a neutral island of Swiss hotel keeping through the conquest of Egypt, and World Wars I ad II. Here came Kitchener form Khartoum, Stanley after he had found Livingstone and Theodore Roosevelt who told the British, “Rule or get out”. When Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps army was victoriously nearing Cairo it was said that Rommel had already picked out his room at Shepheard’s. LIFE photographer Robert Landry, who took these pictures, got it instead.’

The letters of the name on the façade have fallen apart. Notice two Egyptian flags, one roosting bird and the “S.H.” monogram, which looks like a dollar sign

Tourist shops line the front of Shepheard’s, south of the terrace entrance, including railroad and airline offices, antique shops, etc. Beyond is Cook’s tourist office, which still does a rushing business in wartime. The hotel has a 456-ft frontage, a maximum of six stories, contains 400 and 180 baths

Wounded from the desert fighting are usual at Shepheard’s these days. Here three Free Frenchmen go down the front steps, past the customary dragoman guides

The American Bar is one of two bars open from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. and from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. British usually drink Scotch and plain water, colonials gin, lime juice and water, Americans Bourbon or rye and soda, everybody beer. Below is dining room where nightly dance is held after October

Nightly dance in garden behind the hotel is mostly in uniform. Saturday is the big night. If the man is in uniform, civilian women usually wears an evening dress. In white at left is a nurse; center, a South African WAAS. In foreground are two very high-priced bottles of Rhineland wine. The band is part female. Guests include Egyptians and Balkan refugees

The porters are picked from Nubian and Sudanese warrior stock and can carry enormous loads. The bellhops never carry anything. These men are theoretically not supposed to be tipped, but usually are


The man responsible for the words and pictures above, photographer Bob Landry (1913-1960), was a LIFE regular. He was on a cruiser in the Pacific when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and from then on he was in one important place after another during that long war. He was in Egypt to shoot the desert war; later he went in with the first wave at D-Day but all of his film was lost, and his shoes to boot. Despite braving combat, it was a peacetime picture he took in the summer of 1941 that he is most remembered for, a shot of Rita Hayworth in a negligee.

Robert ‘Bob’ Landry

Rita by Bob


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The hotel that history forgot

Alongside the Paris Ritz and London’s Savoy, Shepheard’s of Cairo was once one of the most famous hotels in the world. So how come you’ve never heard of it?

I’m stood at the side of the road on Gomhurriya Street in Downtown Cairo pointing my camera and clicking quickly. Quickly, because it is painful to step out of the shade and into the full burn of the afternoon sun. I must appear furtive because almost immediately a uniformed guard from a few doors up the street comes running towards me waving his arms and shouting, ‘No, no, no’. Why am I taking photographs of his bank he wants to know? Because, I tell him, the site where his bank now stands used to be the old Shepheard’s Hotel. ‘Yani eh Shepheard’s?’ (‘What is this Shepheard’s?’). I find it tragic that he has to ask.

You can read the rest of this feature here, in the August issue of bmi’s Voyager magazine. Apologies, this link no longer works as the website for bmi’s Voyager magazine is defunct (as is the airline bmi) – but there’s plenty more about Shepheard’s elsewhere on this site .

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The prolific Douglas Sladen and his overachieving friends

The scene in front of the terrace at the Continental Hotel complete with the boy with the crocodile on his head

What does a person have to do to make their mark on posterity? Douglas Sladen was an author and a journalist who was nothing if not prolific. Born in 1856, he turned out more than 60 books before his death in 1947. He was for a while the editor of Who’s Who, and also the literary editor of To-Day. He was at the centre of Edwardian London literary life and yet who now has ever heard of him?

I encountered him, figuratively speaking, in Egypt. He wrote a book called Oriental Cairo (1911) that contains some entertaining descriptions of what a tourist would have seen in that city back in the first decade of the 20th century. His second chapter is called ‘Street Life in Cairo as seen from the Continental Hotel’:

There is one great advantage in staying at the Continental Hotel for the two or three months of the Cairo season: you can see, without dressing to go out, the most roaring farce ever presented off the stage. The great hotel has a nice sunny terrace with a balustrade which looks out on the Street of the Camel—the Regent Street of Cairo—and the Eskebiya Gardens and a regular museum of touts. It is doubtful which could be satirised more successfully as a human Zoological Gardens, the people who sit on the terrace behind the railings, Americans chiefly, with a strong dash of Jews, Turks, and Infidels, which last name the Mohammedan applies to the Levantine—or the extraordinary collection of parasites in the street below.

Those of the parasites, who are not dragomans have something to sell, generally something that no sane person would want to buy. The street Arab who walks about with a stuffed crocodile on his head must by this time be convinced of its unsaleability. He exhorts you to buy it, but so soon afterwards, without a real bargainer’s delay, invites you to take his photograph with it for a shilling.

I have seen stuffed crocodiles offered often, and once at least a live boa-constrictor and a live leopard—not a very old one—in a cage. Pigs in cages are comparatively common, and, as weight presents no difficulty to the Egyptian educated as a porter, men carry round all sorts of furniture for sale. I have seen men with quite large tables and cabinets on their backs patiently waiting for purchasers. I once saw a man with a palm-tree fourteen feet high on his head. Strawberry sellers are insistent in February, in spite of the fact that every foreigner knows or believes that their Egyptian vendors moisten the strawberries in their mouths whenever they look dusty.

You can read the whole of Oriental Cairo online here.

I assumed Sladen must have spent a considerable time in Egypt because he wrote no less than three weighty travel books about the place (the other two being Egypt and the English, 1908, and Queer Things About Egypt, 1910), as well as two novels set in the country. In fact, he was there just six months.

Portrait of Douglas Sladen by René de l'Hôpital, which hangs in the Octagon Room at York House in Twickenham

I was curious to find out more about him. I discovered the existence of an archive of his personal papers and then was bowled over to learn that this was held in the local-history library in my own neighbourhood of Richmond, on the Thames in southwest London. It turns out that Sladen was my near neighbour – at a century’s remove – living on Richmond Green from 1911 to 1923. (He lived in the rather grand Avenue House, long since demolished.) I spent a few Saturday afternoons looking through the contents of several boxes from the archive relating to his time in Egypt. They didn’t yield much – most of what they contained were yellowing clippings of reviews of his books and typed exhortations to his publisher to do more to promote them. But there were also handwritten and signed letters from fellow authors to whom Sladen had sent copies of his books, and these include Arthur Conan Doyle, H Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling; the creators of Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quartermain and Mowgli – that is some impressive peer group. If only Sladen could have taken the Arab boy with the crocodile on his head and thought up some adventures for him, he could have been the most famous of the lot.


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St Joe’s Parish

One of the joys of writing on Egypt’s historic old hotels was discovering some truly picaresque characters. Like Barbara Skelton. An English femme fatale, she reputedly slept her way around the fringes of London’s bohemia in the post-war years, earning herself the most excoriating of obituaries in The Independent in 1996, which described her as “selfish, sulky, socially unmanageable, agreeable only when she was in the mood – the victim of the incurable boredom which fostered her promiscuity and her notorious rudeness”. She was attached to the cipher department of the British Embassy Cairo during World War II and initially lodged at the Continental-Savoy – she described the scene from the window of her room in one of her autobiographies, which is how she comes to be in my book. While in Cairo one of her conquests was Egypt’s King Farouq, who told her approvingly that she was “a real minx” and flogged her outside the palace with the cord of his dressing-gown.

The person I really wish I’d been around to meet was Joe Scialom. From 1937 on he presided over the Long Bar at Shepheard’s Hotel (that’s him there, below, in 1942). He worked in white jacket, black bowtie and eight languages, acting as banker, adviser, umpire and father confessor to his clients. During his tenure the Long Bar was known as St Joe’s Parish and he ministered according to a philosophy of “Mix well, but shake politics”. His place in bar-tending history was secured by the invention of the Suffering Bastard, a potent cocktail that continues to be included in all good mixologist manuals. Joe was tending bar on Black Saturday, 26 January 1952, when the hotel was one of many foreign-owned businesses set on fire by rioters. He escaped the inferno “slightly ruffled and really annoyed”. He subsequently found work across town at the Semiramis but after being imprisoned by Nasser during the Suez Crisis of 1956 he quit the country.

During Joe’s time at Shepheard’s one of the many guests he befriended was Conrad Hilton, and when he left Egypt the acquaintance was renewed leading to Joe taking up a job in Puerto Rico at the Caribe Hilton. From there he moved to Cuba and the Havana Hilton, until he was displaced by revolution once again and chased out of the country by Fidel Castro. He moved to New York and the Waldorf Astoria and travelled frequently opening bars for Hilton hotels including in Paris, Rome and London. Joe’s final job was at Windows on the World in the then-newly opened World Trade Centre before he finally retired to Florida where he lived into his 90s. He survived to see the destruction of another of his bars on 9/11, passing away as recently as 2004.

Although it’s doubtful anyone now remembers Joe in Cairo, over in the US he’s venerated among connoisseurs as one of the world’s great barmen. Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry, author of a host of cocktail books (and source of much of the info in this post on Joe’s post-Shepheard’s life), keeps the memory alive and delivers the occasional talk and slide-show on the subject of ‘Joe Scialom, International Barman of Mystery’.

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