As many will know, I have long had a fascination with the original Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. I returned from Egypt recently and have been able to string together some more findings about the place, burned down in 1952 but living still in the stories and legends of the Desert War. It is perforce limited by the requirements of word length. I could write more……
It’s almost impossible to read of the LRDG, the wartime SAS or pretty much any tale of desert adventure, without running across reference to Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo. Located in pretty much the middle of that city, Shepheard’s was the social centre and the centre of intrigue for much of the Desert War.
Situated in the capital of an Egypt administered by Britain since 1882, Shepheard’s stood overlooking the beautiful Ezbekiyeh Gardens on Sharia Kamal, near the Opera House. It was one of the most celebrated hotels in the world until destruction by fire in 1952. Established in 1841 as the “Hotel des Anglais” by Samuel Shepheard, it went through changes of ownership and extensions, until by of 1940 it was the place to be seen, and the place to stay, for the well-heeled and well-connected of both Cairo and the British Empire. General Gordon set out from Shepheard’s to Khartoum. Stanley left from there to head south to find Livingstone, Sir Richard Burton returned to Shepheard’s upon completion of his journey to Mecca disguised as Haji Abdullah. Roosevelt. T E Lawrence, Churchill, Kitchener, Florence Nightingale, Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling all knew Shepheard’s well. “See you at Shepheard’s!” was the cry of farewell between monied children of Empire across the globe.
In appearance it was a grand affair, a frontage of three and four floors overlooking the Ezbekiyeh and with an imposing entrance. This was the on the famous Terrace, a covered café where the customers and Cairo watched each other. The hotel brochure described the Terrace, not without justification, as “the rendez-vous of all the greatest writers, explorers, politicians, and notables of every nation for the past forty years”. Across the entrance itself was the Latin inscription “Quis Aquam Nili Bibit Rursus Bibet” – loosely translated as “Whoever drinks the waters of the Nile will return”. Shepheard’s knew the draw of the timeless city in which it stood.
On entering, one came to the Egyptian Hall, the foyer, whose focal point was the Grand Staircase with four imposing columns – copies of the temple columns of Karnak. This foyer was the centre of much of the social life of the hotel, and much of the revelry too; the Staircase was flanked by two voluptuous caryatids – of whom more later. In an alcove of the foyer was Mansour’s Jewellers, selling gold, silver and Pharaonic tomb relics. Off to the right was the American Bar, sometimes jokingly called the Long Bar after the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Physically quite short, the “Long Bar” at Shepheard’s won the nickname because of the length of time it took to get served. At the rear of the Egyptian Hall, passing beyond the lounge seating for the overspill clientele of the bar, was the Moorish Hall or Arabic Hall, another lounge area. Off to the left were the Restaurant and, smaller, the Grill Room.
All were grandly furnished. Of course the hotel had many bedrooms. The ground floor rooms tended to be singles, favoured by younger officers (of the military, only officers were permitted to stay at Shepheard’s) who discovered that they could get in and out of the hotel through the windows, thus avoiding those sitting at the Terrace (it was important to enter the correct window, as several learned). The larger and more well-appointed rooms were upstairs, including suites.
It was a grand place to stay. However as both World Wars loomed over Cairo the atmosphere of the hotel alternated between the elitism of an Agatha Christie novel and the chaos of a Wodehouse novel. Shepheard’s was famous for practical jokes and escapades, carried out not only by customers (especially young Allied officers), but by staff too. Armistice Night 1918 saw the Moorish Hall taken over as a football pitch by jubilant subalterns. The manager appealed for calm, and was promptly rolled up in a carpet and packed away in a corner. That night also saw a pillow fight between British and ANZAC troops on the Grand Staircase, with nurses raiding bedrooms for “ammunition”. This sort of thing was not uncommon. The topless caryatids at the foot of the staircase somehow survived the two wars, despite regularly being carried off to bedrooms by young officers bent on devilry. At times, customers disguised themselves as waiters, and vice versa, for practical jokes. This is not to say Shepheard’s was a hive of clownery, but certainly when the “waters of the Nile” had been flowing of an evening, wartime brought out relief at survival as manifested as a great deal of joking around.
Though Shepheard’s was in a very upmarket area of Cairo, its location did cause more than a little police attention when the revelry got out of hand – just round the corner was Sharia Wagh el-Birka,or, as troops called it, “The Birka” – the red light district. The whole triangle of streets between the Birka and Sharia Clot Bey was a rabbit-warren of disreputable bars, drinking dens and brothels (many “official” and run by the Army to ensure hygiene) – and of course these establishments drew soldiery like a light draws moths. Officers caught down the Birka could find themselves in awkward situations very quickly – hence the sudden importance of access to ground floor bedrooms via the window if, for instance, Military Police were at the hotel entrance!
Shepheard’s was also a haven for “spooks”, especially in 1940. Women were not allowed in the Long Bar, and so it became notorious for the indiscretion of its patrons. During the Desert War it was said that anyone who wanted to find out the Eighth Army Order of Battle just had to sit there listening. The barman of the Long Bar was Joe Scialom, a celebrated and welcoming figure. It was Joe who created the famous “Suffering Bastard” cocktail for hung-over officers – brandy, gin, lime juice, bitters and ginger beer.
In 1940 it was an open secret that operatives from SOE, the Special Operations Executive, could be found in the Long Bar, and not always as tight-lipped as they should be. They used Shepheard’s as a refuge away from their communal “barracks” at “Hangover Hall” – Rustum Buildings on Qasr El Aini. Also found in the Long Bar were staffers from Grey Pillars – GHQ Middle East, a block in Garden City taken over by the British as their headquarters (whose staff had been dubbed “fossilised shit” by David Stirling of the SAS).
Not everyone at Shepheard’s was there for the high life however. Pre-war Cairo resident and desert traveller Ralph Bagnold, temporarily exiled from Egypt, was sojourning in Cairo in June 1940 as he changed troopships on his way to a posting in Africa. He was recognised on Shepheard’s Terrace by a local reporter, and then mentioned in an article read by General Wavell, British Commander in Chief, Middle East. Wavell summoned Bagnold to Grey Pillars, recruited him for his desert expertise, and the rest is history. It’s fair to say that without Shepheard’s there might not have been an LRDG!
It fast became a regular haunt of both LRDG and SAS officers (as well as poseurs, “hangers-on” and braggarts, often collectively termed the Short Range Shepheard’s Group). Of the SAS and LRDG themselves, another regular guest was Jock Lewes, one of the founders of the SAS. In the summer of 1941 Jock was relaxing outside the Long Bar in the Egyptian Hall, pondering the insignia for the fledgling unit. In the British Army, parachute “wings” are worn to a standard pattern, but as he relaxed in his chair and gazed upward, his gaze fell on a ceiling frieze – a painting of a sacred ibis, wings spread wide. Why not, he mused, adopt the Ibis wings as a distinctive set of para wings for the new unit? This they did, and the LRDG took on the ibis wings as well for their uniforms. In another episode, General Auchinleck met David Stirling at Shepheard’s, when Stirling was unveiling to him the brand-new SAS beret and capbadge.
The early history of both the LRDG and SAS is intertwined with Shepheard’s Hotel. But what happened to it? Sadly it was burned to the ground in the anti-British riots of 1952. Today there is no trace of it left. The imposing Central Bank of Egypt stands there (“No photograph! No photograph!” when I was there in 2020), on the renamed Republic Street. A new “Shepheard Hotel” has been built on the Nile bank, though closed for a supposed two-year renovation since 2014. It does however hold the safe and dedication plaque from the original Shepheard’s….but the hotel is the palest of imitations. Relics of those heady days still surface at times – in 2019 a room key for Shepheard’s sold for over £1000 at auction. Sadly, though, the days of adventure, intrigue and revelry at Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo, are fast passing into the realms of glorious but fading memory.