Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo, Egypt

Shepheard’s Hotel history goes back 178 years when it was originally built by Englishman Samuel Shepheard in Cairo. It was originally named the “Hotel des Anglais” (English Hotel). Shepheard co-owned the hotel with a Mr. Hill who was Mohammed Ali Pasha’s head coachman. In 1845, Hill relinquished his interest in the hotel which Shepheard sold in 1861. Shepheard’s Hotel was known for its opulence, its famous guests and as a governmental base for the military. Its stained glass windows, Persian carpets, lavish gardens, terraces and great granite pillars were renowned throughout the Mideast and Europe. Its American bar was frequented not only by Americans but also by French and British officers. There were nightly dances with men in uniform and women in evening gowns. Richard Burton, a close friend of Shepheard, left a detailed description of his generous character and successful career, describing him as “a remarkable man in many points, and in all things the model “John Bull”. The Shepheards bar was known as the “long bar” because it was always jammed.

From 1937, Joe Scialom presided over the Long Bar at Shepheard’s. He worked in white jacket and black bowtie, spoke eight languages, and acted as banker, adviser, umpire and father confessor to his customers. During his tenure, the Long Bar was known as St. Joe’s Parish. He invented the Suffering Bastard, a potent mix that continues to be included in all good cocktail manuals. He served throughout World War II and the stories he could tell would really have made his book worth reading. Joe was tending the bar on a Saturday in 1952 when the hotel burned down. He left Egypt in 1956 and continued working as a barman in the United States. His final job was at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center in New York before he finally retired in Florida.

In the late 19th century, Cairo became a hub for international commerce, European tourists and travellers. The Shepheards Hotel provided a lofty view of Ibraham Pasha Street below. It was the center of many social and political events including the Grand Opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 when many international celebrities were invited to attend the ceremony.

Of all the world’s great hotels, only the Raffles in Singapore, the Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg could compare in glamour with Shepheards of this period.

The hotel had many notable guests including Aga Khan, the Maharajah of Jodhpur, Winston Churchill, explorer Henry Morton Stanley, Field Marshall Herbert Kichener, T.E. Laurence, Theodore Roosevelt, the Prince of Wales and many more. It was portrayed in the 1934 British film The Camels are Coming. The hotel is the setting for a number of scenes in the 1996 film The English Patient as well as The Grand Hotel des Bains in Venice Lido, Italy. The hotel was used as a base of operations in The Race Colonization series by Harry Turtledove, as a location in Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, and is mentioned in Anthony Trollope’s short-story, An Unprotected Female at the Pyramids (1861). It was also featured regularly in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels.

On January 26, 1952 the hotel was totally destroyed during the Cairo Fire and the anti-British riots that led to the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.

The current Shepheards Hotel was erected in 1957 by Egyptian Hotels Ltd. about half a mile from the site of the original hotel. It is owned by the Egyptian General Company for Tourism and Hotels and operated by the Rocco Forte Company.

Disclosure: When Loews Hotels acquired New York’s Drake Hotel in 1965, I was hired as the General Manager. At that time, the most famous and successful discotheque in Manhattan was Shepheard’s at the Drake which was open seven days a week for cocktails, dinner and supper with continuous dancing from 7:30 PM to 3AM. Luncheon was served Monday through Friday and special brunch on Sunday from noon to 4PM. At lunch in Shepheards there were fashion shows and, for some years, at noon time, a talk radio program on WNBC featuring the Metropolitan Opera’s Mimi Benzell as hostess with famous guests. I often filled in for guests who failed to show up.

We printed and distributed a card entitled, “How to Do the Newest Discotheque Dances at Shepheard’s in New York’s Drake Hotel” with step-by-step instructions to dance the Jerk, Watusi, Frug and the Monkey. Killer Joe Piro’s party was regular feature at Shepheard’s. The discotheque was so successful that patrons lined up on 56thStreet and around the corner on Park Avenue to wait (even on the winter’s coldest nights) to be admitted where they paid a hefty cover charge to dance to disco music.

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