Nothing quite encapsulates each era in Egypt's history like the legendary Mena House Hotel. Eihab Boraie delves into one of the few remaining portals to our past with the property's current marketing and archives director.
A requirement for life in the madness of Cairo is the ability to escape it every once in a while. What many don’t realise is that hiding, in the most obvious of sites, is a calm peaceful oasis that is the only present portal to Egypt’s golden era of cosmopolitanism.
What do Alicia Silverstone, Om Kalthum, Robert de Niro, Winston Churchill, Coolio, Jimmy Carter, Frank Sinatra, Lady Diana and Charlie Chaplin have all in common? A safe bet would be nothing, but in truth all of these iconic figures have come to the foot of the Pyramids to stay at the world renowned Mena House Hotel, an institution that has survived the rule of a wide range of Egypt’s kings and presidents. With 145 years of history, the Mena House has seen many transformations, and over time its walls have accumulated quite the collection of stories. Looking to learn more about its secrets I checked in for a weekend, and was fortunate to be able to sit down with Tarek Lofty, the Mena House’s Director of Marketing and the keeper of the in-house archives, who filled me on everything from celebrity gossip to hosting conferences that changed the course of history.
Meeting in the reception bar, I find Lotfy looking in-tune and at peace with his surroundings. He was sitting in front of a massive window, draped with wooden stars that accentuate the magnificent view of Khufu. Within an instant of sitting down I found myself pampered by an exceptionally trained staff, which look like they have been offering karkade and a cool, wet towel for decades. After the refreshing start, Lotfy decides the best way to understand the Mena House’s energy is with a guided tour.
“In the late 1860s, Khedive Ismael decided to build a pair of lodges at the pyramids, one for sunrise and the other for the sunset.” Shortly after building it, Ismael was forced to sell his hunting lodge to private owners to settle debts. It wasn’t until 1887 that the Mena House was transformed into an 80 room hotel open to the public. As though he was remembering being there himself, Lotfy vividly paints the times saying, “The old Mena House pool was the place to be seen. You could see royalty and celebrities hanging around in that terrace…the very same terrace where classic Hollywood movies like The Spy Who Loved Me, Valley of the Kings, and Flatfoot in Egypt were filmed.”
For the first half of the 20th century, the Mena House was the absolute standard for luxury and culture in Egypt. In the golden ages of the 30s and 40s, Om Kalthum used to play on the first day of every month. After her passing, the Mena House decided to design a replica of her bedroom, complete with lyrics carved in wood, lining the walls. When Robert De Niro happened to see the room on a visit to the pyramids, he instantly switched his previously planned accommodation for the legendary singer’s tribute suite. The only interruptions in its world class service came during the World Wars. During WWI, the Mena House became the regional camp for Australian troops. The second time service was halted was during World War II when the historic property was home to some of the most defining decisions in history.
At this point of the tour, we enter the most expensive suite in the hotel: the Churchill Suite. “In World War II, Churchill threw a Thanksgiving dinner for the three delegations. We had only four days notice to clear the guests and we had to turn three floors into offices; one for the Brits, one for the Americans and the third for the Chinese,” explains Lotfy. Shortly after this conference, the Mena House entered its transformational times as the Egyptian Hotel Company was nationalised when Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power.
“Before the 1952 revolution, Egypt was a cosmopolitan country, especially Cairo and Alexandria. You had Greeks, French, Italians, Armenians and Jews that were not necessarily rich people. They were waiters, cooks and maids. Because of the revolution, they all ran away,” he explains. When Nasser came to power, he nationalised all the hotels, taking away the ownership from Charles Behler, one of the most important contributors to Cairo’s architecture and real estate.
However, under Nasser’s rule Hollywood’s lust for filming in Egypt continued. In 1954, President Nasser personally extended full support to director Cecil B. Demille to film The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston. The film crew stayed at Mena House for three months during the shooting of the film, and even employed one of the hotel’s golf caddies. “At the time, Hassan Gomaa was only 10-years old, and was paid nine pounds a day to act as an extra, while serving the crew rum and cokes,” according to Lotfy. The government ran the hotel until the Oberoi took over the property in 1972, closing the hotel for a year in order to restore the institution to its former glory.
It wasn’t only Sadat who benefited from hosting conferences at the lavish hotel, but also his wife, who threw a massive event to support her Hope and Faith Organization. “At the event, Bulgari and Pierre Balmain threw a fashion show by the pool (long before it was converted to the new 139 Lounge). The following night, there was a concert by Frank Sinatra at the pyramids, where he sang Strangers on the Nile,” Lotfy reminisced, comparing the event to the one that the next First Lady organised in 1989.
“Suzanne Mubarak had a Japanese Kimono show. They had to fly their engineers here five times to take measures of the venue and so on. We were expecting a lavish and extravagant catwalk. The end result was a basic and simple S-shaped catwalk!” laughs Lotfy. Making matters worse was the policy that no one can leave a room after the First Lady had entered it. As the night wore on, going to the bathroom became a serious, albeit hilarious problem.
During Mubarak’s time in power many celebrities frequented the landmark hotel. In 1998, rapper Coolio paid a visit and trashed the Charlie Chaplin suite, while Patricia Kass stayed at King Gustav Suite. Both performers were to give a concert at Cairo International Conference centre, but were cancelled last minute due to the organisers’ failure to sell enough tickets.
Dealing with celebrities is one thing, but accommodating to presidents and their family members is an entirely different set of problems. “The president of France came with his family and just two bodyguards. The following day we had Prince Andrew of England, who was invited by Gamal Mubarak. He had dinner at the Montgomery suite, and instead of having two guards protecting him, he had a small army with machine guns that looked like cast members of the movie Men in Black.”
It was also under Mubarak’s reign that one of the most embarrassing events occurred during one of the most important of times; the millennium celebration. With Pink Floyd marketed to play, and guests booking hotel rooms from as far back as 1988, expectations were high for Egypt to pull off a ceremony to compete with the world. At the same time it was Ramadan, so for the many who came in search of champagne and The Dark Side of the Moon were disappointed, as all they were given was Coca-Cola and Jean Michel Jarre. It was huge mistake on all parts, but later in the decade the Mena House was looked to once again by global glitterati including the likes of Bryan Adams, Andrea Bocelli, Julio Iglesias and – in what was slated as the final ever performance to be allowed at the foot of the pyramids – Kylie Minogue, who had the hotel filled with high profile visitors from across the world.
It was amazing just how much information Lotfy could squeeze into a tour. As I left to explore the hotel I encountered; an array of deliciously exotic cuisines, relaxed by the beautifully serene pool, enjoyed thirst quenching drinks at multiple bars including the new 139 Lounge & Terrace, where I got to watch Netherlands destroy Spain, while enjoying one of the best views in the world. The friendly staff was made up of professionals who have worked there for over 20 years. With the history that has transpired there is no shortage of stories, and with tourism being low and Ramadan approaching, this is the absolute perfect time capsule for Egyptians looking to live the legend. Hopefully as its legacy continues, the Mena House will prove to be as unmovable as the pyramids, but in the meantime it stands as the best escape from Cairo, and quite possibly the only hassle-free way to enjoy our heritage.
Find out more about The Mena House Hotel on their official Facebook page here.