If you’re living in Cairo at present, you’re probably feeling nostalgic for a quieter city with fewer people in the streets. Here’s a photo to prove that your city was once more peaceful, well, at least outside this hospital. And there was a world war going on!
With a theme like ‘Nostalgic’ I just had to return to my father’s war album. I often think I’ve blogged about his best photos, but when I dig around it long enough I can still find a photo to match a challenge, especially this week when Cairo is undergoing yet more trouble and millions of people are in the streets. It’s the ideal time to post a photo taken in Cairo in about 1941. My father wrote “9th BGH Heliopolis” under it, that is, the 9th British General Hospital in the suburb of Heliopolis, Cairo.
Postscript: Thanks to Ahmad Omar (see his comment below) I now know that this was originally the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, opened in 1910, which became a hospital in both WWI and WWII and since the 1980s has been one of the Presidential Palaces where presidential offices are located.
This week Ailsa showed us some unicolour tulip crowds where an individual stands out yet stands proud of ending up in the wrong garden. The photos reminded me of these two from my father’s war album. He wrote below the first photo ‘Visit to Cairo zoo’; it’s nicely arranged with each of the Australian soldiers positioned in the shot between pairs of Egyptian police. A real contrast.
Below the second photo where a salesman seems to be working the tables, he wrote ‘Outside café Heliopolis’. ‘Outside’ is an interesting adjective for that period when cafés in Brisbane, Australia, where my father lived (when not away at war), did not spread outside to the footpath in continental fashion as they do now. Even when I was a child, there was no such thing. The French had influenced Egyptian culture during their time as colonisers, but it took many more decades for the idea to catch on in Australia. Even if the soldiers returned with ideas and encouraged café owners to adopt this dining practice to which our country is so climatically suited, they were slow to try it out. These days, it’s a rare café that doesn’t have tables outside!
Ailsa’s photo challenge focuses on travel, http://wheresmybackpack.com/2012/12/21/travel-theme-festive/, and most (if not all) my contributions have been of photos taken far from home. Usually, travel is for the fun of it. But occasionally, throughout history, people have travelled to far-off lands to help defend them. For soldiers, travel is small compensation for a life that is dangerous, short on comfort and long on discipline. Christmas, for those raised in countries where it is celebrated, is a time when they feel particularly separated from their countrymen back home. For the A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Forces) in the Middle East in WWII, some comfort was offered in the establishment of a newspaper, the A.I.F. News. It was not only the first army newspaper for Australian troops, but the first in any theatre of war. Initially it was printed in Jerusalem, and later transferred to Cairo. Here’s the Christmas issue for December 1941.
Another form of comfort was writing. So far away from home at Christmas, the soldiers didn’t feel festive or joyous, especially if they’d seen horrors and lost companions in grim battle scenes. Many wrote poetry about the separation from girlfriends and families; the following poem, Christmas Bells, expresses both kinds of grief, separation that is temporary and the other, which is for ever. The poem is in my father’s poetry anthology, but it was written by Spr. E. Locke and was published in the A.I.F. News Christmas edition in the photo above. I’ll add my transcription after the image.
“Say, cobber, did you hear a sound
above the battle’s din?
A sound as sweet as music
that awakes response within;
I’m sure I heard it clearly,
above the bursting shells,
I’m sure the sound was happiness,
the chime of Christmas Bells.
“It wasn’t on the battlefield,
but came from o’er the foam,
from the land of joy and sunshine,
and the folks we left at home;
It seemed to hold a note of peace,
to tell of joys to come;
of many happy Christmases,
when fighting days are done.
“And now the dust of battle
and the torn and broken ground
have changed into a happy scene
and friends are all around;
How strange! The noise of screaming
shells has changed, and now I hear
The merry laugh of happy friends
That I hold ever dear.
“The scene is fading fast, mate,
But the Christmas bells ring clear,
and they’ll miss us over there, mate,
when they greet the newborn year;
But yet we will be there with them,
to give the year a start;
For though we’re miles across the sea
We’re always in their heart.”
Another photo from my father’s World War 2 album: it’s not a sharp image, but it’s about renewal, and that’s what matters.
During the presence of Australian troops in Egypt, house boats on the River Nile were used for officers convalescing or on leave. Earlier this year I posted a photo of Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo where officers also spent time relaxing and renewing their spirits. On the same theme, Dad wrote a poem about time-out for officers and privates, called Seven Days’ Leave, a few verses of which I posted here.
As the Nile flows through Cairo it is divided in two for a short space by Gezira Island. And on this island there’s a public green space with a geometric layout called the Andalusian Garden. It was designed by the architect Mahmoud Zulfiqar Bey in 1929 as a gift to his wife, and was originally used as a roller skating rink by members of the royal family. In 1935 it was opened to the public, and in 1941 when my father was in Cairo during the war he visited this Moorish garden. The park is now protected by a heritage classification. Unfortunately the pool in the photo is now dry, but the terraces are still decorated with coloured mosaics which are not evident in this black and white photo, but photos on this blog site show the beautiful colours of the tiles and the excellent design of the garden.
Thank you Ahmad Omar for telling me the name of this garden. The photo is from my father’s collection which he brought back from Egypt in 1942.
When I saw the themes for this week’s photo challenges, Foreign (WordPress weekly challenge) and Spooky (Ailsa’s travel photo challenge), I knew exactly which photos I wanted to submit. They’ve given me the creeps since I was a child paging through my father’s war album from the Middle East. While I’d linger over photos of pyramids, camels and Arabs, I’d glance quickly at these two, shiver, and turn the page.
The Foreign theme: The photos are owned by me, an Australian, and it depicts a palace built in Egypt in Hindu-style architecture designed by a Frenchman for a Belgian, Baron Empain. The architect, Alexandre Marcel, was inspired by the temples of Orissa in India and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The palace’s sculptures of Hindu divinities, mythical creatures and erotic French maidens are so out of place in this Muslim country that they attract the attention of looters and vandals. The palace is in Heliopolis, now a suburb of Cairo, but at the time of building, between 1907 and 1911, it was a town apart, designed by the Baron out of a stretch of desert he bought from the British colonial government. The Baron is buried under the Catholic basilica in Heliopolis, also commissioned by him, which you can see in a previous post.
The Spooky theme: Where do I begin? Both the interior and exterior of this reinforced concrete structure are crumbling and graffitied. Once decorated by Georges-Louis Claude in the French style, it had frescoes, parquet floors, gilded ceilings, gold-plated doorknobs, Belgian mirrors, and a spiral staircase in a tower sitting on a revolving base. It must have been beautiful. Now it’s bare, the only inhabitants bats and stray dogs. And ghosts. Not only is the palace said to be haunted, but some say Satanic rituals are practised there and that some of the mirrors are stained with blood. The Baron’s sister died when she fell from the tower and his psychologically disturbed daughter died in one of the basement chambers.
Its dark history has kept the palace closed to the public. Since 2005 it has been owned by the Egyptian government which has made a few attempts to find restorers, but plans have always come to nothing. This year, however, the government announced a definite restoration project to transform the palace into a cultural centre…
More photos of the palace exterior in its present decrepit state can be found here.
Now she’s challenging us to show off our own curves. Here are mine:
La Basilique Notre Dame d’Héliopolis, or the Basilique Church, sits in the centre of Heliopolis, which at the beginning of the 20th century was a planned town built in the desert ten kilometres from the centre of Cairo by the Belgian Baron Empain. It’s now a suburb of Cairo. Alexandre Marcel, the church’s architect, was inspired by Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, designing a smaller version of the domed basilica to be the centre of the new town. The baron is buried beneath the church.
This photo from my father’s album of 1941 is captioned by him “Electric trains”. I initially believed this building was the old Palace Hotel in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, but today I contacted someone in Heliopolis about my photos and he has corrected me.
This building is in the same area as the Palace Hotel which is now one of the presidential palaces, but the photo shows the el-Korba (the curve) district of Heliopolis which was once occupied by aristocratic Egyptians and some Europeans. The architecture of the area was commissioned by the Belgian Baron Empain in the early 1900s; the building in the photo was built in 1907. The architecture is unique, consisting of European-style arcaded balconies and broad colonnaded sidewalks combined with Islamic (Moorish-Persian) domes and geometric and arabesque patterns. The area was neglected at the end of the twentieth century as a reaction against old colonial influences, but after Heliopolis celebrated its centenary in 2005 the locals began to plan for the preservation of the architecture as part of Cairo’s heritage. Since 2005 a festival has been held annually to celebrate the Korba district and its uniqueness. In January this year a group of volunteers established the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative (HHI) with a vision to revive the area’s architecture and culture and to reduce the gridlocked traffic, which was clearly, looking at this photo, not a problem in 1941.
Ailsa (http://wheresmybackpack.com/2012/08/04/leading-lines/) has proposed that we find a photo containing ‘leading lines’. Well, I’m no photographer or artist, so this was a technical term I had to look up. I now know they are lines in an image that lead the eye to a point, either in or out of the picture. In my father’s 1941 album of Egyptian photos, there are a few urban scenes with streets disappearing into the distance. But in this one, below, the roads coming towards us are leading our eye to the centre of the photo.
It was taken in what was called, in the 1940s, Soliman Pasha Square, now known as Talaat Harb Square (Midan Talaat Harb), a short distance from Tahrir Square. In the centre of the square, in this photo, is a statue of Soliman Pasha which stood there from 1874 until 1964. Soliman Pasha was a general, born Joseph Anthelme Sève in Lyon, France, who served under Bonaparte and then in Egypt was a military expert in the army of Mohamed Ali. He converted to Islam and took the name Soliman Pasha.
At the far right of the photo is the once-opulent Groppi’s, formerly a Parisian-style café, tearoom and patisserie. Giacomo Groppi, a Swiss pastry maker, opened it in 1926 following success with other patisseries in Egypt. From the 1920s and through the war years, Groppi’s was the place to be seen. During the war, officers often stopped by for coffee or dinner or to find some female company.
While at the time this photo was taken the British were the resident colonials – hence the Australians were there defending Egypt – in the previous century it was the French who were leaving their mark. In the 1940s French influence is evident everywhere, not just the Frenchman on the plinth and the patisserie that sold pastries made from secret recipes written in French, but the architecture is also of French neoclassical style from the era of Soliman Pasha in the 19th century. Note some of the signs are also in French. In the late 20th century Egyptian governments wanted to remove reminders of colonialism and so today, so I’ve read, much of the European-style glamour is neglected and dusty. The statue of Soliman Pasha has now been moved to a military museum and a statue of Talaat Harb, an economist, stands in its place.