Sunday, 25 May 2014

Alexandria's Hotel Cecil

Alessandro Loria, Alexandrian architect.
In a city whose architecture was playfully eclectic, no one played over such a variety of styles as Alessandro Loria, an Italian Jew from Tuscany who built the Italian Hospital at 3 Rue du Palais to the east of the Rond Point (now Sharia Dalal Dessouki off Midan Wabour el Maya); the Jewish Hospital at 40 Rue Moharrem Bey; and the National Bank of Egypt with its mosaic medallions and ascending arabesques on the Rue Talaat Harb in the centre of town.  

The one-time Lido House Hotel designed by Loria.
Loria also built several of the most delightful buildings along the sweep of the Eastern Harbour, including the Venetian-style Lido House Hotel. Long since given over to offices and rented rooms, the one-time Lido's crumbling though delicate tracery of arches and its intricately patterned coloured brickwork still lend the Corniche a carnival air. 

But Alessandro Loria most famously left his mark on the city with the Hotel Cecil, a crenellated moorish palace overlooking the Eastern Harbour near the Italian consulate. 

Alessandro Loria's Hotel Cecil in the 1930s.
Loria was commissioned to build the hotel by Albert Metzger, a Jew from Alsace who during the First World War had discovered the inconvenience of having a German passport and therefore being an enemy alien and had since become a British citizen.  When he opened his hotel in 1929, Metzger at first called it the Regina Palace but within a year renamed it the Cecil. It was immediately recognised as the finest hotel in Alexandria, and for Lawrence Durrell 'it was always preferable to Cairo's Shepheard's Hotel because of its proximity to the sea'.

The Cecil became a recurrent landmark in The Alexandria Quartet where Justine 'would perhaps be waiting, gloved hands folded on her handbag, staring out through the windows upon which the sea crawled and sprawled, climbing and subsiding, across the screen of palms in the little municipal square which flapped and creaked like loose sails'.

The entrance to the Cecil today.
The hotel figures also in Miramar, Naguib Mahfouz’ 1967 novel set in Alexandria.  ‘From my balcony at the Cecil I cannot see the Corniche unless I lean out over the railing.  It’s like being on a ship.  The sea sprawls right below me.  ... The sea.  Its guts churn with flotsam and secret death.’

The Hotel Cecil was seized by the Egyptian government after Nasser’s coup d’etat in 1952, and five years later the Metzger family was expelled from the country. In 2007, after a lengthy court battle, legal ownership of the hotel was returned to the Metzgers, who subsequently sold it back to the Egyptian government who now lease it to the French hotel chain Sofitel.

But why did Metzger call his hotel the Cecil?  The explanation is found in London where the Hotel Cecil, larger even than the Savoy, was built in the 1890s between the Thames Embankment and the Strand on land that had recently been sold by Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, whose family name was Cecil.  Even larger than the Savoy, the Cecil was the largest hotel in Europe when it opened, with more than eight hundred rooms. 

London's Hotel Cecil was largely demolished in 1930 and Shell Mex House was built on the site. Shell Mex has since moved and the building is known as 80 Strand. The Strand facade of the hotel remains, now occupied by shops and offices, while at its centre a grandiose arch leads to the 80 Strand building proper which, among other things, has become the headquarters of the Penguin publishing group.

Hotels round the world named themselves the Cecil after the grand hotel in London. 

Delhi and Agra, Patras and Brussels and Seville, Los Angeles, Vichy and Tangier all had Hotel Cecils.

But Metzger had another and more cogent reason for naming his hotel the Cecil.  

Cleopatra's Needles in Alexandria, 1853. The standing one went to New York's Central Park; the one lying prone now stands on the Thames Embankment in London.
Just twenty years before the London Cecil was built, Cleopatra’s Needle was raised on the Thames Embankment.  A gift from the Egyptian government, the obelisk had originally been raised by Tuthmosis III at Heliopolis for sun worship but the Romans brought it to Alexandria where they erected it, along with another, in front of a temple that Cleopatra had begun for one lover, Julius Caesar, and completed in honour of another lover, Mark Antony.  

The Caesareum, as it was called, stood directly outside what is now Alexandria’s Hotel Cecil, while the obelisks themselves stood on the site of Alexandria’s Hotel Metropole.  One obelisk was given to the United States and now stands in New York’s Central Park, the other was given to Britain and now stands on the Thames Embankment.  

In this early 20th century photograph, London's Hotel Cecil is on the left, overlooking Cleopatra's Needle at the centre of the picture. 
1920s advertisement in Country Life
for London's Hotel Cecil.
For two thousand years Cleopatra’s Needles stood near Alexandria’s Cecil Hotel but now they are gone. How long London’s Cleopatra’s Needle will remain standing on the Thames Embankment remains to be seen.

Certainly London’s Hotel Cecil is long gone – except as a distant memory preserved in the name of Alexandria’s most famous hotel. 

For more about Alessandro Loria and Alexandria's Hotel Cecil, see Michael Haag's Vintage Alexandria and his Alexandria: City of Memory.