Recreating Wartime Cairo

It’s been quite strange spending so much time writing about Cairo when potentially great events are taking place there now.  Of course, modern Cairo is a very, very different place.  In 1942, which is when the new Jack Tanner novel is set, the city had a population of 2.4 million. Today, it’s knocking on for ten times that number.  Back then, Tahrir Square, where so much of the demonstrations are taking place, was called Midan Ismail, and it’s not the only name to change.  After the revolution in 1952, many of the principal streets in the city were renamed.  Over the next half-century much of wartime Cairo disappeared for ever too.  During the war, the centre of Cairo was filled with grand and ornate belle epoque buildings, that gave Cairo a quite European and even Parisian veneer, as this picture of the Continental Hotel shows.  The Continental was one of the grandest hotels in Cairo, and also an extremely popular dining and drinking place.  Another was the world famous Shepheard’s, destroyed in the fifties, while the Semiramis Hotel, a stone’s throw from present-day Tahrir Square and overlooking the banks of the Nile, was a vast edifice and belle epoque showcase, the largest hotel in the city by some margin and requisitioned for staff from General Headquarters Middle East.

I’ve been to Cairo several times, but while visiting today can give a flavour of the heat and sounds and smells of the place, the city has changed so much I’ve been looking elsewhere to try and recreate the wartime Cairo accurately.  Fortunately, there is a wealth of good contemporary literature, from the Levant Trilogy of heavily autobiographical novels by Olivia Manning, which are full of little gems of descriptions.  There are also a number of wartime memoirs and diaries which I’ve had ever since working on my account of the North African campaign, Together We Stand. I’ve also been re-reading Near East by the photographer, Cecil Beaton, who was out there in 1942taking propaganda photographs, and who had a wonderful eye for detail.  The travel writer H.V. Morton also wrote a fascinating book called Through Lands of the Bible, which has some superb descriptions of Cairo in the late 1930s.

And then there are the guide books of the day.  No Rough Guides or Lonely Planet, but plenty of others, including a Service Guide, which, although designed for enlisted men, has great details of buses, trams and cinemas and other attractions.  I discovered a brilliant guide call Egypt Tourist Guide, which is full of pictures and listings of hotels, bars, and various tourist attractions, while another good one has been Cairo of Today, first published in 1916.  It’s pitched mid-market, and is very readable, has some decent maps and a few illustrations, but some brilliant details which I’ve been making good use of.

However, all of these pale when stood beside the king of pre-war travel guides, Karl Baedeker.  The detail in his Egypt and Sudan is astonishing, right down the number of steps leading down to the water’s edge at the quayside of Old Cairo.  There is a dictionary of Arab words, explanations of hieroglyphs, a history of Egypt, details of hotels, trams, buses, how much one should pay for taxis, horse-drawn gharries, Nile boats etc etc etc.  And, it has wonderful maps, as I hope this snippet from the pull out map of Cairo shows.

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