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InterContinental Cairo Semiramis
Review, photos and history of the hotel in the Egyptian capital
Article added on April 14, 2012 at 10:28 London time; last update on April 24, 2012

Impressions from my last stay at the luxury hotel

One of the most pleasant ways to help a country in economic difficulties is to spend money there as a tourist. Travel to Egypt!

  
Situated on the bank of the Nile, InterContinental Cairo Semiramis is a well managed luxury hotel in the Egyptian capital. It made an excellent impression when I last saw it at the end of 2007. No wonder, its lobby and restaurants had last been renovated that same year. The hotel interior designers of the 2002 and 2007 refurbishments were the Paris-based Pierre-Yves Rochon and the New York City-based Tony Chi.

In 2008, Italian restaurant Pane Vino with its mushroom risotto made by its Italian chef was excellent to the point that I went there twice for it. Since I was not in the hotel for a restaurant review, I did not interview the chef. Maybe in May 2012, I will find out whether he is still there and whether the food is still that good.

On a clear day, I could not only overlook the city from my double room on the 14th floor, I could even see the Pyramids in Giza some 20km away! Incidentally, all the rooms at the InterContinental Cairo Semiramis have a balcony. Just try to book one on the Nile side.

Above all, the Semiramis is ideally situated, just three minutes on foot from the Egyptian Museum; in a few years, large parts of the fabulous collection will be moved to a brand new museum in Giza.



The hotel history of the Intercontinental Cairo Semiramis

The Semiramis opened as an InterContinental hotel in 1987 with over 700 rooms and suites. In its huge ballrooms - the Cleopatra ballroom alone can accommodate up to 2000 guests - the hotel has hosted an uncountable number of weddings and parties; during my short stay in 2008 alone, I witnessed two huge weddings by Egypt's upper class families there.

The history of the Semiramis however dates back much further than 1987. A booklet entitled Queen of the Nile by the late Adel Mahmoud Sabet, King Farouk's cousin and biographer, tells its story in English and Arabic; the English version fills some 31 pages of the illustrated brochure.

In 1907, the Semiramis Hotel, a work by the Italian engineer Tuilo Parvis, was inaugurated in the prestigious quarter of Kasr el Doubara, back then a place of elegant gardens and town houses. Khedive Ismail, inspired by the Paris works of Baron Haussmann, turned Cairo into a city of large avenues and luxuriant gardens.

In 1864, my fellow Swiss, the son of a peasant, the great hotelier Franz Josef Bucher (1834-1906), and his brother-in-law, Josef Durrer (1841-1919), had founded the company Bucher-Durrer, which owned and run, among other businesses, a series of luxury hotels. Its portfolio included the Palace, the Grand Hotel and the Parc Hotel in Bürgenstock (Lucerne) as well as the Grand Hotel Quirinal in Rome, to mention just a few.

In 1907, Bucher-Durrer Hotels, with its representatives Max and Theodore Bucher, opened the Semiramis Hotel at Cairo's Nile Corniche, which attracted the Egyptian and international high-society with its elegantly furnished Louis XVI salons, Gobelins on the walls and rooms decorated in the Empire style by Keller & Co. from Zurich.

With the exception of the Gezira Palace Hotel, the Semiramis was the first hotel built on the shores of the Nile, situated somewhere between the British Embassy and the British army base.

As early as in 1910, Bucher-Durrer sold their controlling shares of the Semiramis to their fellow Swiss, Charles Baehler, who had worked in Egypt since 1889 to become the owner of the Egyptian Hotels Company, which also controlled the Gezirah Palace Hotel and the legendary Shepheards. The Shepheards was destroyed in later years and rebuilt as a modern hotel next to the Semiramis. In 2008, Shepheards was a rather dull four-star hotel. [Added on April 15, 2012: The world is small. Staying once again at London's excellent Brown's Hotel, I have just learned that the Shepheard Hotel is already under the management of Rocco Forte and should be fully refurbished in 2013].

Charles Baehler, who died in 1937 as the Semiramis owner [according to some sources, he had sold his hotel empire in 1932], was The hotel tycoon in Egypt because, as the founder of the Upper Egypt Hotels Company in 1905 (or 1906), he also operated the Cataract Hotel in Aswan and the Winter Palace hotel in Luxor, both currently under management by Sofitel. Baehler Arcade, Baehler Mansions and Baehler Passage were a few other additions of the Swiss to the Cairo landscape.

In 1920, an Egyptian hotel company bought the adjacent land to the Semiramis and built a hotel extension consisting of 4 floors with 16 rooms each. British troops occupied the hotel twice, during the First World War from November 1915 until March 1916 and during the Second World War from 1940 until 1946.

Only after the Second World War, the Semiramis opened both in winter and summer. It then featured Cairo's first elevators, brassbound mahogany marvels. It also featured Cairo's first European style nightclub. When I stayed at the very different new building, the InterConti's nightclub was unfortunately closed.

According to Adel Sabet, the Semiramis witnessed numerous Fishing Fleets. “English ladies on the hunt for prospective and adequate husbands for their daughters.” Lonely officers of the British aristocracy stationed in Cairo were easy victims. Agatha Christie wrote in her autobiography: “Cairo from the point of view of a girl was a dream delight. We spent three months there and I went to five dances a week.”

Among the hotels memorable moments was weighing of the Aga Khan III ceremony, which took place in 1955 or 1956 and during which Aga Khan III (1877-1957) was asked to accept the modest gift of 200,000 gold pound coins.

Famous guests at Hotel Semiramis included Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tut Ankh Amun (German article), Lord Kitchener, the leading tenor of his time, Enrico Caruso, Winston Churchill, King Fuad and King Farouk, who was a frequent visitor, much to the delight of the tourists, Aristotle Onassis as well as a certain Lady Idina Gordon, who later became notorious because she was involved in the murder of her husband in Kenya; her story was turned into a movie White Mischief (german review), which was banned in the UK!

During the 1956 Suez crisis, when the British and the French attacked Nasser's Egypt, foreign correspondents were rounded up and detained at the Semiramis. Colonel Slade Baker of the London Sunday Times had the nerve to complain that the Semiramis had run out of its best Champagne!

When the original Semiramis Hotel closed for good in 1974, most of its historic furniture and its antiques were distributed among the hotels of the owning company, namely El Nile, Sheherezade and Omar El Khayyam, today's Marriott Hotel. The rest was sold in a public auction, where a Lady Lami Mofarag bought the complete bedroom suite of the room she had lived in for a decade.

The historic Semiramis was completely destroyed to give way to the 1987 InterContinental Cairo Semiramis. It is owned by the Egyptian Hotel Company (EGOTH) and a group of Saudi investors.



The legend and legendary history of Queen Semiramis

Incidentally, Semiramis was both a historic and legendary Queen of Assyria and Babylon; the historic one is considered to have reigned from 810 BC until 806 BC. She is said to be the founder or rather the restorer of the city of Babylon. During her reign, she fought both the Persians and the Libyans. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, was attributed to her reign. According to the legend, after her death, Semiramis became a bird worshipped by her people. In fact, there were several queens named Semiramis, making it easier for facts and legends to merge. The Assyrians, the Armenians, the Greek and many others told her story in different versions already in ancient times. For the Jews, Semiramis is the wife of Nimrod, one of four women who ruled the world. European writers of the Middle Ages until the present as well as several opera composers added their interpretations of the story. One thing is clear, the hotel InterContinental Cairo Semiramis is not a legend, but real!

Purchase books about Cairo and Egypt from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukAmazon.fr, Amazon.it and Amazon.de.


The imposing façade of the luxury hotel. Photos © InterContinental Cairo Semiramis.


The luxury hotel InterContinental Cairo Semiramis seen from the other side of the Nile. Photos © InterContinental Cairo Semiramis. - Purchase books about Cairo and Egypt from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukAmazon.fr, Amazon.it and Amazon.de.


View of an executive suite. Photos © InterContinental Cairo Semiramis.


A Club Nile View Room. Photos © InterContinental Cairo Semiramis. - Purchase books about Cairo and Egypt from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukAmazon.fr, Amazon.it and Amazon.de.


The hotel pool. In addition, the Semiramis also offers a health club with a gym, sun deck, sauna, Turkish bath and massage room. Photos © InterContinental Cairo Semiramis.


The balcony of the excellent Italian restaurant Pane Vino, where I tasted an excellent mushroom risotto back in 2007. Photos © InterContinental Cairo Semiramis.


The Lebanese Sabaya restaurant. Photos © InterContinental Cairo Semiramis.


On a clear day, I could not only overlook the city from my double room on the 14th floor, I could even see the Pyramids in Giza some 20km away! Of course not in such a detail as on this photograph. Photos © InterContinental Cairo Semiramis.

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© Copyright www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.