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Famous Hotels of the World: The Mena House, Egypt.
By Andreas Augustin
Thursday, 23rd November 2006
Some of the greatest and most legendary hotels stand in Egypt. The greatest of them all - the Mena House - asked us to write their history.

In the shadow of the Great Pyramid we started digging, like Howard Carter in 1922. We didn't find Tutankhamun, but we found the truth.

I mentioned this before: it is not always easy to accept the truth. This photograph, as we found out, doesn't date back to 1869, but to 1886, the true opening year of the Mena House.

Producing a book like the Mena House hotel's history is a matter of years of research, comparable to an archaeological dig (left: Howard Carter).

In this case we were challenged by former general manager Rajiv Kaul to verify two age-old legends: the story that the Mena House was built on the spot where once stood an old Khedival hunting lodge, and that it had been opened in 1869, the year the Suez Canal opened.

In some historic hotels there are very special people working. They have developed a passion for their hotel's history. They are amateur archivists and history custodians, without being specially assigned to do such a job. They are simply passionate about their hotel's past. They collect photographs, labels and other memorabilia.

Needless to say - we love those people!

At the Mena House it was the Assistant Director of Sales & Marketing, Tarek Lotfy. He had started collecting material many years back. His office at the hotel in Gizah, opposite the Great Pyramid, had become the hotel's archives. He in return was happy to be offered professional assistance in dating various unverified photographs and other material.

Historic advertisements often help to revise and rethink today's marketing concepts. This ad dates from 1888.

We combed the premises for clues to the past. We discovered an ancient door still functioning today (right), which could be traced back to the year 1885, when today's hotel was built. We spotted elements matching old photographs, which we were able to date using genealogical research techniques. Here we were following the leads to uncover the truth usually hidden in some elements of the photograph (the date is always in the details.)

We knew that we were closing in on the former hunting lodge, but we were still not quite there. We spent weeks in the archives of The Egyptian Gazette, Cairo's first English newspaper, going through dusty folders of all newspapers published since 1880. We were unearthing faded old articles about the early days of the hotel. We narrowed the choice of opening dates down to a few possible years.

We visited the local museum and collections, browsed various archives between Beirut and Alexandria. We travelled to Paris to search the Archives Diplomatiques at the Quai d’Orsay. In London, the Imperial War Museum, usually a great source, came up with nothing. Austria's long-lasting relations with Egypt produced valuable archival material at the Voelkerkundemuseum in Vienna. But still the elusive hunting lodge described in countless books and articles remained a mystery.

One day, the door to the past suddenly creaked open. In an attic in the North of Scotland, in the house of a great-granddaughter of the first manager of the hotel, our torch beams shone upon remarkably well kept photographs hidden away for over one hundred years. For the first time, we came across an image of the ‘mud hut’. It showed a fine two storey building, fitting exactly the description of the fabled hunting lodge.

The building stood to the North of the first Mena House, about one hundred metres from its mosque shaped restaurant Al Rubayyat. It remained the private quarters of the hotel's owners and its first manager, Ernst Rodakowski. During the extensions built between 1950 and 1978, the structure was demolished and replaced by one of the Garden Wings of the hotel. The hunting lodge accommodated guests of the Khedive ever since 1869, the year the Suez Canal opened. Mission accomplished; back to the Mena House.

But when did the Mena House open? We found the private diary of the first manager. His entries confirmed the various announcements we had found in the Egyptian Gazette. A new date, which is now the official opening date of the Mena House in Cairo: 1886!

With more sources tapped, the romantic stories of the hotel unfolded. The Mena House really has seen all and everybody who ever travelled  to Egypt to visit the Pyramids. Some used to spend the entire winter here. Most comfortably located, right outside of Cairo and it's treasures, next to the Great Pyramid, with the fresh and clean air of the desert. Since decades the largest swimming pool of the country, floodlight tennis courts and an 18 holes golf course in the shadow of the Great Pyramid lures clients to the hotel.

Today, when I return to the Mena House to chat with its  general manager Sanjiv Malhotra, I follow simple routines:

Mornings are tennis or golf; mornings are swimming; mornings are a cup of fresh peppermint tea at the lobby bar. A brisk walk up the ramp to the Great Pyramid is a wonderful morning exercise. The day passes with meetings and some rest at the pool.

Evenings are for cocktails followed either by the best Indian food west of Mumbai (Chef Rais Ahmed's  Moghul Room presents miracles of mild and hot curries, tandoories and tikkas) or barbecues at Oasis beside the pool.

Later I sit on my little balcony and gaze at the Pyramid. I actually stare. Every day, every night, I stare at the Great Pyramid. Every time, I am led to believe that I have discovered  new shades, new facets in this giant pile of stones. Every time I sit and wait for something to happen, and in the end I realize that eternity is like the proverbial water kettle: it doesn't happen while you watch.

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