Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Mena House

There are luxury hotels and there are legends. The Mena House, an Oberoi hotel, belongs to the latter category.

before the ascent to the Great Pyramid in Giza, just about an hour by taxi from Cairo airport, if offers an oasis - quite literally as well as figuratively - of wellbeing, comfort, class and style at the fringes of the Egyptian desert.

After Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in 1797, the treasures he subsequently brought to Europe and Giovanni Belzoni's research from 1815 onwards spread Egypt-mania around the globe. The land of the Pharaohs became a major attraction for travelers. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 further increased the attraction of the '
exotic' destination. Thomas Cook's first trip to Egypt took place the same year.

Incidentally, the Great Pyramid is the oldest and tallest of the pyramids in Giza. Built around 2560 BC, it is also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops. According to the ancient historian and priest Manetho, Khufu aka Cheops, the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, reigned for 23 years from 2589 to 2566 BC. It is only possible for a limited number of visitors to climb into the Pyramid. I had the chance to do so. There is nothing to see inside. Still, once you are there, you wish to see it with your own eyes. Most impressive is to stand in front of it or, if you are lucky like me, just to watch it from your room's private balcony at the Mena House.

The Mena House hotel grew out of a former Khedival hunting lodge close to the Great Pyramid. Incidentally, Muhammad Ali - not the box champion - who had restored the Ottoman Empire's authority in Egypt after Napoleon's defeat and subsequently became the Pasha and Wāli of Egypt, had claimed the grander title of Khedive for himself and his successors. The Khedival lodge was a two story house nicknamed the 'mud hut' built in 1869 for King Ismail the Magnificent. He used it for himself and his guests, whilst hunting in the desert or visiting the pyramids at Giza. The Khedive lodge was enlarged and Pyramid Road from Cairo to Giza was built for the visit of Empress Eugenie in 1869.

Until today, the Mena House remains by far the most famous hotel near the Pyramids in Giza. In 1883, Frederick and Jessie Head bought the Khedival hunting lodge on their honeymoon. They enlarged it and built a second floor. Jessie gave English lessons to local children. The Heads sold the lodge to the English couple Ethel and Hugh F. Locke-King. They started building the Mena Hotel, as it was called at the time, in 1885. It opened the following year. Objects from that time still used today include an ancient door.

The hotel is named after the founding father of the First Egyptian Dynasty, Mena. Known as Aha or King Menes of Memphis, he founded the city of Memphis and unified Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom.

The Mena House is famous for its turned wood spool work, traditionally made of beech and mahogany wood, some stemming from Harem windows. Mashrabia aka Mashrabiya carved woodwork was introduced to Egypt during the Islamic period, from 750 AC onwards.

The English couple Locke-Kings not only used Mashrabiya windows, but also brass embossed doors, blue tiles, mother-of-pearl and mosaics of colored marbles to build a fairy-tale palace next to the Great Pyramid. According to Andreas Augustin, the great dining hall was an exact replica of a Cairo mosque.

In 1887, the first guests arrived by coach from Cairo, at a time when the Opera House announced 80 performances for the following season. On December 24, 1871 already, Verdi's Aida had premiered at the Cairo Opera House.

The Austrian Baron Ernst Rodakowski was the first general manager of the Mena House. He was a friend of Locke-King and managed to bring it up the level of the world's luxury hotels. However, the Locke-Kings were less successful in making their hotel profitable, being too generous when it came to hosting friends.

Initially, the Mena House offered 80 bedrooms with 10 foot high ceilings, horse riding, a golf course, two lawn tennis courts, a library, a billiard room, the services of a French chef in the fashionable restaurant as well as of the Italian photographer Fasani, who had his studio at the hotel.

The German managing director G. A. Loedlick from Frankfurt hired the English physician Barry-Blacker and therefore, made the first step in the direction of the creation of a fashionable spa near the pyramids. In 1890, the Mena House opened the first hotel swimming pool in Egypt. The same year, it was the first hotel to announce that it would stay open all year long and no longer close during the hot summer season.

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