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Volume 24, Number 6November/December 1973

In This Issue

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From Khans To Khiltons

Written by Joseph Fitchett
Photographed by S. M. Amin
Additional photographs by Burnett H. Moody and Peter Keen

In Mecca, they're finishing up an Inter-Continental. A Holiday Inn just opened its doors in Beirut. In Cairo, a Sheraton and a Hilton face each other across the Nile and both hotels are booked solid. Throughout the Middle East today jumbo jets are spilling out travelers in search of a room for the night and builders are racing to provide them. There are journalists and diplomats, the ubiquitous Japanese salesman and Texas oil man, and tourists—camera-toting Westerners and, in numbers growing by leaps and bounds each year, Arabs. Hotel construction looms large in economic planning throughout the area, with nearly every Arab country hoping to double present facilities—in some cases quadruple—in the next two years.

It was not always so. In ancient times travelers either carried their meager needs with them in a humble bedroll or camped in aristocratic style. Fort-like khans or caravanserais grew up after the 13th century, European travelers brought along the Grand Hotel in the 19th, and the jet plane and oil-fueled prosperity are largely responsible for the glass-walled, air-conditioned towers springing up today. But Middle East hotels, from khans to khiltons, have always been exciting, animated and cosmopolitan establishments.

In traditional Arab lifestyle, hotels had no place. Hospitality was a sacred obligation, a social duty—to sell it would make a Bedouin blush—and any self-respecting traveler took an invitation to stay with relatives, friends or local notables for granted. On the other hand, as commerce spread with Islam and public order, tribes and townsmen along the great trade routes could hardly afford to protect or entertain the growing caravans unaided, and so institutions known as khans were established in about the 13th century.

The early khans were fortified single-story buildings, enclosing a well and a central courtyard used for animals, baggage and wagons. Around the open courtyard were vaulted storerooms for goods and fodder. Built a day's journey apart, a distance of 20 to 25 miles, along the main routes, the roadside khans offered safe, dependable lodging to travelers, pilgrims, merchants, postal convoys—to anyone except soldiers on the march. In remote khans the only accommodation was a four-foot-deep inner ledge in the courtyard wall; small hearths were spaced at intervals along it where travelers made little encampments, cooking over a wood fire and sleeping wrapped in a light rug or blanket with their saddle for a pillow and camels tethered at their feet. In hot regions, a stairway led up to a flat roof where travelers assembled and ate in the evening before the caravan moved off. In cities, larger multistoried khans developed, some architecturally quite sophisticated and offering private rooms with hearths, bathrooms and lavatories. The most splendid might also contain a mosque, together with a livery stable and blacksmith, plus a coffee house. French architect Le Corbusier has acknowledged that some of his designs were inspired by the duplex apartments of 14th century Egyptian khans. When modern transport finally made caravans obsolete, the khans did not become hotels. Sometimes they were used as warehouses, more often as garages. In Beirut some became the first movie palaces.

Another early Muslim prototype of hotels was the tekkeye—an endowed hostel for pilgrims which was a sort of cross between a khan and a monastery. In the central courtyard, usually dominated by a mosque and reflecting pool, pilgrims foregathered waiting for a caravan to form up. One of the finest examples, Suleiman the Great's Tekkeye (now a museum), is in Damascus, a starting point for the trek south to Medina and the Muslim Holy Places.

With the coming of Western travelers in large numbers, however, the old arrangements would not do, neither the khans nor their later urban equivalents, the funduks. (The funduks had dormitory-like sleeping arrangements and no restaurants or public rooms and many have now degenerated into flophouses.) The foreign visitors demanded a standard of hygiene which, although maintained in private Arab homes, was generally ignored in public accommodations. They wanted mosquito netting over their beds, food prepared in familiar ways and, perhaps most important, a comfortable haven where the reassuring sound of European voices helped to ward off the shock of confronting a foreign culture.

When, after 1840, Englishmen began traveling to India via Egypt and the Red Sea rather than around the Cape, Samuel Shepheard, a Victorian businessman, set up a Cairo boarding house which eventually became the most celebrated hostelry outside Europe. Others soon followed, often opening in modified private residences. A wealthy Egyptian family in Luxor, for example, whose house had a wing for each son, turned it into the Savoy Hotel. The gala opening of the Suez Canal, in 1869, gave the Khedive Ismail an excuse to construct several new hotels to join Shepheard's on what became Opera Square, Cairo's first European-style square, opposite the brand-new Opera House.

In the latter half of the 19th century, as the British tightened their grip on Egypt, the fashion of luxurious winter tourism caught on and well-to-do American and English families felt obliged to "do" at least one winter in Egypt. Shepheard's was their principal rendezvous, but European businessmen also built a whole chain of "Winter Palace" hotels along the Nile. One was the Old Cataract in Aswan, the once-tranquil village near the great cataracts. The Old Cataract evokes the splendors of past travel: its bathrooms alone are bigger than the bedrooms in many modern hotels; Oriental rugs carpet the floors and from the hotel veranda steps lead down to the riverbank where feluccas can be hired for picnicking on any of the small green islands dotting the river.

Many of the earliest hotels were started by former dragomans—local entrepreneurs who made all the arrangements for a traveler's trip. Throughout the Ottoman Empire many of the dragomans were Greeks. The Angleterre Hotel in Constantinople, long the Ottoman capital's leading establishment, was owned and operated by Missouli, the Greek who had served as dragoman for the British writer William Kinglake. In Beirut, Nicolas Bassoul started his hotel after gaining a reputation as dragoman to another English traveler, Eliot Warburton, whose books were even greater best sellers than Kinglake's. The new hoteliers were lavishly written up in the famous travel books authored by their customers—the best form of advertising at the time.

Today Beirut's Bassoul is probably the oldest surviving example of early hotel arrangements in the Middle East. Now amputated of gardens which used to stretch down to the sea, and dwarfed by the new Hilton going up next door, the Grand Hotel Bassoul is a stone building with ample proportions. American University of Beirut professor John Carswell gives a guided tour to his architecture students each year, pointing out that all the bedrooms on each floor open onto a central salon, an imaginative adaptation of open-plan Turkish architectural tradition designed to ensure a maximum amount of contact of guests with one another. Being able to exchange experiences and complaints and share the common denominator of being strangers in the same place helped people cope with the alien environment which assailed them outside the hotel.

An unusual early traveler who left his impressions of 19th-century hotels was the American merchant sailor, later author, Herman Melville. The journal of his Middle East trip in 1857 shows a wanderer's sensitivity to hotel life. In Beirut, he was comfortable at Bassoul's, which a contemporary description admitted was "wanting in many comforts to which an English traveler is accustomed, but considered the best in Syria." Shepheard's overwhelmed Melville:

The magnitude of Shepheard's, lofty ceilings, stone floors, iron beds, thin mattress, no feathers, blinds, mosquito curtains—all showing the tropics. And that you are in the East is shown by fresh dates on table for dessert, cool water in stone jars; waited on by Arab dragomen; clap your hands for servants ... a brilliant scene!

In Palestine travel had always been more spartan. While people went to Egypt for health or pleasure, Palestine drew mostly Christian pilgrims. They had been coming in limited numbers since the 13th century, usually staying in monasteries, and carving their names on wooden doors even in medieval times. Franciscan monks operated a chain of hostels, one at each stopover on the pilgrim circuit. In the late 19th century the Franciscans opened separate, lay facilities. One hostel, the Casa Nova, had a vaulted cellar dining room which it still a favorite of teachers and young people in Jerusalem.

German Kaiser Wilhelm's spectacular pilgrimage through Palestine and Syria in 1898 focused the world's attention on the Holy Land. With improved transportation pilgrimages had already been increasing in size and many prosperous Victorian travelers chose to use the services of Thomas Cook. Cook, a temperance movement worker who started out in Great Britain organizing railway "day-trips" as a distraction for non-drinkers, found the Holy Land ideal for his type of development, providing comfortable camping arrangements. Servants would precede a party of travelers to the evening campsite, so after a day of sketching, touring and picnicking they would arrive in time for a bath in large copper tubs and a hot dinner before retiring in floored, blue-cloth tents.

What is today Jerusalem's most gracious and comfortable old hotel, the American Colony, also began its career about this time. The hotel building, which was originally the palace of a 19th-century pasha, sits in a small garden a few minutes' walk from the Old City. In the upstairs salon a midnight-blue dome marks the spot where the pasha sat to receive visitors in audience. The older parts of the building are insulated by walls six feet thick and, above the ceilings, a three-foot layer of pottery jars. Drinking water is kept cool in stone jugs with weighted handkerchiefs over the mouths to keep out dirt. It is graceful, picturesque, refined.

The manager is Horatio Vester, a scion of the Vester family, which went out to Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century after a series of personal tragedies (Aramco World , July-August, 1967) and, with other American expatriates, formed a kind of commune. This "American Colony" found itself taking in paying guests and gradually evolved into what became the city's most sophisticated hotel, with a reputation that has spread far beyond the Middle East. Many have tried to write about it, but its elusive special quality is the hotel's close links with the community around it. In Jerusalem, diplomats and correspondents, Arabists, archaeologists and writers fore gather at the American Colony. Continuous management by the same family throughout this century has given the hotel an assured identity. The staff have always been Palestinians, many of whom have practically grown up with the hotel, and the Vesters have won a place for themselves as people attached to the city, regardless of political turmoil. During the Turkish retreat in 1919, for example, the commander left his wounded at the American Colony, confident they would be protected; looking for a white flag for the actual surrender, he used a bed sheet from the hotel.

After the turn of the century, as the conservative Ottoman Empire crumbled and Westerners penetrated Arab cities in swelling numbers, hotels were a means of keeping the foreigners and locals out of each others' hair.

Cocoons for tourists, venue for meetings of state, military headquarters, expatriate clubs, a swank annex for local society offering liquor, dancing and gambling, the Grand Hotels had their heyday after World War I. Most, even those built as late as the 1930's, were solid, spacious, Edwardian establishments with room for the stately occasions and scampish hi-jinks of colonial life. Many acquired virtual extraterritorial status as bridgeheads of European living. As readers of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet will recall, Justine first encounters Darby, the English writer, in the Cecil Hotel amid dusty potted palms in the old hotel's gaunt vestibule. In the colonial Middle East, whenever East met West it usually happened in a hotel.

The most intact—and picturesque—survivor of the great old colonial hotels today is surely the Grand Hotel in Khartoum, Sudan. The long, low hotel has hardly changed from the days when Britain held full sway. Broad terraces run along the Nile where the Blue and White branches join, at sunset the mighty river reflecting the red of the dust-filled sky. Inside there are acres of hand-polished red floor tiles, ashtrays filled with sand, and massive silver cutlery marked "Sudan Railways." The dining ritual includes a gargantuan, five-course fixed menu at every meal, sometimes opening with a Nile fish specialty called "Chinese Gordon Soup," after the British hero who died a few hundred yards further along the river bank. Dinner is followed by coffee, served never in the dining room, only in the lounge.

In Egypt, of course, Shepheard's was the legendary landmark—like Raffles in Singapore—an inseparable part of foreigners' impressions of the country.

For some, it was almost the whole scene. From Shepheard's celebrated terrace, over a coffee or lemonade, Europeans gazed out on Opera Square and the teeming, colorful Cairo street scene. As British interests in Egypt expanded, so did Shepheard's (it was rebuilt three times). Decorated in pseudo-pharaonic style—thick, lotus-topped pillars, dull colors unthinkingly copied from faded ruins, Egyptian divans, marble tables, potted palms—Shepheard's grew into a big hotel for its day, with reading rooms, banks, and post offices spreading in all directions. Tall unruffled Nubians provided calm service. Wearing long embroidered gowns, sashes, and turbans that were the livery of slaves at the Turkish court, the Nubian suffragis had drifted to Cairo from Upper Egypt after the first Aswan dam flooded their lands.

Shepheard's always came into its own during wartime. It was British Headquarters in World War I (Lawrence detested it as a hive of bureaucracy), and unofficial Allied Headquarters in World War II. Rommel boasted he was going to have his headquarters there, too. The hotel was also virtually an antechamber of the Egyptian court, which only perished with the revolution in 1952.

The besetting problem of new arrivals in Cairo was how to get a room at Shepheard's, which was always full to overflowing, but somehow always found room for the "right" people. It was "an island of English imperial living," says British writer Desmond Stewart. Its Grill Room giving on the back garden was considered the most desirable place in the city to dine out.

Shepheard's finally paid for its years of imperial glitter: angry Egyptian crowds burned it to the ground in 1952, on what came to be known as Black Saturday. When Shepheard's was rebuilt a few years later, it moved away from Opera Square to the Nile, where Cairo's leading hotels now choose to locate.

After World War I, Shepheard's lost part of its carriage trade to a new establishment, the Semiramis, the first Cairo hotel on the river. Built in 1886 and located between the British Embassy and the British army base (later the site of the Nile Hilton), the Semiramis stressed luxury from the outset. Open only during the three-month winter season, the whole roof was a single suite, and there was a special mezzanine of small rooms, the "etage des courriers," entirely for guests' personal servants. Always an elegant hostelry, the Semiramis had Cairo's first elevators (brassbound mahogany marvels still working today), its first European-style nightclub (a rooftop restaurant with an orchestra for dancing—still unsurpassed) which began when the hotel reopened on a year-round basis after World War II, and a renowned catering service. "The hotel with the most style in Cairo," was the local assessment.

A 60-year-old newspaper cutting conveys some the flavor of life at another such establishment, Mena House, a rambling hotel overlooking the Pyramids:

There will be the usual small dance on Friday evening at Mena House, and a special motor-bus will be running to Mena and back to Cairo after the dance. The pipers and drummers of the Gordon Highlanders will be in attendance at the gymkhana at Mena House tomorrow afternoon.

On moonlit nights, a pleasant way of viewing the Pyramids and the Sphinx was to dine at Mena House. The hotel orchestra was in attendance for tea and dinner. After dinner it was time for a horseback ride around the great monuments. In Cairo itself each hotel had its "night," and those who today would be called the Beautiful People rotated from hotel to hotel.

Beirut was as French as Cairo was British. In French-mandated Lebanon, local society mingled with French officers and officials at the St. Georges Hotel in an aura of plush serenity which had vanished from France. The leading social rendezvous of pre-war Beirut was a Sunday afternoon the dansant, on the celebrated terrace overlooking St. Georges' Bay and the Lebanese mountains in the distance. The Levant coast did not have an opulent tourist season such as Egypt's, but the St. Georges—built in 1932 as the first in the area on a par with the best existing European facilities of the day—offered a degree of comfort and convenience which attracted business from the beginning. It has gone on from strength to strength as Beirut has emerged as the Middle East's commercial and communications center, and is today probably the best-known hotel in the entire Eastern Mediterranean.

The St. Georges is also one of Beirut's outstanding buildings, architecturally. It was designed by a young Lebanese named Antoine Tabet, who interned in the ateliers of Auguste Perret during the years the French masterbuilder pioneered the use of ferroconcrete, the material which made possible much of modern architecture. The hotel was Tabet's first commission when he returned home. His bold use of raw concrete—in strong, simple rhythms reflecting both a severe functionalism and a feeling for Arab forms—shows the confidence of true modernism.

Although much of the hotel's grandeur departed when the bedrooms were cut down to their present cubicle-like proportions in 1948, the St. Georges is still justly renowned for many things: its unmatched location, rich cuisine and discreet service make it one of the world's great hotels. Its atmosphere was described by the British writer Laurie Lee in London's Sunday Times Colour Magazine:

Especially at lunchtime, it is Beirut's centre of business and rumour, of brief encounters and social display. Oilmen, government officials, the rich and the lonely, conmen and journalists of all nations—all gather here at midday to taste . . . Beirut's simmering sense of affairs. Nubile, bikini-wrapped oil-girls, with figures like greyhounds and waists as pliant as a bundle of banknotes, inhale and exhale their exquisite physical presences up and down the sunspotted terraces.

The St. Georges’ style is incarnate in its suave, unflappable chief concierge, Mansour Braidi. The job has no real equivalent in American hotels: roughly speaking, he is the man who solves guests' problems—from arranging to pick up their shopping to getting them out of the country in a crisis. Braidi has also helped make the St. Georges an international port of call for foreign correspondents. His discretion and tenacity in getting messages delivered have gained him wide confidence; during tense episodes on Middle Eastern fronts, correspondents have been known to smuggle their copy to Beirut marked simply "St. Georges Hotel"—confident Braidi will see it forwarded to the right editor and keep the bill until the reporter next reaches the hotel.

Every capital has a hotel to which journalists mysteriously gravitate; the reasons are never satisfactorily explained, but more often than not the secret attraction is the concierge. In Cyprus, Nicosia's Ledra Palace was pratically an overseas press club because of Kavassis, the legendary Greek concierge known as "The Night Editor."

Another drawing card at the St. Georges is its well-known bar, where business, politics and reporting mix as smoothly as the drinks. Kim Philby, the British double-agent, was last seen outside Russia in this bar, his favorite, and he was something of a connoisseur. Philby actually called another Beirut hotel home—the Normandy. As a young man, Philby stayed there on his first trip to the Middle East, to visit his famous father, H. St. John Philby. The Normandy was very much of a period. Walls and columns encrusted with millions of tiny square mirrors, it was an exaggerated, cinematic vision of the 1920s, like a set left over from a Busby Berkely movie extravaganza. The St. Georges in contrast, was—architecturally and professionally—of international caliber.

With 90 rooms the St. Georges was the biggest hotel of its period in Lebanon or Syria. But smaller, earlier hotels had strong personalities, still perceptible to travelers today. The Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek, built in the same reddish limestone as the majestic Roman ruins there, has bathtubs (installed in 1924) which are so long the tallest guest can stretch out full length in the steaming water. On winter mornings, you can wipe the condensation off the high French doors of each room's balcony and see the celebrated columns of Baalbek silhouetted against the sun-reddened, time-rutted flanks of Mount Lebanon. Built in 1875 by a Greek from Istanbul, the Palmyra was Lebanon's first Western-style hotel. Baalbek was already a tourist attraction but more important, it was the first day's stage by diligence from Damascus. (The next diligence stop, the Massabki Hotel in Chtaura, was a lively place under the French mandate, when it was not only the mid-point meeting place for officials and politicians from all over Syria, but also the Lebanese equivalent of Niagara Falls, where honeymooners could have a few days by themselves.)

The Palmyra is built above a Roman theater, its gardens are peopled with statuary, and its fortunes have continued to rise with those of renascent Baalbek, particularly because of the world-renowned summer festivals of music and theater there. The brilliant soirees in the Palmyra after Baalbek premieres are enhanced by the hotel's sense of belonging to the place.

Two Syrian hotels, neither of which is in Damascus, have survived from that period—the Baron in Aleppo and the Zenobia in the ruined city of Palmyra.

Hotels in Aleppo, the bustling commercial capital of Syria, were virtually a monopoly of Armenians. From father to son, they passed down a habit of speaking several languages and other gestures of a meticulous host: slippers were waiting inside every room so guests would not track in street dirt.

The two Mazloumian brothers had made money operating a small Aleppo hotel, the Ararat, but, early in this century, they thought the city was ready for something new—a truly palatial hotel. In its day, their Baron Hotel was an establishment of unheard-of splendor. The architect was French; concrete was used for the first time in Aleppo; workmen were brought from Egypt; there was a bathroom on both floors. (The only concession to practicality was the name "Baron," not a title, simply the Armenian word for "mister"—which is easy to pronounce in any language.)

The Mazloumians' gamble paid off. The hotel was barely completed when World War I broke out. The Turkish commander-in-chief, Jamal Pasha, took over the Baron as his headquarters, and his lavish entertainment started the hotel's reputation. Near the end of the war, when the Turks unleashed a series of Armenian pogroms, only Jamal's intervention saved the Mazloumians from deportation or worse. The victorious British commander, General Allenby, eventually used the Baron as his headquarters and Emir Faisal, leader of the Arab revolt, reviewed allied troops from the balcony of his room. When peace was restored the Turks returned as civilians, including Kamal Ataturk, the revered Turkish leader: the room he stayed in is kept unchanged because so many Turkish guests still ask to see it.

Perhaps the hotel's most interesting early guest was Lawrence, who periodically moved to the Baron for a rest after the rigors of nearby Carchemish, where he was busily engaged in archaeology and spying. In a letter he said, "You can see what style I'm enjoying," a cryptic reference explained by the Baron Hotel stationery he was writing on, which had a drawing of the hotel printed at the top of each sheet. Koko Mazloumian, who managed the hotel until nationalization, also remembers Gene Tunney suddenly appearing one snowy night: the American boxer had been staying in Beirut to welcome the cars on the "Citroën Expedition" to China, and he'd heard the Baron still had a stock of a rare French vintage. So he came to buy it.

Palmyra has been the stage for larger-than-life heroines since the Empress Zenobia proclaimed her desert kingdom (Aramco World, Jan-Feb, 1966). Lady Hester Stanhope, a forceful romantic of the 18th century (Aramco World , Sept.-Oct., 1970), claimed Bedouin tribes crowned her "Queen of the Desert" there. The Hotel Zenobia, still standing on the sand in the heart of the imposing ruins, also has its woman. It was built and run by the Baroness d'Andurin, a personable,strong-willed French noblewoman, whose career in Syria—and graceful touch as a hotel manager—gathered a rich aura of scandal. The first bedroom has a gallery where the Baroness, peering down through a spy-hole, could keep an eye on things without breaking the local taboo on women appearing in public. Today, staying at the Zenobia involves braving indifferent service and brackish plumbing (tainted by the sulfurous stench of the oasis water) noticed by authoress Agatha Christie Mallowen when she stayed there with her archaeologist husband.

In their present reduced state, these hotels testify to the vicissitudes of the travel industry in the Middle East. At times, wars have disrupted the tourist circuits, political tensions have imposed travel restrictions, the bureaucratic fumbling typical of most newly independent countries has hampered entrepreneurs. Thus, in spite of general optimism about tourism's future in the area, uncertain times have taken their toll in spots. Some of Egypt's oasis spas such as Helwan and Siwa and also the Red Sea resorts are now in restricted military zones. Syria's seaside hotels have fared badly and the grandiose Bludan Park Hotel, in the pleasant hill town on Syria's border with Lebanon, is today a sanitarium. Political austerity programs have all but eliminated pleasurable hotel life in Iraq. A string of half-empty beach hotels on the coast south of Beirut speak mutely of what can happen when speculation races too far ahead of sound planning.

During Jordan's civil war in 1970, Amman's Jordan Inter-Continental was familiar to every journalist—too familiar to many, who were held hostage there. During the fighting, guests quickly discovered the survival rules. "The bathtub is the safest place to bed down for the night," wrote one steady hand, "but when the mortars start, the corridor gets crowded. Visitors are invariably amazed at the hotel's capacity to absorb fire during the night and pick up the next morning as if nothing had happened," he continued. "They just sweep up the plaster and glass, and break out the cheese sandwiches."

Such crises aside, however, the prospect for the future is that the Middle East hotel industry will not only survive, but—because present regional prosperity is stimulating a real and still-growing demand for rooms—flourish. Young people are beginning to see the industry as a promising career. Arab governments are actively encouraging tourism and private Arab capital is increasingly aware of hotels as investment opportunities.

In the earliest days, many hotels were hard up to hire service staff. The average Arab worker in from the village preferred a job in the extensive government bureaucracy when he could find it, or if not, service in a household in his own community, rather than with an alien, anonymous establishment in the city. The problem was resolved by turning to the minority groups: Armenians in Aleppo; Nubians in Cairo; Christians from one particular village, Tell Assam, in Baghdad.

The 500-room Nile Hilton in Cairo opened in 1959 with more than 50 Europeans among its staff of 500. Today nearly all are Arabs. Countless others who first trained there now run hotels, restaurants, pastry shops, catering agencies and nightclubs all over the Arab world. The Hilton had considerable modernizing impact, in fact. Girls were hired to serve in its coffee shop, at the time a shocking novelty in Egypt. Many were college girls of "good family" who were glad of a chance to earn money and practice foreign languages. Rules against dating customers were rigidly enforced.

Today there are modern government-run hotel institutes in both Tunisia and Lebanon. Lebanon's accepts girl students and finds jobs immediately for all its graduates, male and female. The Vienna-born manager of Beirut's Phoenicia Inter-Continental, Robert Kulka, singles out the Arabs' inbred sense of politeness, "so that 'service' is not 'servile'," as a quality making them excel in the hotel industry.

In the early 1960's Egypt faced a severe room shortage when tourism boomed suddenly following publicity from the international Save-the-Temples campaign to raise money for the Abu Simbel project. It responded with a crash hotel-building program and conversion of some of the palaces and resthouses from Egypt's royal past. At the time of his Suez extravaganza, for example, the Khedive Ismail erected a palace near the Nile especially for visiting French Empress Eugenie, with sublimely Victorian cast-iron imitations of Cairo's traditional wooden balconies and latticework. One hundred years later, when Egypt desperately needed hotel rooms, the palace was reopened as the Omar Khayyam Hotel. A century of genteel decay in the hands of the Lutfallah family, who had inherited it, did the palace less harm than has a decade of tourism. Today its gardens are disfigured with bungalows and its very existence is threatened by a new throughway. Still, the hotel has preserved a special fin-de-siècle flavor. The rosewood and silk bedrooms upstairs where the Empress slept contrast with the smoky billiards room in massive oak below stairs, where young Egyptian dandies can still be found engrossed in their game.

Another converted palace, a relic of more recent pre-revolution days, is the Montazah in Alexandria, once King Farouk's favorite. It has three separate beaches, each landscaped in a different style, each named for a different queen. A third, the Manial Palace in Cairo, which once belonged to Farouk's uncle, has gardens shaded with trees collected from all over the tropics. It too has been transformed into a bungalow-style hotel as the palace itself, with its huge rooms and limited plumbing, resisted conversion.

Now, to accommodate the five million tourists government planners expect to come each year by 1980, Egypt hopes to increase hotel beds from the present 18,000 to a spectacular 100,000. Nearly half of these will be in the "furnished-flat" category since many Arab tourists, particularly large families whose needs would strain a hotel's routine and the guest's pocketbook, prefer the flexibility of an apartment. Outlining these dramatic increases, Egypt's Minister of Tourism, Harvard-educated Dr. Zaki Hashem, stresses that he has decided to seek the cooperation of big international companies in order to profit from their ability to market their hotels' attractions internationally.

With travel figures spiraling, most Arab countries feel, like Egypt, that they are compelled to industrialize their hotel business. Ill adapted to mass needs, the great landmark hotels are disappearing, like vintage cars vanishing amid fleets of mass-produced vehicles. Cairo's grand old Semiramis is a case in point. Its ideal location on the Nile was simply too tempting for developers. It is now slated for demolition, to make way for a giant 600-room luxury hotel and marina which will be turned over to one of the international chains for management. Of course some splendidly individual establishments do still exist—in non-Arab Iran, Isfahan's magnificent Shah Abbas Hotel, a converted caravanserai, is a glittering example—but most Middle Eastern countries, like the rest of the world, increasingly welcome the great chains of hotels which alone seem able to cater to the sheer volume of travel business today.

Cairo, by far the region's largest metropolis, started the trend. After the Egyptian revolution, President Nasser's first major development project was the Nile Hilton. He felt that a big international chain was a highly visible way of showing the world that hard-headed investors believed the new regime could make Egypt prosper. He was also convinced that Cairo needed a big, efficient, comfortable hotel to make it an international pole of attraction, even though many nationalistic Egyptians, perhaps remembering the old days of Shepheard's, feared a Hilton would be a new Western enclave breeding intrigue and debauchery. The Arabic plaque on the Nileside—"Erected by order of President Nasser"—rightly stresses the Egyptian leader's personal role in creating it.

Since that time the successful formula of American-managed, locally-financed hotels has caught on throughout the Middle East. Sheraton competes with Hilton in Cairo, Kuwait and Teheran, has hotels under construction in Damascus and in planning for Beirut. Hilton manages other hotels in Tunis, Istanbul and Nicosia, and is building in Manama, on Bahrain Island, and in Beirut.

Abu Dhabi, one of the federated shaikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates, has what is probably the area's supreme status symbol: two Hiltons. One is in coastal Abu Dhabi town and the other 95 miles straight across the desert to the east in a remote spot called Al Ain, near the Buraimi oasis. Conceived as a resort retreat for exhausted oil men up and down the Gulf, the Al Ain Hilton has all the usual amenities including, improbably, barmen in plum-colored jackets and a breakfast menu featuring "Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice" and "Country-Fresh Eggs."

Inter-Continental Hotels Corporation opened the Phoenicia Hotel in Beirut in 1961. It was the first hotel outside the Western Hemisphere for the big chain, which was started by Pan American World Airways after World War II to give South America the kind of hotel it needed to attract U.S. travelers and their dollars. The Phoenicia limped along for its first few years, but by 1966 it had to add a second, bigger wing. The hotel now owns adjoining property in anticipation of further expansion. Inter-Continental also manages hotels in Amman, Jerusalem and Teheran, and has others under construction in Matrah (near Muscat, in Oman), Dubai, Riyadh and Mecca. (See box.) The chain has just signed agreements for new hotels to be built in both Dhahran and Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, and is studying the feasibility of projects in Medina, Yemen's capital Sana, and Cairo.

The medium-price chain, Holiday Inn, which just opened a 26-story, 500-room tower with rooftop restaurant and glass-enclosed outdoor elevator in Beirut, has signed an agreement for two hotels in Jordan, one in Amman and one on the Red Sea coast in Aqaba. Informed Beirut gossip says that U.S. chains Marriott, Hyatt House and Ramada Inns all have representatives currently scouting the Middle East for choice sites. Other international chains such as Meridian, which is linked to Air France, Meliá of Spain and the Indian hotel magnate, Oberoi, are also showing interest in the area, almost certainly initiating their campaigns for business with Cairo. But this doesn't seem to bother the Americans. As one major director confided recently in Beirut, "Frankly, I welcome new 'competition' since their promotion will give the entire area more exposure and is bound to help us all in the end." And Phoenicia manager Kulka says he sees the Middle East market going up, up, and away.

The latest arrival in the field is an Arab chain, Gulf Hotels, linked to an airline, Gulf Air, as are so many top chains. Bahrain, where BOAC's "Speedbird House" once overnighted passengers and crew on the old five-day-long flying boat odysseys out to Australia, is headquarters for the dynamic young chain. Concrete had hardly set a few years ago when the Bahrain Gulf had to start a new wing, doubling capacity. The hotel still turns people away most days. New Gulf hotels are operating in Qatar, under construction in Oman, and planned for Kuwait. Not part of the chain, but just across the Gulf from Bahrain in Saudi Arabia, is the spanking-new Al-Gossaibi Hotel, set in a palm garden on the waterfront at Al Khobar. By the time the planned swimming pool, shopping arcade and rooftop restaurant are completed the total cost will have come to nearly $14 million.

What lies ahead? Continued growth seems a safe prediction, as does a dramatic expansion of resort hotels. The celebrated hotels in the Middle East today are primarily for businessmen (an estimated 75 percent of the guests at the Phoenicia, for instance) and certainly the new hotels springing up throughout the Peninsula and the Arabian Gulf area are catering to the oil men and salesmen following the current production boom. But the Middle East is also beginning to emerge as a playground. Sample things to come: resort villages, like the ones already attracting crowds to North Africa, will appear in Egypt (on both its Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts) and in Lebanon; another complex is talked of for Saudi Arabia, at Abha, 'Asir Province, in the mountains north of Yemen, as cool as Lebanon.

Political resistance to expanded tourism is also disappearing. After the attractive new hotel at Damascus International Airport, Syria is going ahead with a $25-million program to build five new international-class tourist hotels. Besides the 350-room Sheraton, a 400-room Damascus Meridian is also now under construction. Syria's Tourism Minister explains, "We want tourists, and not just for their money. We want them to visit our country and see for themselves what kind of a people we are and what kind of future we have."

The concept behind Turkey's string of successful filling station motels will probably catch on elsewhere, as restless Europeans continue to drive further afield. Some low-price chains will probably emerge on the scene, too, although Tunisian officials now concede privately that they regret opening their magnificent beaches to waves of package tours, which leave much of the profit with the organizers abroad.

But in the coming decade the most important question facing the hotel industry in the Middle East is probably this: can the race to provide rooms for the spiraling numbers of visitors be won without sacrificing time-honored traditions of Arab hospitality?

So far the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Joseph Fitchett, a frequent contributor to Aramco World, stayed in most of the hotels he writes about while on assignments for the Observer and Time.

The Nazzall Family: Five Generations of Arab Innkeepers

Great-great-grandfather Nazzall ran a khan Palestine on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and many of his clients were Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land, walking down through the tawny hills to visit the Jordan River bank where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus. In the late 1880's one of his sons, Ibrahim, followed the customers to Jericho to open an inn there, forerunner of a series of hotels the Nazzall family eventually built in the ancient oasis town as the reputation of its mild Jordan Valley climate helped it grow into a fashionable winter spa.

In 1924 came an important guest, Sherif Abdullah, ruler of the newly established country across the river, Transjordan. Abdullah's capital, Amman, was then little more than a watering station on the Hijaz pilgrim railway from Damascus to Medina. Anxious for development, Abdullah urged the Nazzalls to invest there.

With royal patronage, the next Nazzall, Antoun, began looking for finance. Thomas Cook, firmly established in Jerusalem, was anxious to set up a tourist circuit to Petra, the rose-rock Nabataean city in the desert mountains south of Amman, so he promised financial backing for a hotel which would provide a halfway house for groups going to the camp he built among the ruins. The Nazzalls opened their new hotel in 1928, in the first solid building in Amman, a six-room structure near the railway station. They called it the Philadelphia, in honor of the sleepy town's prosperous Roman predecessor. But the grand name didn't help business, which was slow, and the Nazzalls ran their newest hotel as a boarding house or, more accurately, an extended family with paying guests. There was no competition, however, so they survived. Within a decade Antoun Nazzall bought out Cook's camp in Petra, and business eventually picked up enough for the family to build the present Philadelphia Hotel, which stands in a garden opposite Amman's restored Roman theater. Today the Philadelphia prospers, presided over by Antoun's son, Nabi.

Innkeeping blood seems to surge through the entire family's veins. London's Bedford Hotel is owned and operated by a Nazzall brother, and Nazzall women have married husbands outside the family with hotels in Jerusalem, Texas, California and Australia. The "fifth generation" are Yussef and Mazin Nazzall, both recent business graduates of Rhode Island, the University of who today run three hotels in Beirut—the Commodore, the Byblos and the New Melkart. From their office across the street from the Commodore, the two brothers personally supervise their hotel by closed circuit television, using remote-control cameras to zoom in on any bottleneck in their operations.

The roving electronic eye enables them to continue the family's five-generation tradition of personal attention to detail and small gestures of generosity. These things, they believe, are the key to running a hotel which is successful by Arab standards. "Arab clients are much more difficult than Americans." Yussef feels, "because in this part of the world the middle classes are still able to afford servants at home and a hotel has to match that standard of care."

Two Big Ones For Saudi Arabia

Sometime next year, in Mecca and Riyadh, doors will swing open on the Middle East's two newest and most luxurious hostelries. Both—each with 200 rooms—will be managed as integral parts of two mammoth new conference centers designed to provide 1,500-seat auditoriums, meeting rooms, exhibition space and banquet facilities for international gatherings, one in Islam's holiest city, the other in Saudi Arabia's burgeoning capital. The Riyadh complex alone is a $40 million investment in that city's future as an administrative, cultural and commercial center of the kingdom.

Both projects date back to 1966, when the Saudi Arabian Government asked the International Union of Architects to organize an international competition. British architect Trevor Dannatt's monumental design was chosen for the Riyadh center, while the Mecca project was awarded to the German team of Rolf Gutbrod and Frei Ott. British, French, Italian and Lebanese firms won engineering and construction contracts and the American company, Inter-Continental Hotels, signed a 20-year management agreement with the government.

Each of the hotel/conference center complexes has a land-scaped, oasis-like setting with large interior spaces which are light and cool. The Mecca center, located on the Jiddah highway about three miles from the Sacred Mosque, features an aluminum roof suspended on a spider-web of steel cables. The hotel in Riyadh is M-shaped, with rooms (each with a shaded private patio-balcony facing north) arranged along open galleries overlooking a covered six-story lobby. The resulting sense of spaciousness is in the true 'Grand Hotel' tradition.

French Muslim engineers supervised the Mecca project. With trained personnel already running hotels in Muslim Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, as well as several Arab countries, Inter-Continental was the obvious choice among the experienced international chains to manage the completed hotel in the Holy City.

Inter-Continental also plans an extensive five-month training program for Saudi Arab personnel at all levels, including some on-the-job assignments abroad. In imaginative pre-recruitment advertising, the chain is stressing the importance to modern Saudi Arabia's continued economic growth of its newest—and oldest—"industry": hospitality.

This article appeared on pages 16-29 of the November/December 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1973 images.