Grand Continental Hotel - Courtesy of Grand Hotels of Egypt
CAIRO – 13 February 2018: Once one of the most beautiful buildings in Egypt, the Grand Continental Hotel, also known as the Continental-Savoy, has seen a significant decline in business since the early 1990s. Forgotten, the hotel started to form a hazard to passers-by and became a sore to the eye. Threatening public safety, authorities have started the process of demolition.
Its important history
Built in 1860 as part of the government’s modernization efforts that also included the building of the Suez Canal, the hotel overlooks Opera Square and Azbakiya Botanical Garden. The former gained its name from the Cairo Opera House that was gutted in the famous 1971 fire. The latter spans 18 acres and was established in 1872 in an effort by Khedive Ismail to make the Egyptian capital look like Europe. The whole area is known as the Khedival Cairo, referring to the project by Khedive Ismail, who ruled Egypt between 1863 and 1879.
Throughout its magnificent history, the venue saw many important events, including Egypt’s declaration of independence from Britain in 1922. It also hosted much-celebrated personalities, like King Farouk (r. 1936-1952), who reportedly enjoyed the view from the grand terrace, Egyptian nationalist icon Saad Zaghloul and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).
Historians looking at Egypt’s great history have concluded that the glorious building was built as part of Egypt’s celebration marking the 1869 inauguration of the Suez Canal.
Part of the hotel was destroyed by the 1952 Cairo fire that took down many of the city’s central districts. Fortunately, it was reopened soon afterwards by a member of the Free Officers Movement that toppled the British-backed monarchy.
In short, the hotel is being saved. The demolition order is strictly likened to rebuilding the hotel in the same architectural style.
In a TV interview on Al-Asema (The Capital) channel, Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass expressed his sadness concerning the demolition, stating, “The Continental is part of the heart of historic Cairo and must be preserved.” He added, “Cities are built to look nice as they are, as a whole. When you demolish a certain building and rebuild the plot of land, it ruins the scenery. It becomes a sore to the eyes; a source of visual pollution.”
Activists around Cairo have expressed dismay concerning the decision to demolish the building. Online, many have labeled the demolition a “crime against history.” Many have also blamed the government for allowing the hotel to fall to such bad shape. Shop owners near the area, who have been renting as per the old renting system, have also complained, suggesting that the demolition will have a negative impact on their livelihoods.
On the livelihood angle, the company has agreed to pay those renting compensation for the expected three years that will taken for the hotel to be rebuilt. Furthermore, they will be offered shops in the new hotel and shopping mall, in the same location that they currently hold. Still, shop owners fear that the new shops’ rent will be too high for them to afford, complaining that their future is uncertain.
Despite their concerns, reports suggest that the falling down hotel is a threat to public safety. Affirming this in statements to Gulf News after the demolition plans were first announced in August 2016 by the hotel’s owners, Egyptian General Company for Tourism and Hotels (EGOTH), the company’s deputy chairman, Mamduh Rutab, said that the building will remain a “threatening humanitarian disaster until we [the company] demolish it.”
In a statement, the company tied their concerns to the unfortunate event of 1999, whereby the poor state of the hotel and the lack of care led to one of the external air conditioning units falling, leaving Reham Mounir El-Shazly dead. The unit was hung on one of the shops rented to Mohamed Said al-Askary. The company pointed out that the case was taken to court and that the company compensated the Shazly’s family financially, while acknowledging that money is no compensation for a lost life. The company stressed that this incident cannot happen again and that action needs to be taken now before the occurrence of any more similar incidents.
Stuck between fixing up the building yet another time, something that has made many spectators argue that the hotel is no longer as historic as it once was due to its changed characteristics; leaving it as it is; or tearing it down but retaining its historic value and the cultural undertone it holds. The company has chosen the latter.
“This hotel is listed under category C of Law No. 144 for the year 2009 that designates buildings of distinct architecture, but allows their demolition and reconstruction of inner parts on condition the facades are kept in order to preserve architectural harmony of the surrounding area,” said Mohammad Abu Seda, who heads a governmental urban landscaping agency.
“The decision to demolish the Continental was taken because the hotel includes rickety parts and ceilings that pose a serious threat,” Seda added.
Many of those who have rented shops have alleged the existence of a court order that restricts that the hotel be demolished. In response to these claims, Deputy Governor of Cairo Major General Mohamed Abdel Tawab said, “We respect the judiciary and enforce its provisions, but we have not received any ruling in this matter. If a ruling does exist, shop owners need to inform us so that we can abide by this ruling.”
In a press conference, Dr. Aly Abdel Rahman, the project’s advisor, highlighted that the historic value behind the hotel is in the fact that it only faces Adly Street. He confirmed that tearing down the hotel will take three months and the rebuilding process will take a long three years to ensure that the historic significance of the hotel is preserved. To maintain the history of the city, the new hotel will be constructed according to the same architectural style as the old one, Mantiqty reports.
On the site of the now-standing hotel, a new luxury hotel and adjacent shopping mall is expected to be erected. Local media has estimated the investment to be around LE 1.2 billion ($67.75 million). The new hotel is expected to house more individuals than the old one, meaning that it will help fill the infrastructure gap that is expected to appear over the next couple of years due to the increased influx of tourists. This means that more tourists will be able to stay in Cairo, meaning that shop owners, workers, hotel staff, people working in the tourism sector and pretty much all other sectors will be positively affected due to the market’s domino effect.