It isn’t clear if the current hotel building opened in the 1860s or 1880s. We know that in the 1860s there was a grand hotel at this location that competed with the famous and now gone Shepheard’s Hotel on the same street. The hotel housed some of Khedive Ismail’s guests during their visit to Cairo for the festivities surrounding the opening of the Suez Canal. The hotel underwent multiple renovations in the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s. Some older pictures show the hotel having a more elaborate facade with columns carrying an over-sized pediment. The owners of Grand Continental built another hotel on Soliman Pasha Square (today Talaat Harb) which was the Savoy and together the two hotels were known as the Continental-Savoy Hotels. During WWI the British military overtook the Savoy Hotel as their headquarters and it never re-opened. The property was purchased by Behlar who destroyed the building and replaced it with the current structure overlooking Talaat Harb Square today known as the Behlar Building (with the Parisian roof). The current Grand Continental building has a simple, if modern, facade of four very tall levels. The front of the building is now covered with a row of shops selling men’s suits and tailoring fabrics. Behind those shops the original building is an H-shaped structure with a central court. It appears that the structure is combination masonry with timber floors and ceilings.
Through the first half of the 20th century the Continental-Savoy (known as the Grand Continental before 1924) on Opera Square was the great rival to Shepheard’s, just up the street. Like Shepheard’s it had a busy street-front terrace, hosted fabulous balls and dances, and attracted its fair show of famous guests. TE Lawrence lodged here when he first arrived in Cairo in December 1914, Lord Carnarvon succumbed to the malady brought on by an insect bite in Luxor in one of the Continental-Savoy’s suites in 1923, while in 1941 Major Orde Wingate attempted suicide in his bedroom by stabbing himself in the neck, twice, but survived. While Shepheard’s was burned down in the rioting of January 1952, the Continental-Savoy survived unscathed. Instead, it suffered a slow, painful decline into decrepitude eventually becoming so rundown that it had to stop accepting guests altogether by the early 1980s. Since then this massive, four-storey, 300-plus room hotel has stood largely empty.
Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel
While the Egyptian government has been keen to stress its alleged efforts to restore Downtown Cairo’s old splendor by renovating (the facades of) decaying buildings, the preservation of some of the city’s richest architectural gems nonetheless seems to be of low priority. This became apparent a year after authorities announced plans to demolish one of the most historic hotels in Egypt when workers on Tuesday January 28 began tearing it down. Overlooking Downtown Cairo’s Opera Square and the Azbakiya Gardens, the Grand Continental Hotel (also known as the Continental-Savoy) was built in the 1860s (some claim the 1880s) as part of the country’s modernization projects that included the building of the Suez Canal. The demolition plans were first announced in August 2016 by the Egyptian General Company for Tourism and Hotels (EGOTH), the hotel owners. Mamduh Rutab, the company’s deputy chairman, told Gulf News at the time that it is a “threatening humanitarian disaster until we demolish it”.
“The Grand Continental: Egypt’s Historic Hotel Turns into Dust”