Volume I, Number 2 July 1st, 2000
The Mena House Oberoi
The Mena House is, if not the best known hotel in Egypt, certainly one of the better known. For years, this hotel has been considered one of the finest in Cairo, and is certainly one of the most historic, with a long and enchanting past. The origin of the Mena House was that of a royal lodge for the Khedive Ismail, used as a rest house for himself and his guest when hunting in the desert or visiting the Pyramids at Giza. The main dining room of today was once the entire lodge, but in 1869, with the opening of the Suez Canal, the lodge was enlarged. Also, a road was built between Cairo and the Pyramids (specifically for the visit of the Empress Eugenie) which made visits to Giza much easier. For a time, Ismail retained the lodge, often allowing it to be used by royal visitors, including such noteworthy personalities as Prince Albert Edward of Wales. However, affairs of the state kept the Khedive himself from using the lodge with any frequency, so in the early1880s it was sold to Frederick Head as a private residence. The Heads, a wealthy English couple, lived an idyllic life at their new residence, enlarging their home and adding a second floor. Seeking a name for their estate, Professor A.H. Saya made the suggestion that it should be called Mena House, after the first king referenced in the Tablet of Abydos. But sadly, after owning the house for only five years, Frederick who was always a delicate soul, died while on a visit to London.
The Mena House Entrance - circa 1920 Another hugely wealthy English couple, the Locke-Kings purchased the house from Mrs. Head, and it was they who set about turning the estate into a luxurious hotel. With plenty of money to work with and an estate already rich with furnishings and other treasures left by the Khedive and the Heads, the Locke-Kings enlarged the building once again, adding the English touch of great fireplaces that were unusual in Egypt. However, they retained much of the Arabic ambiance of the facility, and enhanced this with fine Mashrabia (wooden screens) work, fine blue tiles, mosaics and medieval brass-embossed and carved wood doors. Their taste was excellent, and the hotel has been kept with such good care, that many of these original fixtures are still in use. But despite all the wealthy guests who frequented the Mena House, rarely did the Locke-Kings make any money from the hotel. They were very extravagant, and when time came for a guest's bill to be settled, they tended to say that they had invited their friends at their own expense.
Later, the couple returned to England and turned the management of the hotel over first to Baron Rodakowsky, a colorful gentlemen, and later to Emil Weckel and Mr. Schick, who many thought owned the establishment. But years later after Mr. Locke King's death, she finally sold the Mena House to George Nungovich who operated the Egyptian Hotels Company. When the Mena House fell into the hands of Mr. Nungovich, the Egyptian Hotels Company became the owner of every well known hotel in Cairo. These included the Savoy, the Continental and the Helwan Hotel, but Mr. Nungovich also controlled a management contract for the famous Shepheards, which was destroyed in 1952. He choose has his manager, August Wild from Zurich who proceeded to turn the Mena House into a paying proposition. The Mena House, as most of the other well known hotels in Cairo, saw considerable activity during both world wars. The 1913-1914 tourist season was great in Egypt, but the First World War came to Egypt amongst martial law.
The Mena House was told to hold itself ready for an influx of Australians. Of course, this was a time when the British claimed Egypt in their colonial empire, so Alfred Warner, an English contractor was awarded the job of building a camp for the Australian Light Horses just behind the hotel. While there was plenty of hard fighting in the desert, Cairo was reserved for fun while on leave or training. The Australians often took over the Casino de Paris, dancing and howling with mirth, took part in horse and camel races, and generally had a good time of it. But later during the First World War, the Mena House became one of the hospitals, and remained so for the rest of the war. After the war, tourism in Egypt truly boomed. More and more tourists came to the Mena House, and a new wing was added. As elsewhere, the twenties, roaring as they were, saw many interesting guests arrive at the hotel. Charlie Chaplin busied himself at the hotel writing a script for his next film. King Gustave of Sweden, a true archaeologist, would come to collect antiquities from dealers, and he was not alone. Many kings and princes came and went, as the Mena House always attracted money and the powerful.
A shady spot in the Mena Garden, circa 1920 One delightful story is told in The Mena House, A short History of a Remarkable Hotel, that "Milo (then the manager of the Mena House) was on duty late one night and the huge gate into the hotel had been locked. Someone honked a horn so imperiously he was afraid it would awaken his guests in the hotel and asked a servant to open it quickly. A small Fiat car drove into the courtyard. Milo continued with the letters he was writing and wondered what the disturbance had been about. He did not find the answer until he went to the kitchens. There was the then Prince Farouk (the crown prince of Egypt), who had become hungry while out driving, enjoying a beef sandwich which he had just made himself." As it turns out, Farouk enjoyed eating at the Mena House. As the Second World War started, things were much slower at the Mena House. Unlike World War I, which caught the world by surprise, people were uneasy prior to the second war and not much in a holiday mood. But Once again, the hotel filled with servicemen to the point where additional staff had to be added. The Australians were back, up to their usual pranks with plenty of good fun.
Churchill at the Mena House But matters did not go right at first, as Rommel, the famous desert fox, initially routed the allied troops. Later, things went better, and by 1943, the Mena House saw one of its most exciting years. Plans for Overlord, the invasion of Europe, had to be discussed by Churchill and Roosevelt and operations in Southeast Asia needed consultation with General Chiang Kai-Shek. It was decided that the Big Three conference should take place at the Mena House Hotel. In his Book V of the Second World War, Winston Churchill writes: "The staffs congregated rapidly. The headquarters of the conference and the venue of all the British and American Chiefs of Staff was at the Mena House Hotel, opposite the pyramids, and I was but half a mile away. The whole place bristled with troops and anti-aircraft guns, and the strictest cordons guarded all approaches. Everyone set to work at their various levels upon the immense mass of business which had to be decided or adjusted." Indeed, the Mena House was a fortress, with some five hundred anti-aircraft guns surrounding the area. There was even an R.A.F. observation post on top of Cheop's Pyramid!
President Roosevelt and Chiang Kai Chek Meet in the Mena House Garden. After the war, more and more tourists came to the Mena House as tourism became a modern love of the world. As usual, many of these were heads of state, while famous personalities seemingly came in droves. In fact, there have been far too many movie stars and actors, writers, kings and princes, inventors and industrialists to ever name them all. Adding to the list including President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Chiang Kai-Chek and General Montgomery came Barbara Hutton, Omar Shariff, Cecil B. DeMille, Robert Taylor, Charles Lindbert, President Richard Nixon, President Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissenger, William Faulkner, Randolph Hearst, the King of Morocco, King Umberto of Italy, and so many others.
Famous Guest at the Mena House Today, the Mena House is owned by Oberoi, a well know luxury hotel chain operated out of India. It has been updated a number of times, and one may stay in either the "Old Palace" or the newer annex. The "Old Palace" section is scheduled for another renovation in the immediate future.
Beautiful arabesque furniture inlaid with mother of pearl, hand-crafted mosaic tiles, exquisitely carved brass-bound wood doors, original works of art and magnificent antiques all speak of a degree of care and attention to detail which simply cannot be found in most modern hotels. Beautiful suites named for Churchill and Montgomery speak of a bygone era, though every room has the appointments one would expect of a luxury five star hotel, including air conditioning, color and closed circuit TV, a well stocked mini bar, direct dial telephones. But the amenities stretch far beyond this, as one might expect of a hotel which often caters to kings and move stars. One may order champagne at 3 a.m., or for that matter a full dinner for six.
A suite at the Mena House On my recent trip while staying at the Mena House, I was awakened in the morning to find that I had an unexpected appointment with government tourism officials. Unprepared, my best shoes scuffed from the day before, I fretted as these appointments are always formal. Not to worry, a quick call bought a valet who quickly had me ready for my meeting, while the front desk instructed drivers for my destination. Just the stuff that the Mena House has spend a century learning to do. I arrived at the meeting on time and at my best.
The Mena House Oberoi also has some of the finest restaurants and bars in Cairo, not to mention their casino. The Al Rubayat is a fine example with its arabesque arches, exquisite mushrabia screens and beautiful antique brass Islamic lamps. It offers continental cuisine and an international selection of fine wines. Other restaurants include the Moghul Room specializing in Indian cuisine, and the Khan el Khalili, named for the famous market, which operates 24 hours a day. For breakfast, snacks and light refreshments, there is also the Greenery.
One of the Mena House's Fine Restaurants One may partake of drinks in the Sultan Bar with a magnificent panoramic view of the pyramids, or visit the Mameluke bar or have an exciting evening in the Abu Nawas night club. During the summer, try the Oasis Club. Other indoor entertainment includes the Saddle Discotheque and the Mena House casino.
The Mena House Casino Outdoors, the Mena House maintains its own famous stables where one may ride either horses or camels. There is also both a large pool and an 18 hole golf course which overlook the pyramids (not to mention tennis courts and jogging paths), as well as beautiful gardens all about. Having been a guest of the hotel, I can say that one truly feels pampered. It begins at the door as you walk in and are greeted by a member of the hotel's public relations staff, and never ends until you leave. It is an experience that most people interested in Egypt should enjoy and remember.
The Mena House Oberoi Hotel
Pyramids Road, Giza, Cairo, Egypt
Phone +2-02-33833222 / +2-02-33833444
Budget and Independent Travel to Egypt - Part I By Jimmy Dunn
Historical Hotels in Egypt - Part By Jimmy Dunn
Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes
Book Reviews Various Editors
Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich
Hotel Reviews By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian Exhibitions By deTraci Regula
Restaurant Reviews Various Editors
Shopping Around By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian View-Point By Adel Murad
Medical Advice in Egypt By Dr. Sameh Arab, M.D. Prior Issues
June 1st, 2000
Last Updated: June 5th, 2011