Bucher-Durer: Semiramis - the forgotten story
"Monster Cairo Hotel” announced The Egyptian Gazette in its March 16, 1906, issue, referring to the near completion of the new Semiramis Hotel situated in the genteel district of Kasr al-Dubara. Except for the seasonal Gezira Palace Hotel situated on the Island of Gezirah (ex-Bulak Is.), the Semiramis was the first Nileside hotel in Cairo. The Nationale, Grand Continental Savoy, Angleterre and the legendary Shepheards, all in the same elevated category, were either located off Opera Square or on the periphery of the Ezbekieh Gardens.
The monster was situated between the palaces of the Khediva-Mother, or the Walda Pasha as she was known in these parts, and that of her daughter Princess Nimet Kamal al-Dine (today Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Also nearby, was the old palace of Kasr al-Nil turned into barracks for the British Army of Occupation (today Arab League and Nile Hilton Hotel).
The Semiramis was built on part of a 6,000 square meters plot owned by real estate baron Moise Cattaui Bey who had sold it in February 1905 to Swiss hotelier Bucher-Durrer. Known for his Midas touch, Bucher-Durrer in turn sold the property the following year for double the amount to the Socite Suisse Eyptienne des Hotels en Egypte which he helped found.
The supervising architect of the six-story hotel was Italian engineer Tuilo Parvis. His cabinet on Madabegh Street (today Cherif) was among the most prominent in Cairo. The project contractor was the Belgian-run firm of Padova, Leon Rollin & Co., well known for their major undertakings all over Egypt. Padova-Rollin promised to deliver the 200 room hotel to Bucher-Durrer on January 1, 1907. True to their word, Padova, Rollin Co. delivered the baroque hotel with the snow white facade to Bucher-Durrer on the promised date in time for a meticulously planned but short-lived dry run. Once the ornaments, mirrors, marble columns, Gobelin tapestries, Louis XVI salons, statues and furniture were in place, an official opening was announced for February 7. The widely attended gathering brought together Cairo’s leading officials and residents. On hand to greet the inaugural guests, were Mr. & Mrs. Theodore Bucher and Mr. Max Bucher. Soon enough, manifestations of surprise and admiration were heard on every side as onlookers passed through the handsome apartments, reported The Egyptian Gazette the following day.
To entertain gawking guests and amused aristocracy, an open buffet was laid out for the occasion in the Hotel’s central halls as the 2nd. Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers band played familiar tunes. Later the same evening, under the glowing cut glass chandeliers and electroliers, an orchestra under the baton of signor Bracale was succeeded by a sextet providing all night entertainment. The early-to-bed types, could, if they had to, settle in any one of the hotel suites or bedrooms. Except for the large brass bedsteads which were imported from England, the rooms were decorated in Empire style by Messrs. Keller & Co. of Zurich. What was new and particular to this hotel was its roof garden, a first in flat arid Egypt. Some said it was inspired by the hanging gardens of Babylon where the Assyrian Queen Semiramis is said to have found undue pleasure.
Little did Bucher-Durrer realize that his florid undertaking would become an institution within the international cafE(© society, written up in countless interwar novels and biographies. From their elevated spot and as they Lapsang Souchong tea in the finest china bone or pranced to the sounds of the Big Bands, patrons of the Semiramis roof garden took in the Giza Pyramids and endless palm groves while large heavily laden fellucas sailed down the Nile. A similar vista was also available from any one of the hotel’s many west-facing loggias and balconies.
In 1910, Bucher-Durrer sold his controlling shares in the Socitee Suisse Egyptienne des Hotels en Egypte to a fellow Swiss, Monsieur Charles Baehler, who immediately entrusted his manager Mr. Wirth with the addition of fifty new rooms and with structural renovations. In Egypt since October 1889, Baehler had worked for, and then become the owner of the Egyptian Hotels Company which owned and managed both the Gezirah Palace Hotel and the famed Shepheards.
In 1906, Charles Baehler founded the Upper Egypt Hotels Company which operated amongst others the Cataract and Winter Palace hotels in Aswan and Luxor respectively. With the addition of the Semiramis to his set of trophies, Charles Baehler’s name and that of the Semiramis would become closely linked until he died in 1937.
The Semiramis and its legendary roof garden outlived Baehler by another 40 years. One of the last attention-getting events that took place there was in February 1955 when the Aga Khan III was weighed for the last time in precious metal on the occasion of the 71th (platinum+1) year of his Imamate. He died the following year.
In the 1970s, Cairo’s first all-year round Nile side hotel was pulled down to make way for the new Semiramis Intercontinental. There is no hall, plaque, or restaurant commemorating the creator of the first Semiramis or the man who was once regarded the father of Egypt’s hospitality industry. (Note: The first Semiramis Hotel was inaugurated in 1907 and not ten years earlier as wrongly suggested by the management of today’s Semiramis Intercontinental.)
Samir Raafat Cairo Times, November 13, 1997