For over a century the British Residence in Cairo – or as it was once known, Beit Al Lurd – has played host to kings and queens, political power players and its fair share of celebrities. It has witnessed history in the making and the rise and fall of an empire. In this exclusive, Enigma’s own Gabriela Asquith – the daughter of the current British Ambassador to Egypt – invites us into her private residence, to unveil the modern-day goings-on in this historic home.
After entering the Residence compound through wrought iron gates, both garnished with a crest of Queen Victoria, you wind round the front lawn where an oak tree (planted by Lord Cromer’s second wife Kathryn) lies at its heart. This building that has housed a plethora of diplomatic and military staff, Winston Churchill and Egyptian officers is what I currently call home.
The British Residence became a reality when Lord Cromer arrived in Cairo as Sir Evelyn Baring in 1883 to become HM Agent, Minster Plenipotentiary and Consul General. A couple of years on, he realised it was time to build more functional offices and accommodations for himself. An area then called Kasr Al Doubara, later named Garden City in 1905, caught his attention with its grandness. So in 1890 it was bought for a total sum of £2,580. The likes of Princess Diana have pulled up under the imposing portico guarded by two marble lions, acquired by Lord Kitchener (Lord Cromer’s successor) from the Gezira Palace Hotel, as a bribe to have his picture taken. He was also responsible for the separate ballroom, north side of the residence (completed in 1913) that contains the first sprung floor in Africa. A majestic pediment decorated with a colossal sculpture of the Royal Coat of Arms heads the simple silvery façade. Framing the front door are windows adorned with the floral emblems of the British Isles, amidst those of Upper and Lower Egypt. Through the threshold, life-size portraits of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra of Denmark overlook the hall, which is sparsely furnished to accommodate the continuous flow of guests and visitors. The ceiling is a glass pinnacle roof where maximum light penetrates, while steel grey pilasters with elaborate capitals flank the four arches at the crossing.
To my right the Grandfather clock strikes 10, I come to the men’s bathroom that was once the impressive Oriental Secretary’s office. It’s just another ordinary day at the British Residence. Women spill in 30 minutes later through the entrance for Ladies’ Coffee Morning. Whilst they congregate in the middle sitting room gossiping about Embassy frets and foes, I lounge on the sofa (which dwarfs even the tallest of giants) in the main reception reminiscing about the Oscars party we recently held where I lost ‘Best Actress’ to my father’s secretary. Statuettes were replaced with Tutankhamuns and gorgeous celebrities with…Embassy staff.
What once was a ballroom, still continues to host similar events; glamorous receptions, beneficial charity gatherings, conferences, cocktail parties. Visitors today wouldn’t have taken to the High Commissioner Sir Henry McMahon (the replacement for Lord Kitchener at the beginning of the First World War), who banned alcohol and had Jones, the butler, serve guests only lemonade and barley water. Like all the rooms downstairs, it’s filled with light and blanketed with high-corniced ceilings and floored with oriental carpets (including the magnificent Heriz ‘garden’ carpet). It is also furnished with comfortable sofas and armchairs upholstered in modern British fabrics in crimsons, creams and powdered blues. These all complement Sue Arrowsmith’s Zing – a painting that dominates the main reception with lines of white ink (some skillfully smudged) across a blue surface. Opposite hangs Bridget Riley’s Reflection, painted after her first visit to Egypt in 1981 that prompted her to adopt “this ancient palette, recreating colours from memory”; nevertheless, we’ve been trying to find another place for it to earn its stripes. Alabaster canopic jars from the 26th Dynasty (left for safe keeping by a British Jew from Alexandria), now sit on the mantelpiece and a stone’s throw away is the Tribute to Sir John Soane sculpture in imperial porphyry by Stephen Cox, which perfectly anchors the room. I recollect an evening that united esteemed international and Egyptian writers such as Alaa Al Aswany. While British children’s novelist Anthony Horowitz was in deep discussion with Khaled Al Khamissi, I was forced by my mother to take my brother’s library collection of Horowitz’s books to be signed. Little did she know I had topped the pile with Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife which the minute he caught sight of, made him abruptly retort, “Do you mind… I’m in the middle of a conversation.” What seemed like a good idea at the time was a complete faux pas.
I peep into the middle sitting room where the women are still chatting beneath a golden chandelier amongst antiques and mirrors reflecting the 19th and 20th century. I seek sanctuary in the breakfast room (the ‘informal’ dining room) where I am served breakfast by – surprise, surprise – men in crisp white uniforms. I get the chance to admire the abundance of David Roberts’ colour lithographs including the Temple of Edfou and Edward Lear’s watercolours. One being the Denderah – a chocolate Harmony which Lear painted on his final visit to Egypt, “In no place can the variety and simplicity of colours be so well studied as in Egypt,” he remarked; another is Mahárakka in which he captures the brilliance of Egyptian sunlight.
This is our family room – refreshingly pretty and airy light. After a long drawn out battle, my mother was finally allowed to paint over the dingy walls, upholster the cushions in warm terracotta and purchase towering patterned coral curtains. Twinkling fairy lights snake around crystal decanters and a host of lanterns edge the side table, while a blue and white Indian tablecloth is bedecked with fresh Irises and gold rimmed ivory teacups. I become distracted by memories of lively birthday brunches, intimate dinner parties, and the time a visiting Baroness (whose underwear mysteriously found its way into my drawers) unraveled her scandalous tale of serving breakfast to a male colleague only in white lingerie. It was enough to spoil anyone’s appetite.
Across the way is my mother’s study, once Sir Evelyn Baring’s office and to this day contains his desk, which is surrounded by portraits of a dashing Horatio Herbert Kitchener and Evelyn Baring, First Earl of Cromer himself and another of Sir John Eldon Gorst. The billiard room next door was then the chancery and the registry, which housed all the papers under lock and key. Today it is a store room where my mother’s 200 pots of recently homemade marmalade proudly sit behind a steel door. Crowning the fireplace of the formal dining room are the imperial portraits of King George V and Queen Mary who oversee the ceaseless banquets and lectures that are all under the surveillance of Queen Elizabeth herself. The room drips with crystal chandleries and a long mahogany table, fringed with jade leather chairs gilded with royal emblems.
At the top of the creaking main stairs, you come to the balcony where my grandpa, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, once came face to face with Tony Blair, “You look so familiar, but I can’t think where I’ve seen you before,” he said, then coolly sauntered off to the outside verandah while Blair meandered into his bedroom. This is a room that has cradled the likes of Lords and Ladies, British Representatives, Chief of the General Staff, Jeremy Paxman – a great convenience that his and Blair’s visits never clashed – and of course friends and family.
Window doors as big as theatrical flats open out onto the terrace that wraps around the house, surveying the grounds which were once adjacent to the banks of the river and echo British horticultural history. The land at the bottom of the garden was bought for LE 300,000 in 1954 by Nasser’s government to allow the Corniche road to be built but meant Thomas Cook could no longer moor their boats on the Nile frontage. Echelons of Cairo’s high society fill the garden for the Queen’s Birthday Party in the month of June, which is lined with paparazzi and espalier Bougainvillea. Prince Andrew and his daughter Beatrice have also graced these grounds with their presence.
As the day ends, I bid farewell to the fading sun from the outside verandah which has laid witness to wild teenage jungle parties and my father’s civilised business soirées. I recall one where I had a mute on my right, to my left a woman larger than life eating off my plate and an old man opposite me sticking 12 pens in his mouth. Then as the hired magician chased from one table to the next, I wished for my disappearance.
Despite the turmoil outside, the Residence remains unaffected, its exterior unchanged; however it’s only when you step inside that you can truly see the transition in style of the furnishing and décor from the different residents who have made their mark over the years.