By Philip Whitfield
‘Christmas Comes But Once A Year’ is one of the most endearing festive movies —the excitement of orphans awaking in awe; devastated by their clapped-out presents; reassured when Santa appears with a sack of great stuff.
Old and new, tradition and contemporary is a tough challenge at this time of the year. We want kids to respect the meaning of gift giving. We’re not insensitive to their hankering after the latest fads.
It’s the urge to continue Egypt’s legacy of craftsmanship that has been motivating a sentimental Frenchman in Cairo. Bastien Blanc came here a couple of years ago to take over as general manager of the Sofitel Cairo El Gezirah.
The iconic tower occupying the most prestigious stretch of Nile water, beloved by El Kebabgy diners who can almost dip their toes in it, seemed to Monsieur Blanc a perfect location to be offered to the city’s skilled artisans.
“Walking around the city, I saw the most remarkable examples of ancient crafts and skills being continued by generations of extraordinary people,” he says. I thought it was a challenge worthy of their skills and my team’s to see how we could benefit mutually.”
That inspiration has been fulfilled in a majestic form unveiled this week at a recognition dinner for the group that has made it possible, including the coup de grace, The Egyptian lantern.
The tribute to the season rises radiantly from floor to ceiling in the hotel’s lobby — a 9th-century floriated Arabesque style, first seen in the Fatimid Dynasty’s palace in Cairo.
Beautiful patterned Egyptian glass is used to translate the light of 75 bulbs radiating through hundreds of small openings that reflects from thousands of Christmas ornaments inside glass cubes.
No less than 1,000 Egyptian Calla lilies — the Lilies of the Nile — refine the design. White, fluffy blossoms of Salix resemble silk to add a soft appearance for the tree.
Elsewhere throughout the hotel can be found the fruits of M. Blanc’s vision: Sharkia’s candles, whose pillars of wax are lit by cotton wicks, create a unique, tranquil mood as dusk descends. Ornamental shiny light fittings formed from designs handed down through the centuries and are as useful as the exquisite handles on doors and windows made by Ahmed Hassan Kandil, and mashrabiya, the ubiquitous wooden veils drawn to exclude the outside world—to see and not be seen—constructed without a nail or pin to hold them together. Gorgeous jewelry-style boxes and velvet lined containers, utilized to contain rose petals and to perform Ottoman-style hand-cleansing rituals are fashioned by Babani whose work is detailed with mother-of-pearl from shells as far away as Australia, produced locally in Khan El-Khalili.
Bastien Blanc came to strengthen the link between France and Egypt. As another Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte said of the mission: “Imagination rules the world.”