In 2009, the number of functioning squash courts in the world was estimated at just under 50,000. England, with over 8500, was the country with by far the largest number of courts, followed by a number of countries with more than 1000 including Germany, the US, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Malaysia, France, the Netherlands, Spain…and one other.
In third place was the country whose players currently occupy four of the top ten positions in the men’s world squash rankings. Egypt.
But when and where was the first squash court in the country built? And by whom? Well, the answers to both questions probably won’t come as a big surprise. But their appearance during the course of a famous Academy Award-winning film just might.
The British Army in Cairo
After World War II, the Co-ordinating Council for the Welfare of the Troops in Egypt published a guide with ‘a view to providing useful information for Officers and Men of His Britannic Majesty’s Forces staying in and coming on leave to Cairo.’ The guide contained ‘particulars of Services Clubs, Restaurants and places of entertainment’ and included details of clubs operated specifically for service men and women from India, New Zealand and South Africa.
Also included in the guide were details of two sporting clubs which are still in operation today: the Gezira Sporting Club and the Heliopolis Sporting Club. Both were identified as providing facilities for playing squash.
Although the British had first taken control of Egypt in 1801, they were defeated by the Mameluke Army under Muhammed Ali in 1807 and forced to leave the country. It was not until 1882 that they returned as masters of Egypt, bringing with them their institutions, their administrators and their own forms of recreation. At the time, squash was not amongst them but the British love of sport was demonstrated by its establishment, in that very same year of 1882, of the Gezira Sporting Club, then called the Khedivial Sporting Club.
Squash on the Nile
Located on the island of Zamalek, the grounds of what is now the Gezira Sporting Club were carved out of the Khedivial Botanical Gardens, which is why acacias and gardens still decorate the area. After the island had been formally leased to the British military command, club rules were licensed and the land was divided into several recreational playing grounds. At first, the club was for the exclusive use of the British Army but, over the years, has developed into the most important squash training centre in Egypt with 16 courts.
The first squash courts at the Gezira Club were built in the mid-1920s. But are there any older courts in the city?
The Heliopolis Club was established later than the Gezira, in 1910, by the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company. The company managed the club until the end of 1921 after which the club members took over its management under the terms of a contract signed with the company.
It’s probable that the appearance of the first squash courts at the Heliopolis club took place after its takeover at the start of 1922. But when was squash first played in Cairo?
Lawrence of Arabia
In 1916, Sherif Hussein bin Ali initiated the Arab Revolt with the aim of securing independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and creating a single unified Arab state stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen.
At the time of the outbreak of the Revolt, Aircraftman T.E.Lawrence, later known as Lawrence of Arabia, was working as a cartographer with British military intelligence in Cairo. As someone who had for years travelled extensively within the Ottoman Empire he was sent to the Arabian peninsula to act as a liaison officer for Emir Faisal who commanded a force of Arab irregular troops carrying out guerrilla operations.
Lawrence documented his experiences in Arabia in a biography, ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, published in 1922. Many years later, a screenplay based on Lawrence’s book was written by Robert Bolt and filmed by director David Lean as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Released in 1962, the film won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Lawrence was played by British actor, Peter O’Toole.
It includes the following scene, with Lawrence, now promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, returning to British military headquarters in Cairo. His fellow officers have some good news.
So did the British Army really build the first squash court in Cairo? In 1917 or 1918? And did Lawrence ever play on it?
Well, one for another article maybe…
For a fascinating view of life in Cairo for ex-servicemen and women, read the ‘The Services Guide to Cairo’.