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The Acropole Hotel

In fond memory of George Pagoulatos

Above, everyday scenes a few metres from the hotel’s main entrance in Zubeir Pasha Street.

George Pagoulatos

The Acropole, Then and Now

Lillian Craig Harris’s Tribute

George Pagoulatos

This week, on behalf of everyone at Women’s Education Partnership, I remember with gratitude and great fondness the late George Pagoulatos, one of three brothers to have dedicated much of their lives to running The Acropole Hotel in central Khartoum.

A Khartoum institution, The Acropole’s story packs all the drama of a Naguib Mahfouz family saga laced with the intrigue of a John Le Carre thriller; a story that mirrors too the myriad fortunes of the Greek community in Sudan and their unique contribution to Sudanese life.

Above, George, right, with his brothers, Thanassis, left and Makis (photo credit to be provided shortly). See more photos of George in Dr Sophie Hay’s moving tribute to him.

Aid workers, mouthy pop moguls on a mission, diplomats, journalists, archeologists, wheelers and dealers, adventurers and, it is rumoured, even spies have flowed through its unassuming doorway since The Acropole opened in 1952. And so many of them talk of the difference George made to their time in Sudan. “Always smartly dressed, an ironed shirt, untouched by all the chaos and dust of the city”, George was “a man of the world who made his home in a small hotel in Khartoum” (Hotelier George Pagoulatos from Khartoum: A life fit for a film) A man who negotiated the Kafkaesque maze of Sudanese officialdom on their behalf with “the courtesy and aplomb of the captian of a luxury liner.” Meet the Pagoulatoses and their hotel (Left, The Acropole, set against the mid-morning bustle of Zubeir Pasha Street; a painting displayed in the hotel entrance).

We do a lot of small things which have nothing to do with running a hotel, but we feel they matter,” George Pagoulatos in Meet the Pagoulatoses

Henry Gold’s words below capture the feelings of so many of his guests, especially all of us at Women’s Education Partnership and we offer our deepest condolences to George’s widow, Eleanora, the soul of kindness, and all their family:

“Whether he realized it or not, he and his whole extended family had an impact on thousands of people and enriched their lives in a way that is hard to imagine a small, simple hotel could possibly achieve. In a difficult place, George Pagoulatos was an individual with the straightforward objective of making people comfortable, enabling them to do what they wanted to do and taking no credit for it. If there are people on the planet who encapsulate the best humanity has to offer, George is one of them. May he rest in peace”.

Hotelier George Pagoulatos from Khartoum: A life fit for a film

Above, just two of the many photos, vintage advertisements, posters, maps and historical scenes that line the walls of the hotel.

The Acropole – Then

Over its seventy-odd years the hotel has weathered revolutions, public hangings, coups, economic crises, and the mass exodus of foreigners. In the late eighties, The Acropole was to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of a Hamas / Black September bomb attack in May 1988 that killed seven and injured many more. “It had nothing to do with the Sudanese”, George’s brother, Thanassis, stresses in a rare interview (link below), adding “we stay here because of the Sudanese, especially the older generation”. Today the hotel endures as a stubborn, calm and consoling presence in troubled times in its post-bombing reincarnation at 52 Zubeir Pasha Street.

As a wet-behind-the-ears contract English teacher, I registered the dull thud of the bomb explosion that punctured the summer evening calm from the window of a threadbare guesthouse on the other side of the city. Only much later did I grasp what it really meant. I fell in love with the hotel in those turbulent late eighties. Scraping together enough money to sip Turkish coffee in the hotel’s air-conditioned lounge on a rare visit to the capital, savouring the thrill of being an interloper among the hotel’s earnest aid worker clientele while leafing though its library of secondhand books seemed to me then the very height of sophistication. While my infatuation with aid worker cachet has long since soured into cynicism, my affection for the hotel only grew and for nearly a decade now, I have been blessed to return as a guest to the Acropole almost every year. (Above right, view from The Acropole balcony).

Above, one of the hotel’s balconies, Zubeir Pasha Street in a sandstorm, and the icon that still hangs in the dining room – the only object to survive unscathed the 1988 bombing.

The Acropole – And now; May 2022

Escaping the scalding mid-afternoon heat of May, I step into the gentle gloom of the entrance hall. For what must be the seventh time today, I hear the shudder and roar of the hotel generator kicking in as yet another city-wide power cut grinds the capital to a halt. The staircase leading up to the first floor reception is lined with photo tributes to the decades of archeological digs the Acropole has oiled the wheels of; hopeful faces of archeologists from the 1970s and 80s beam out at me in all their youthful confidence as I reach the reception hall. “It is strictly prohibited for guests to go out on the hotel balconies during demonstrations” reads the notice next to the reception desk. In happier times, the noticeboard reminded guests and visitors of the hotel’s famous Friday city tour. It was the tour’s visit to the sunset dhikr at Hamid al-Nil in Omdurman that ignited my love for Sudanese Sufism over a decade and a half ago. (Above, left, my room).

The hotel, battered but unbowed by last year’s coup, ensuing economic chaos and three years of covid, soldiers on with no nonsense grace. You will still find toffees and fudge on the bedside table of your spotlessly clean room every evening, ice-cold water in the fridge, ful and ta’mia patties as well as omelettes for Friday breakfast and discreet kindness from the staff. Breakfast is still the time to delight in its human fauna; the chance to strike up conversations with endearingly diffident Anglican ministers, South African agriculturalists with hearts of gold who will earnestly tell you why Darwin was wrong and how their biblical blueprint for farming will save Sudan’s farmers as climate change bites, world-weary but resolutely energetic Spanish aid workers fighting to secure food supplies for the displaced. You might even sneak a glance at the taciturn German who barks at his giant but thankfully gentle-eyed hunting dog to “BE STILL!” under the table. (Right, artwork displayed in the hotel).

George and his brothers have organized planes into Darfur in wartime, life-saving water hoses for refugee camps in extreme drought (Bed, Breakfast and more in Sudan) and innumerable other feats of bureaucratic magic. I only needed help with my visa at the airport and the safe release of medical equipment for a palliative care unit but the certainty that someone from the Acropole would be there seamlessly to make these things happen gave me a measure of peace of mind that is priceless.

George and his brothers may be the last generation of the family to embrace the exhausting work of managing the hotel. There is the pang that accompanies the sensing of the end of an era but everyone who has stayed at the Acropole will treasure memories of their time there and I will continue to return as long as I can. In the 1980s it was reported that a businessman, finding the hotel fully booked, pleaded to be allowed to sleep on the balcony rather than find another hotel. I feel the same way.

Above, morning coffee under the arcades opposite the hotel.

Lillian Craig Harris’s Tribute

Women’s Education Partnership, like so many other NGOs, academic and research bodies, owes a huge debt of gratitude to The Acropole so it is a privilege for me to reproduce below the article on the hotel, written by our founder and expert on Sino-Middle East relations, Lillian Craig Harris, and first published in The Sudan Studies Association (SSSUK) Journal just over twenty years ago.

The underwear notice she refers to is still there, by the way.

Below, video interview link:

Thanassis Pagoulatos

This is a cultural post for

Women’s Education Partnership

http://www.womenseducationpartnership.org

Learn more about our life changing educational work in

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See too Community Literacy, Latest News and At a Glance

Below, a literacy and numeracy game at one of our literacy circles, held before the pandemic.

3 comments on “The Khartoum Acropole

  1. pompei79 says:

    What a beautiful piece on George, his family and The Acropole. My heart is still so heavy knowing I shall never have the pleasure of seeing him again but it’s so heartwarming to read everyone’s memories of him. So thank you for yours and of course for including my blog post.

    Like

    1. Thank you so so much. I feel so strangely bereft too. My warmest greetings. Imogen

      Like

  2. John Poole says:

    This is so evocative of the Acropole and of George. I’m so glad his life has received this tribute. May it’s warmth spin off on his widow, and his brothers and their wives. God bless them all.

    Like

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