Camel Spins In Cairo: A Look At Egypt's Unique Skating History

"Then away - away over the glassy surface, swift as an arrow from the bow, bending, swaying, now right, now left, as the stream meandered in and out, till at length [he] paused, momentarily out of breath, and, by way of variety, began cutting hieroglyphic eights, threes, noughts, in the centre of the ice." - Anonymous, "The London Journal and Weekly Record Of Literature, Science And Art", December 24, 1881

Egypt is known around the world for its rich and fascinating history. The Pyramids of Giza, Luxor's Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings have captured the imaginations of millions around the world. Despite being home to the camel, the animal one of the sport's iconic spins shares a name with, the land of sand's unique skating history is one that has not been really explored. Through research and some correspondence with Mona L. Russell, Associate Professor in the Department of History at East Carolina University, I've dug up a little Egyptian skating history you might find quite interesting.

The entrance to the Luna Park roller skating rink

Egypt's skating history traces back to the years leading up to the British occupation of the country in 1882. In 1877, a roller skating rink opened in Cairo on the former site of a Circus, but it only lasted for two years before going bankrupt and being converted to a royal stable. Interest in roller skating waned for a time, but was revived in the Edwardian era when an open-air roller rink was installed in the city's  Asbakiya Gardens. Around 1910, one of Africa's first amusement parks was constructed in Heliopolis. The park had a merry go-round, roller coaster, mechanical rides, Skeleton House, scenic railway, restaurants... and a roller rink. A visitor from Australia recalled that on each side of the 'Central Skating Club' was an open-air restaurant and "under leafy shade; the writing tables and reading quarters extended into a reading ardor." Afternoon tea was served at this roller rink, which was open until seven at night every day of the week. Elsie Donagan and Earl Reynolds, grandparents of Eddie LeMaire (a U.S. Champion in junior men's and pairs and one of the victims of the 1961 Sabena Crash) gave an exhibition at this rink circa 1913. By 1915, the Luna Park roller rink had been converted into a makeshift ANZAC overflow hospital with five hundred beds for injured soldiers during The Great War.

Interest in roller skating continued in Egypt through the second World War. Don Caspersen, a Sargeant with the United States Army, wrote to "Skating" magazine in 1943 and shared, "There are no ice rinks in Egypt although they have roller rinks. [I] showed the skaters how to do our ice dance steps on rollers and a few months later [I] visited Alexandria and found a few of the boys and girls were doing them. [I] asked where they learned the steps and was told that a skater from Cairo had been there one afternoon and taught them the Tenstep. At this rate, they'll soon be skating all through Egypt."

Photo courtesy "The Skater" magazine

Egyptians had their first exposure to figure skating in 1950, when a Scandinavian troupe with a portable ice rink travelled from Copenhagen to Egypt to give a series of shows. The Manhattan Ice Show featured an international cast, including Melitta Brunner of Austria, Elvire Collin and Fernand Leemans of Belgium and German ice comedians Baddy and Buddy. Buddy was Bernd Elias, the cousin of Anne Frank. Ten years later, Holiday on Ice visited the country, performing shows in both Cairo and Alexandria. 

Bernd Elias and Otto Rehorek, a.k.a. Buddy and Baddy

On July 1, 1966, the country's first ice rink opened in Cairo. Alice Peters, the 1957 Hungarian Champion in ice dance with Zoltán Tölgyesi, was hired to teach at the rink. She recalled, "I trained a group of beginners - who had never even seen skating before - for an ice show to be staged in that city. Within a few months thirty members of this group, who ranged in age from sixteen to twenty-eight, were prepared to give a two-hour performance... After two weeks, those who had the ground training showed a technical level of four to five years of figure skating training. Some skaters could perform figures up to fourth-test level; others did Axels and split jumps. Dances were learned despite the small size of the rink. Hundreds of visitors who watched rehearsals could not believe what they saw. In March, 1967, the ice rink was closed prior to being moved to its permanent location. Unfortunately, the Arab-Israeli conflict prevented the move, and the ice show was abandoned."

The entrance to The Nile Skating, the tent ice rink near the Great Pyramids Of Giza. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

As War and civil unrest raged in the years that followed under the reign of Anwar el-Sadat, further efforts to develop figure skating in the country were put on the back burner. Disney on Ice visited with its "Aladdin" tour, but it wasn't until 1997, during the Presidency of Hosni Mubarak, that another ice  semi-permanent rink was established in Egypt. Mike Rzechula, the chief technology officer of an American company called Ice Rink Supply installed a rink in an old circus tent in the middle of the desert, just five miles from the pyramids. Within a year, Egypt had two more rinks - one in the basement of the Maadi Family Land play complex in a suburb of Cairo and another at Marina El Alamein, a seaside resort near Alexandria. 

The entrance to Maadi Family Land. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

The novelty of these rinks drew in hundreds of customers, and two Polish skaters were employed to give lessons at the Maadi rink. The rinks were especially busy on Friday nights from nine o'clock until midnight. One of the instructors at the Maadi rink told a reporter from "L'Orient Le Jour" that "Some, especially the younger ones, already manage to embark on sometimes complicated figures [but] an hour of skating, between 15 and 25 EGP (about 3 to 9 USD), is quite expensive and many just come to watch." Considering the average Egyptian made about the equivalent of two hundred and fifty dollars a month at the time, the cost of skating was extremely prohibitive to many.

Within a few short years, Cairo alone had no less than five public ice rinks, but the ice conditions were such that only the Maadi rink - called Magic on Ice - was suitable for serious skating. It was there an American adult skater living in Egypt named Don Miller formed a skating club called the Cairo International Skaters in 2001. The group consisted of expats from America, Canada, Australia and Holland and a handful of English-speaking Egyptians. The skaters encountered a number of unique challenges. Miller was the only one who knew how to sharpen skates and he did so with a handheld sharpener. In a 2003 article in "Skating" magazine, he remarked, "It's hard to say there is progress. But the rink coach, Mohamed Shaban, is picking up a lot. He has passed it on to a lot of kids he teaches, and he works there ten hours each day. The average one hundred degrees on Cairo's summer day should drive people into the cool ice rinks, but people still work and kids still have limited funds."

By 2013, Egypt had rinks in Maadi, Helwan and at two shopping malls in Cairo. An ice rink in Sharm-el-Sheikh followed. In 2017, Dr. Helga Guirgis and Major General Ahmed Nasser formed Ice Skate Egypt, a national governing body for figure skating in the country. Under the Sports For All Federation and Dr. Emad El-Bannany, the organization was recognized by the Egyptian Ministry of Youth And Sports and the Egyptian Olympic Committee. Guided by American professionals, talented young skaters competed in country's first National Championships were held in July of 2019 in Cairo. 

In 2022, Hannah Dabees made history as the first skater to represent Egypt on the ISU Junior Grand Prix circuit. Though the country faces unique challenges, it may not be too long before we see a competitor from the country at a senior ISU Championship. 

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":