The inaugural celebrations of President El-Sisi took place last week at three locations. By virtue of being recently built, the High Constitutional Court, on the corniche in Maadi, where El-Sisi was sworn in lacks the historical grandure of the two presidential palaces where the guests were hosted. And of those two palaces, Ittihadiya and Qubba, it is the former which is most captured photographically.
The privacy of Qubba Palace, both visually and chronically, is justified by its being the residence of Egypt’s monarchs and their families starting from Khedive Tewfik, who ascended to Egypt’s throne in 1879, until King Farouk was deposed in 1952. Before then Egypt's monarch had resided at the Citadel since Salah El-Din El-Ayyubi (Saladin) built it in the 13th century and until Khedive Ismail, in his efforts to modernise Cairo, built Abdin Palace, which was inaugurated in 1874. Of Qubba Palace there are mostly indoor photographs of the royal family taken by court photographers or a few informal amateur photographs taken by young princes.
For Ittihadiya Palace, where El-Sisi’s state guests were received, the case is different. It is currently a presidential palace but, unlike Qubba, it was never a royal one nor was it ever meant to be one. Prior to becoming a presidential palace in 1958 it had an increasingly colourful history during the first half of the century. What history books, chronicles, newspapers, photographs and postcards had been referring to as the Heliopolis Palace Hotel is what we now know as the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace. The hotel which became a presidency premises was founded in 1910-11 using Neo-Mamluk architecture guidelines that typically characterised the original Heliopolis style. The hotel was designed by Belgian architect Ernest Jaspar, who himself resorted to his fellow architect Alexandre Marcel to design the central dome of the Heliopolis Palace. Marcel’s contribution to Heliopolis is highlighted by the Hindu/Cambodian-style palace of the founder of Heliopolis Baron Empain, and in downtown Cairo by the Club Muhammad Ali (now diplomatic club) at the intersection of Bustan and Talaat Harb streets.
In its time, the luxurious Heliopolis Palace Hotel rivalled, if not exceeded, in ranking, services and elegance other hotels such as Shepheard's (non extant) and Continental (extant but not operational) both overlooking Azbakia gardens and Opera square, as well as Mena House Hotel at the foot of the pyramids and the Semiramis Hotel (non extant but replaced by a new tower and management), which was contemporaneously being built by Swiss hotel magnate Charles Baehler overlooking the Nile near Qasr El-Nil bridge. But none of those hotels was labelled “palace” like the Heliopolis Palace Hotel. And while all had celebrities of all sorts and heads of states reside in them, the Heliopolis Palace Hotel was the only one that changed functions during World Wars. On both occasions it was transformed into a military hospital for British soldiers.
In 1958 it was purchased from its original owners by the state which was considering converting it into the municipality of Cairo. But that plan did not work as the political leadership under President Gamal Abdel-Nasser saw it more fit to place the municipality by the Nile, right in front of the Egyptian Museum. And thus came to exist the modernist building designed by architect Mahmoud Riad, which was burnt on 28 January 2011, the Friday of Anger. Finally, in 1972 a new function was assigned to the Heliopolis Palace. It became the headquarters of the Arab United Republic which united Egypt, Syria and Libya. And hence the name Ittihadiya (Arabic translation for Union) and Uruba Palace (Arabic translation for Arabism). Ever since, Ittihadiya has been the office of all the presidents of Egypt, a function that transformed the Heliopolis Palace into a presidential palace.
What the photo heritage mostly highlights is the exterior round structure of the back of the palace which was once a banquet hall. It is located at the very centre of the palace on the same axis as the entrance portal and the dome. The postcard produced during its construction reveals that it was meant to be a casino to entertain the citizens of the remote Heliopolis “oasis.” Photos of this banquet hall’s interior are rare. However, the hall where the two presidents Adly Mansour and El-Sisi signed off the authority transmission document is one that was more frequently captured by the early photographers of the epoque and was even used by the management of the hotel on their own stationery and postcards. The following postcards are rarer photos that capture the Oriental setting of the main lobby with its upper galleries that were not clearly visible in the scope of the official broadcasting. Worthy of attention is the replacement of the traditional original parquet with the immaculate marble flooring designed in the arabesque pattern. This is one of the many renovations that led Mubarak and his sons to court on corruption charges.
The Heliopolis Palace Hotel has been featured in several articles and history books, however its history has still not been fully explored. Like other royal palaces and grand hotels in Egypt, it is worthy of a book on its own to celebrate its 125th anniversary in another decade.
Photo credits: courtesy Ola R. Seif