The awe-inspiring Palace of Baron Empain on Orouba Street in Heliopolis with its burnt sienna colour and distinguished Indian architectural style is as magnificent as it always been and illustrates something of the creation of this elegant Cairo suburb.
Today, the palace and its gardens are buzzing with workers and restorers armoured with white helmets and equipment to complete the final touches for the palace’s grand opening in February and its exhibition on the history of the area.
After more than two years of restoration, the palace has regained its former glory and is scheduled to be officially inaugurated not only as a tourist destination but also as an exhibition relating the history of Heliopolis.
The work of restoration was carried out in collaboration with the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the Arab Contractors Company to a budget of more than LE100 million.
“The restoration of the palace is a dream come true, and we will be able to breathe new life into this landmark as a result,” Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled El-Enany told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He said that the palace had benefitted from long-overdue restoration work that had helped to restore it to its former glory. Dust has covered the palace since it was built over a century ago, turning it a beige colour. “However, when the restoration team cleaned the external walls, this restored the original colour, which is burnt sienna,” El-Enany said, adding that a similar colour change had happened with the marble columns in the first-ever restoration of the Palace.
Hisham Samir, minister of antiquities assistant for engineering affairs, said that the Armed Forces Engineering Authority had overseen the restoration work carried out by four private companies.
He said that a comprehensive study of the palace’s condition and detailed architectural and archaeological surveys had been carried out before starting the restoration work. The studies had also included the palace’s photographic documentation, and exploratory drilling had been done in parts to inspect the condition of the foundations. Integrated documentation of all the architectural elements had been prepared using 3D technology, he said.
He added that the restoration work had been based on the original plans of the palace’s French architect Alexander Marcel, and the team had succeeded in solving even unexpected problems. “Almost 98 per cent of the restoration work has been achieved, and the work will continue at full swing to meet the grand opening in February,” he said.
Several ideas had been suggested to rehabilitate the palace upon the completion of its restoration. Some suggested transforming it into a boutique hotel, while others said it should be a cultural centre or library. A third group wanted it to be a multi-functional edifice that combined these functions and would be a venue for musical and theatre performances.
“In fact, the ministry had another idea to be implemented in collaboration with the Belgium Embassy in Egypt, the Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage [CULTNAT], and the two NGOs of the Heliopolis Heritage Foundation and the Heliopolis Association,” Nevine Nizar, ministry assistant for museums, told the Weekly.
She said that the idea was to organise an exhibition relating the history of Heliopolis and its development. The exhibition will include a collection of photographs, archival documents, maps, drawings and letters in relation to the history of the Heliopolis suburb, including Matariya.
The exhibition will also display objects reflecting the lives of the suburb’s inhabitants during the early period, including chairs, lamps, tables, and telephones. Photographs showing the different phases of the palace’s restoration will also be on show, along with panels on the Hindu architectural style and Baron Empain and his family.
The 1910 Heliopolis tramway, which does not exist anymore and has been replaced by the modern metro line, is also part of the exhibition. A wagon of the old Heliopolis tramway has been restored and is on show in the gardens.
A culturama, a cultural panoramic show portraying the history of Heliopolis through nine interactive 180-degree panorama screens, will be provided by CULTNAT along with augmented reality screens. Other screens showing documentaries on the history of the suburb will also be provided.
BARON EMPAIN’S PALACE: The story of the palace started in 1904 when Belgian industrialist Edouard Empain arrived in Egypt to construct a railway line linking the lower Egyptian city of Mansoura to Matariya on the far side of Lake Manzala.
Two years later, he established the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company, which laid out plans for the new town of Heliopolis 10km northwest of Cairo. While workmen were busy constructing the new suburb, Empain asked French architect Alexandre Marcel to build him a magnificent palace that would stand out from the others being built in the same period.
Inspired by the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Hindu Temple of Orissa in India, Marcel incorporated into the external design of the new Palace reproductions of a variety of human figures, statues of Indian dancers, elephants, snakes, Buddhas, Shivas and Krishnas. Marcel’s colleague Georges-Louis Claude designed the interior and decoration.
Baron Empain’s new palace consisted of two floors and a small extension near the roof. Windows studded with Belgian glass were especially created so as never to lose sight of the sun.
The construction was completed in 1911, and the palace was surrounded by a landscaped garden adorned with ascending green terraces, each with its own set of marble statues and exotic vegetation. Empain later died at Woluwe in Belgium in 1929, but his body was brought back to Egypt for burial under the Basilica of Notre Dame in Heliopolis.
Three generations of Empains then occupied the palace, but in 1957 it was sold by its owners and began to fall into ruin. Some parts of the Indian decorations and sculptures crumbled and fell away, and the beautifully designed parquet floors and gold-plated doorknobs disappeared.
Rumours about the palace spread in Cairo, and for many it became a house of horror. Some said that it was used by drug-dealers as a storage space for illicit goods, while others believed it was haunted by devils and called it the “House of Vampires” or “Count Dracula’s Castle”, while the majority called it “the House of Ghosts”.
HELIOPOLIS: Heliopolis itself is a blend of Islamic, European, Persian and Moorish architecture.
Neighbouring the palace, there were once many wealthy Egyptian residences. Facing the palace was the Arabesque palace of Boghos Nubar Pasha, now a military headquarters, and just opposite stands a presidential guesthouse which was the former residence of Sultan Hussein Kamel who reigned over Egypt between 1914 and 1917.
Another interesting building is the presidential palace located behind the Heliopolis Club that was established as the Grand Heliopolis Palace Hotel in 1910 by Baron Empain’s company.
The Heliopolis Commonwealth Cemetery is located on Nabil Al-Wakkad Street and contains the Port Tawfik Memorial, a memorial to over 4,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army who fell in World War I.
The Catholic Basilica on Al-Ahram Street is another famous landmark in Heliopolis and is the burial place of Baron Empain. There are 16 major mosques and Islamic charities located within Heliopolis, including the Imam Hassan and Omar bin Abdel-Aziz mosques.
Giza Street is one of many streets that still look like a piece of Europe, with small gardens, townhouses, and semi-detached buildings no higher than three storeys high. The present Merryland Garden was originally known as the Horseracing Square.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.