As restoration work on the legendary Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis continues before its grand opening in November, the work has been criticised on social media, with some having taken issue with the white marble additions to the building and the red paint on its façade and claiming that these are not in keeping with the previous beige tone of the building.
They also claim that the original steel outer fence is being removed and replaced by a four-metre stone wall blocking the palace’s view and preventing pedestrians and car drivers from admiring it as they go past.
Antiquities Minister Khaled El-Enany rejected the online criticisms and described them as “fake news and unfounded claims.” He told reporters invited to an inspection tour at the palace on Sunday that he there was “not one word of truth” in the social-media posts. In fact, he said, the palace was benefitting from long-overdue restoration work that would help to restore it to its former glory.
He said the ministry was working hard to preserve the palace in a form that was faithful to its original character. El-Enany said that the colour of the palace façades was original, according to designer Alexandre Marcel’s documents. The colour had simply faded over time.
“Some people have been worried that the palace and the marble columns were painted in different colours… today we can see with our own eyes that the original colours are preserved,” El-Enany said.
El-Enany inspecting the restoration work
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 the same thing had happened with the marble columns in the first-ever all-out restoration on the palace.
“The restoration is a real dream, and we will be able to breathe new life into this abandoned landmark as a result,” El-Enany said.
During the inspection tour journalists and media people saw the original colour of the palace while restorers were brushing the dust off parts of the building’s external walls and marble columns.
El-Enany said that the restoration work was going according to plan and that the team had succeeded in solving even unexpected problems. “Almost 80 per cent of the restoration work has been achieved with a budget that could reach more than LE100 million,” El-Enany said, adding that the work would continue at full swing to meet the deadline.
Tarek Al-Murri, an architectural conservation consultant, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the criticisers had not been used to seeing the palace in its original burnt sienna colour and had got used to the beige tone. They had not been aware of the damage the climate had done to the original colour scheme, he said.
“The original colour of the palace can be found in a few hidden areas that are never seen by pedestrians or car drivers,” he said.
cleaning the decorative patterns
According to the documents of the palace architect, Baron Empain wanted his palace to be painted burnt sienna to look like a Hindou-style building, a request that had made the architect compose a new colour by mixing iron sulphate with copper sulphate.
“Hence, the colour of the palace is historically accurate according to the documents of its architect and visual inspection of its walls, as confirmed by laboratory analysis,” Al-Murri said.
“Should we restore the palace to its original colour or leave it distorted to satisfy visual memory and destroy its architectural value,” he protested. The restoration work that had been carried out had followed international standards of restoration, he added.
the outer view
Hisham Samir, the minister of antiquities’ assistant for engineering affairs, said that the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces had overseen the restoration work being carried out by four private companies.
“The companies have been working on rehabilitating the gardens and walls, the marble columns, the statues and the antique elements,” he said, adding that all the work that had started in July 2017 had been carried out under the supervision of archaeologists from the ministry to ensure the highest standards of restoration.
“We are doing our best to ensure that the palace will be fully restored according to the time scheduled so as to start preparing it to be a permanent exhibition centre relating the history of Heliopolis in collaboration with the Belgium embassy in Egypt, the Centre for the Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage [CULTNAT], and the two NGOs of the Heliopolis Heritage Foundation and Heliopolis Association,” he added.
Nevine Nizar, associate of the minister of antiquities for museums, told the Weekly that the idea was to organise an exhibition relating the history of Heliopolis and its development. The exhibition would put on show a collection of photographs, archival documents, maps, panels, drawings and official letters in relation to the history and the construction work on the suburb that now includes Heliopolis and Matariya, she said.
In addition, it would display objects reflecting the lifestyles 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 would also be on show, along with panels on the Hindu villa’s architectural style and Baron Empain and his family.
The inner hall of the palace
The renowned 1910 Heliopolis tram, which does not exist anymore and has been replaced by the modern metro line, will also have a part in the exhibition.
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 short documentaries on the history of the suburb and its construction will be also provided.
Cultural activities for children to raise their awareness of the country’s heritage have also been suggested.
Samir told the Weekly that the restoration project would cost LE100 million as a whole, and 85 per cent of the project was complete with the palace being officially due to be inaugurated in November.
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 in some parts to inspect the condition of the foundations.
An integrated documentation file of all the architectural elements and façades had been prepared using 3D technology and comprehensive monitoring stations, he said.
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.
the wooden ceiling
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.
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.
The palace became the residence of bats.
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”.
“The relationship of the Ministry of Antiquities with the palace started in 1993 when it was listed on Egypt’s Antiquities List, but it was then still owned by an Egyptian-Saudi owner,” Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, former head of the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation project, told the Weekly.
He said that in 2005, the cabinet had agreed to transfer the ownership of the palace to the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of Antiquities, and to compensate the owner.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Baron’s Palace unchanged