Street Smart: Heliopolis, a walk to remember

Farah El-Akkad, Wednesday 23 Nov 2011

Once a cosmopolitan Egyptian neighbourhood beholding architectural gems, a walk in Heliopolis is still inspirational

Source: Family album of journalist

Have you ever taken a walk along the streets of Heliopolis in Cairo? If so, you may well be familiar with the exquisite architecture of the buildings and the beautifully ancient gardens, one of which surrounds my grandmother’s house. Shops, kiosks and cafes tell the story of people long gone, but whose spirit still lingers in the air. One can almost catch glimpses of men dressed in neatly tailored suits and women donned in elegant dresses walking gracefully by. People have changed over the years, but the streets and buildings remain a witness to time. Ever enchanted by the place, I decide to take a walk down memory lane.

The Baron Palace is one of the landmarks of Heliopolis, with its eccentric appearance and unique location. It was built in a peculiar mix of Indian and European style by the Belgian industrialist and Egyptologist Édouard Louis Joseph, Baron Empain. No one can pass through Al-Orouba Street without craning their neck to take in the view of this breathtaking fortress. In his book Heliopolis, Le Caire 1905 - 1922 (1981), French historian Robert Ilbert recounts that the baron chose to build his palace in this particular area, although it was completely deserted at the time. The road later became known as the ‘Avenue des Palais’, then renamed Al-Orouba in Nasser’s era. The palace was sold by the heirs, then bought by the Egyptian government in 2005. Baron Empain was also the head of Heliopolis Oasis Company, which established the city of Heliopolis in 1905 along with Boghos Nubar, son of Egypt’s Prime Minister Nubar Pasha.

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 project for this hotel was introduced by Belgian architect Ernest Jaspar, who also designed a unique style for the whole of the Heliopolis district; a synthesis of Islamic, European, Persian and Moorish architecture. The style later became known as Heliopolis Style, which is presently obvious in the architectural fashion of El-Korba buildings, and was remarkably evident in the interior and exterior design of the hotel. It was considered Africa’s most luxurious hotel at the time, as described in Ilbert's book.

My grandmother fills me in on social life at the time: “In the1950s, the hotel was a fun spot for many teenagers and young adults; parties were held on a regular basis every weekend, and young couples used to dance the famous hula-hoop, the tango and the foxtrot." Dancing was so popular at the time that cinemas even had dance floors located next to the screens, which people flooded to during film intervals. My grandmother recalls that every Saturday night she went to watch a film at Cinema Palace, or "Normandy", dressed in the latest fashion, then ate Italian gateaux at "Groppi", owned by a Swiss man at the time. Actor Ismaeel Yaseen, former Reda Troupe dancer Farida Fahmy, Queen Nariman and Queen Farida, King Farouk’s wives, were all residents of Heliopolis.

Al-Geiza Street is one of the many streets that still look like a piece of Europe; with small gardens, townhouses, and semi detached buildings no higher than three storeys. The present "Merryland Garden" was then known as Horseracing Square. A horsetrack existed on the site, where mostly non-Egyptians enjoyed watching horseraces up until the beginning of the 1960s. The platform still exists to this day, as stated in the Egyptian book Memories of Heliopolis by Fathy Darwish. Darwish writes that Heliopolis has always been the haven for many a popular personality, especially politicians: “Actually, almost all Egyptian ministers were residents of Heliopolis, as well as President Nasser himself.”

Unfortunately, many villas in Heliopolis have been demolished to give way to the construction of new buildings; the interfaces of ground floors redecorated by shop owners without the slightest heed to the unique architectural design of the building. But Heliopolis remains the "Oasis of Egypt" with its nostalgic atmosphere and exceptional style, which Darwish describes in a nutshell: “As a dweller of Heliopolis in the period between the world wars, if you fell ill you would probably have gone to see a Syrian doctor, bought your shoes from an Armenian trader, eaten Italian food, cooked by a Greek chief in a restaurant owned by an English lady. You would have spoken French and Arabic with all kinds of neighbours of various religions and backgrounds.” This was the foundation of what remains Heliopolis.

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