Celebrating the centenary of the Basilica of Heliopolis and the restoration of its rare pipe organ

Ati Metwaly, Tuesday 11 Jan 2011

The Basilica Church of Heliopolis is home to one of the first pipe organs in Egypt. The Basilica invites everyone to a concert to listen to the wonderful music coming from this very rare instrument

Basilica of Heliopolis

Alexandria, the mother of pipe organs

The very first pipe organ was built in Alexandria (Egypt), when Ctesibius of Alexandrea, musician and engineer, build the first known hydraulis in 200 BC. The innovation was based on water pressure pumping the wind into the pipes. The pipe organ travelled from Alexandria to Greece, Rome and Bizantium, and as it was spreading across Europe, it found a home in many churches and cathedrals. Beginning in the 8th century organs were incorporated into the liturgy in Catholic churches. Later on they served as secular and recital instruments, and accordingly many of the known composers, from the earliest history of music, composed for the organ.

Pipe organ engineering basics did not progress much throughout the centuries, until Robert Hope-Jones (1859-1914) used newly-invented electrical power, adding an electro-pneumatic pump to the organ. As the pipe organ became very popular throughout Europe, it was considered an extremely rare instrument in Egypt. Pipe organs returned to Egypt in the 19th century, first at the Jesuit college in Cairo.

Baron Empain and the pipe organ revival in Egypt

In 1906, Baron Edouard Empain, Belgian entrepreneur (1852-1929), founded the Heliopolis quarter in northeast Cairo. In November 1910 he laid the foundation stone of the Roman Catholic Basilica of Our Lady – known as the Basilica of Heliopolis or the Basilica of the Virgin Mary (l'Eglise Notre Dame d'Héliopolis) – with the principal altar dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary. A pipe organ for the church was brought especially from Belgium and was installed in 1914. The organ was first played by the renowned Belgium organist, Peter Van de Velde. Over the years, the organ has been used on several occasions, however time and lack of proper maintenance damaged the instrument, taking away from its originally beautiful sound.

In 2000, Gerard Pels, a Belgian organ builder, involved a large number of volunteers from his Ktesiibios Foundation (named after Ctesibius of Alexandrea) in the restoration process of the Heliopolis organ. The pipe organ at the Basilica Church in Heliopolis has a height of 5 metres and a width of 4 metres and consists of 1,470 pipes.

November 2010 marked the centenary of the Basilica of Heliopolis and many festivities were adorned with the sound of the restored pipe organ. The upcoming concert will be an exceptional chance to listen to it.

Concert Exceptionnel

On 13 January 2011 listeners will have an opportunity to hear the sound of the restored pipe organ in the Basilica of Heliopolis. Four musicians will perform in a concert entitled “Concert Exceptionnel” (Exceptional Concert), promising a unique experience in the wonderful atmosphere of the church. The evening, planned to start at 8 pm, will feature Georges Wanis (tenor), Caroline Dumas (a soprano from the Paris Opera), Osman el Mahdy (violin) and David Hales (organ).

“During my childhood and youth, I regularly attended masses in the Basilica and I sang in the church choir,” Georges Wanis, an Egyptian tenor, told Ahram Online. Wanis has lived in Paris since 1995, where his career flourishes, yet he still contributes to a variety of concerts taking place in Egypt.

“Around a month ago, Rafik Atalla, the Basilica choir conductor, asked me to give a concert there. I contacted my dear friend and a great musician, Osman El Mahdy to join me during this event.”

 Osman El Mahdy is an Egyptian violinist, a professor of violin and first violin of the Cairo Opera House Quartet and former kinzertmeister of the Cairo Opera Orchestra.

“When I knew that Caroline Dumas, my voice professor, would be in Egypt at this time, we asked her to join me without a second thought. The choice of the organist was very natural, as David Hales, often performs piano in Egypt, but he is basically an organist,” Wanis continued.

The recent bombing of a church in Alexandria has lead to some musicians cancelling their events, mainly scheduled for the first week following the incident. But Wanis maintains that “The concert includes many religious works. Terrorists should not affect our activities. Cancellation would mean that we submit to the terrorists’ expectations”.

El Mahdy stresses the special importance of this concert, in the face of recent bombings. “We should be still performing and show that we are here,” El Mahdy told Ahram Online.

With this spirit, great musicians and a perfectly tailored programme, the concert on 13 January will be exceptional!



The concert organisers have informed Ahram Online about the strict security procedures which were implemented recently, due to the recent incident in Alexandria. Accordingly, security officials have requested the names of attendees, one day before the concert, to sanction their attendance. People wishing to attend are kindly requested to send their full name to:

[email protected]

by 12 January at the latest.


Concert program will include (in composers’ alphabetical order):

- Adam: Minuit, Chretiens! (soprano – tenor)

- Bach: Air (violin) AND Toccata and fugue in D minor (organ)

-  Bach – Gounod: Ave Maria (violin – tenor)

- Buxtehude: Toccata and Fugue in G minor (organ)

- Caccini: Ave Maria (soprano – tenor – violin)

- Durante: “Vergin Tutto Amor” (tenor)

- Franck: Panis Angelicus (soprano – violin)

- Glazounov: Meditation (violin)

- Gounod: O Divin Redempteur (tenor)

- Haendel: “Ombra Mai Fù” (soprano)

- Malotte: The Lord’s Prayer (tenor)

- Massenet: Meditation de Thais (violin)

- Schubert: Ave Maria


13 January, The Basilica Church of Heliopolis, Al Ahram Square, Heliopolis, Cairo

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