Entitled “1923-2023: Queen Elisabeth of Belgium in Egypt”, Her Majesty Queen Mathilde of the Belgians and Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Elizabeth, duchess of Brabant, and Ahmed Issa, minister of tourism and antiquities, along with Belgium Ambassador to Egypt François Cornet, inaugurated a photographic and film exhibition in the Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis this week commemorating the 100th anniversary of the visit of queen Elizabeth of the Belgians and her son Crown Prince Leopold to Egypt.
They travelled to Luxor in February 1923 to attend the opening of the burial chamber of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The exhibition has been organised under the patronage of the Belgian Royal Palace and the Belgian Embassy in Cairo in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and will last from 14 March to 14 April this year.
After cutting the ribbon, Queen Mathilde, Issa, and the Belgian ambassador toured the exhibition and the palace.
Through a collection of photographs, films and paintings, the exhibition illustrates the strong friendship between Egypt and Belgium, focusing on the Belgian queen’s journeys in 1923 and 1930.
The exhibition shows queen Elizabeth and her son Leopold attending the official opening of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber in 1923. They were received by the Egyptian minister of public works, Abdel-Hamid Suleiman Pasha, on behalf of king Fouad, as well as by Lord Carnarvon and British discoverer Howard Carter.
The queen and her entourage then continued their journey in Egypt on a Nile cruise visiting the other beautiful monuments of Egypt.
In 1930, king Albert and queen Elizabeth returned to Egypt for an official state visit followed by a private journey. The queen visited several archaeological sites while excavations were ongoing, expertly guided by archaeologist Jean Capart.
Other parts of the exhibition evoke the visit of king Fouad to Brussels in 1927, the Egyptian Festivals organised in Brussels in 1926 and Heliopolis in 1927, and the creation in 1923 of the Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, Belgium’s renowned research and study association on ancient Egypt.
Its library and photographic archives contain some of the most remarkable collections on ancient Egypt worldwide.
The films documenting queen Elizabeth’s voyages to Egypt are being shown for the first time in the exhibition. After being made during both voyages, they were kept in the Royal Film Archive of Belgium (Cinematek). They have been recently digitised, bringing the journeys to life.
Images taken from the personal albums of the queen and captured by Jean Capart abundantly illustrating these remarkable stays of the Belgian royal family in Egypt are also on display. An earlier trip in 1911, together with those of 1923 and 1930, are illustrated with slide shows of photographs from the archives of the Royal Palace in Brussels, the library of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, the Fonds Capart, and private archives.
The exhibition emphasises the close cultural and economic relations between Belgium and Egypt that go back to the 19th century. It is presented in a context appropriate to evoking these enriching relations — the Empain Palace in Heliopolis.
In 1905, Belgian entrepreneur, financier, and industrialist Edouard Empain and Egyptian-Armenian businessman and diplomat Boghos Nubar Pasha were granted the concession to construct the suburb of Heliopolis by the Egyptian government.
In 1906, Empain founded the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company and work began on an exceptional example of a project to urbanise the desert. He crowned the new suburb with his majestic Palace, built in the style of Hindu and Cambodian temples, which is why the Baron Empain Palace was often referred to as the “Hindu Villa” soon after completion.
After years of neglect, the Egyptian government decided to restore the palace in a project beginning at the end of 2017. The task was entrusted to the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces and various national companies under the supervision of specialists, experts, and consultants in the field of restoration, archaeology, architecture, and construction.
Belgium contributed to the efforts, and Egypt’s ministries of investment and international cooperation, tourism and antiquities signed an agreement on this collaborative restoration project.
On 29 June 2020, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi inaugurated the restored Baron Empain Palace, now functioning as a museum documenting the history of Heliopolis through photographs, archival documents, maps, and films.
Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians (1876-1965) had a passion for Egypt that already manifested itself at a young age. It was awakened while she was still duchess of Bavaria on a cruise in the Mediterranean in 1891 with her aunt, the empress of Austria and queen of Hungary, the famous empress Sisi.
In March 1911, then queen of the Belgians for over a year, Elizabeth returned to Egypt with her husband king Albert and her sister Marie-Gabrielle for a two-month voyage.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly