Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 April 2005
Issue No. 739
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Celebration of a suburb

Dena Rashed takes a peek at the big plans in store for Heliopolis's 100th anniversary celebration

The Cairo suburb of Heliopolis is marking the centenary of its founding with a series of celebrations beginning in May. The outlines of the event were highlighted at a press conference last Sunday at Heliopolis Library.

"It's an opportunity that only happens every 100 years, and we are trying to make this centenary a very special one," said Nagwa Shoeib, the chair of the Heliopolis Association Committee organising the celebration, which is being held under the auspices of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, who heads the Heliopolis Association.

The governments of France and Belgium, the governorate of Cairo, and the General Organisation for Physical Planning (GOPP) are also taking part in the festivities, which will begin 5 May, with an inaugural event to be attended by Mrs Mubarak, at which an exhibition of vintage Heliopolis photos will be opened, a documentary film made by GOPP about the suburb screened, and a multimedia show by governmental IT-culture wing CultNat entitled "Heliopolis, a panorama of a leading urban venture" presented.

Throughout the summer, a series of musical concerts, films and exhibitions, as well as sports events, will be held. They will be open to the public.

At the press conference, French Ambassador Jean-Claude Cousseran said that the celebration "consolidates the cooperative efforts between Egypt and European countries in many areas of common interest, this time in architecture planning and heritage preservation". France's interest in Heliopolis is not new, the French ambassador pointed out. "Our interest in celebrating the centenary of the [satellite] city is also driven by previous efforts of many French researchers who collected and documented important information about the city since its establishment by the Baron Empain."

Heliopolis was a vision made reality by the Belgian architect and banker Baron Edouard Louis Joseph Empain. It was designed as a model suburb that "for many new cities that are being built now in Egypt, offers an interesting model that could be generalised," said Hoda Edward, a representative of the Housing and Population Ministry's GOPP.

Cousseran said the centenary celebrations would provide an insight into the preservation of urban architectural heritage that would last far past the summer. "This is not just a celebration, the basic aim of this centenary is cultural. Many historians, architects and media personnel are working towards this purpose."

Tracing the suburb's history illustrates the daring that went into creating Heliopolis. One hundred years ago, on 20 May 1905, Baron Empain managed to obtain two leases from the Egyptian government: one to buy 6,000 feddans in the desert, 15 kilometres away from Cairo; and the second to establish a tram way linking downtown and the new suburb. Named Heliopolis, the city of the sun, the Baron managed to bring the suburb into being by 1913, by building the Basilica Church, the mosque on Haroun Al-Rashid Street, the Heliopolis Palace Hotel -- now the Presidential Palace -- and the Heliopolis Sporting Club. To attract inhabitants to the new suburb, Empain also built an amusement park and a horse track -- now known as the Merryland Park. The Baron also built himself a palace; its distinct Hindu style still confounds visitors today.

Belgian Ambassador Guy Trouveroy told Al-Ahram Weekly that his embassy has a special interest in this centenary "due to the [Belgian] origins of the Baron Empain. On the other hand, I am half-Egyptian, and I was born here, so I have a personal interest in this country and in this commemoration," Trouvery said. He highlighted one part of the event, which he said would merge the history of the suburb with its future: when Egyptian, French and Belgian experts will be discussing the preservation of urban architectural heritage, while looking into the past, present and future of Heliopolis.

As part of the celebrations, the French Cultural Centre (FCC), in cooperation with the Heliopolis Association, is publishing a book called Memoires Heliopolitaine, (Memories of Heliopolis). FCC Director François Pradal said the book was not "historic, but it tells the memories of some of the residents of this suburb. It is a mix between the memories and the thoughts, the reality and the imaginations."

The Cultural Centre and writers Robert Sole, May El-Telmesani and Mercedes Volet -- who have been interested in Heliopolis for years -- compiled the book, which is introduced by Mrs Mubarak.

"Heliopolis is an exemplary suburb in many different ways. It is a place that reflects a different image of Egypt," Pradal said. "Aside from being a beautiful place, it is an example of a cosmopolitan city and a memory of the history of contemporary Egypt." The book, Pradal said, aimed for the opposite of Orientalist approaches: "we invite the inhabitants to talk about their city with their own image." He said readers will see the suburb's history through stories told by the residents and rare photos that manage to depict it as it was.

But apart from some of the residents' memories in the book, it would appear that Heliopolis residents have not played too great a role in the festivities themselves. Shoeib, the chair of the Heliopolis Association, said the celebrations would inspire everyone's participation. "With the start of the festivities, we expect Heliopolis residents to learn more about the distinctive features of their suburb, and thus be more interested in preserving it," she told the Weekly. "The public's participation will make all the difference," Shoeib said.

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