Cultural enterprise puts a stop to batty tales
Baron Empain's legendary palace is to be converted into an international cultural centre and museum after restoration, Nevine El-Aref
When Edouard Empain arrived to Egypt in 1904 to construct a railway line linking the lower Egyptian city of Mansoura to Matariya on the far side of Lake Manzala, he became entranced by the country and its distinguished civilisations. Although his company, S A des Chemins de Fer de la Basse-Egypte, failed to generate the intended project, Empain remained in Egypt and married an Egyptian, Yvette Boghdadi. Two years later he established the Cairo Electric Railways and the Heliopolis Oases Company which laid out the plans for the new town of Heliopolis 10 kilometres to the northwest of central Cairo.
When it was finished, Heliopolis was a luxurious and leisured suburb with elegant villas with wide terraces, apartment buildings, tenement blocks with balconies, hotels and facilities as well as recreational amenities including a golf course, racetrack and large park.
While workmen were busy constructing the new Heliopolis, Empain asked French architect Alexandre Marcel to build him a magnificent palace in the Avenue of Palaces (now Al-Orouba), one that would stand out from the others. Inspired by the Cambodian palace of Angkor Wat and the Hindu temple of Orissa, Marcel incorporated into the external design reproductions of a variety of human busts, statues of Indian dancers, elephants, snakes, Buddhas, Shivas and Krishnas. Marcel's colleague Georges-Louis Claude designed the interior and the decoration.
Both architects were very well-known at the time; they had already constructed and decorated the Oriental Pavilion attached to the Royal Palace of Laeken in Belgium.
Baron Empain's palace consists of two floors and a small extension near the large roof. Windows studded with small pieces of Belgian glass were especially created so as not to lose sight of the sun for the whole day.
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 erotic marble statues and exotic vegetation.
Empain 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 occupied the palace, but in 1957 it was sold by its owners and regrettably the palace began to fall into ruin. Some parts of the Indian decorative elements and sculptures crumbled and fell, and the beautifully designed parquet floors and gold plated doorknobs even went astray. As negligence took its toll on the palace it became the residence of bats, which in an odd way rather suited its more Gothic aspect. The gilded ceilings, the decorations and the famed Belgian mirrors that once graced the walls were masked by bats and bat droppings.
Rumours about the palace spread all over Cairo, and to many it became a house of horror. Some said that it was used by drug dealers as storage space for illicit goods, while others believed it was haunted by devils and called it the "House of Vampires" or "Count Dracula's House".
While the palace's neighbours called it the " Ghosts' House" -- they claimed to hear the sound of voices and dragging furniture in the middle of the night, while lights in the garden lit up and turned off suddenly.
Am Abdel-Rehim, who worked as a guard at the palace in the 1990s, insisted that the building was haunted. As he relates, in 1982 he and some passing pedestrians saw smoke issuing from the palace's main room and up through the main tower, but in the evening all traces of a fire were extinguished without any intervention.
An Internet webpage called "A kafsoa hubpage.com" posted that there were several reasons that might explain the smoke phenomenon. It also wrote that: "Baron Empain had his main room in the Main Tower, which wasn't entered by anyone but him; even his sister Helena and his young daughter Merriam weren't allowed to enter it. This room was known as the Chamber of the Rosary, and has internal doors that lead to a pavement joining this room to the Basilica Church where Empain was buried after his death." What increased the rumours of the presence of ghosts there were people who broke into the Baron's room where they've found all the mirrors in the Chamber of the Rosary stained with blood. Also a huge number of bats were living in this room.
The site also believes that, "... the death of Baroness Helena, after falling from the balcony of her interior room. Meanwhile Empain was in his room in the tower, as it was to the south, at the moment she was falling." Empain ran to help his sister, but it was too late.
After a period of time, Kafsoa wrote, Empain's daughter Merriam was found lying face down and dead "without a known reason" in the well of the elevator used to carry the Baron's breakfast upstairs.
Kafsoa goes on to suggest that many of the palace guards left the place shortly after being hired, and some testified that blood had appeared in the Chamber of the Rosary after the Baron's death when "the spirits of Helena and Merriam rested, as the Baron was the cause of severe suffering for the whole family."
Although in 1993 it was listed on Egypt's antiquities list, Mohsen Sayed, head of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities department at the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), told Al-Ahram Weekly that several attempts were made by the Egyptian-Saudi owners to restore the house and convert it into a luxury hotel or night club, but all their attempts failed because the planned restoration works were rejected from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), now the MSA, as they did not follow the strict archaeological standards.
In 2005, Sayed said, the cabinet agreed to transfer the ownership of the palace to the SCA and compensate the owner by offering him a 115-feddan plot of land in New Cairo.
The palace was then completely cleaned, and all the bats were removed from the building. In 2007, Sayed continued, an Indian company suggested that it would restore the palace and embarked on an inspection tour of the building, taking photographs and carrying out a detailed architectural survey. In the event, Sayed said, this company unfortunately did not show up again to start the restoration. In 2009, a Belgian company offered to restore the palace, and after a year of studying and monitoring the architectural state of the building the Belgian company proposed a plan to restore the historic landmark.
Last week, following a short meeting between the Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim and the Belgian ambassador to Egypt, Bruno N³İve de Mevergnies, it was determined that the deterioration of the palace's condition would be brought to an end and the building would be restored to its former glory. In collaboration with the Belgian government, a comprehensive restoration project for the palace is to be carried out imminently with the aim of transforming it into an international cultural centre.
Ibrahim said that a small museum showing the history of Heliopolis from 1907 to 1911 -- the period in which the palace was built -- would be set up in the centre. Documents and rare books from the same era will also be exhibited. A small jewellery museum, a ceremonial hall and a meeting room are also in the works. The palace walls will be restored, cracks filled up and decorations polished. Let us hope that the renovation process banishes Baron Empain's ghosts.