Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1227, (1-7 January 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1227, (1-7 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Legends of the palace

Baron Empain’s legendary palace in Heliopolis, part of Egypt’s cultural heritage, has not been sold as reported, writes Nevine El-Aref

Legends of the palace
Legends of the palace
Al-Ahram Weekly

Earlier this week, a brouhaha broke out in the media over the sale of Baron Empain’s Palace in Heliopolis when it was reported that the Nasser Social Bank had sold the legendary palace at auction for almost LE7 million. However, the news turned out to be unfounded, with Mustafa Amin, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, telling Al-Ahram Weekly that the reports were based on a misunderstanding.

“The palace is owned by the government and cannot be sold. This would be against the law and the constitution,” Amin said, adding that the building was on Egypt’s Antiquities List, which is protected by law 117 of 1983 and amendments in 2010. According to the law, the building is public property and cannot be sold to a private owner.  

He said that the property that had been sold was a house in Al-Thawra Street in Heliopolis that had once been owned by Baron Empain’s family and this had caused the misunderstanding. Amin said that the palace had been owned by the Housing Ministry until 2009, when it was transferred to the Antiquities Ministry as it was put on the Antiquities List of Islamic and Coptic Monuments according to ministerial decree number 1297 of 1993.

Mohsen Sayed, former head of the Islamic and Coptic antiquities department at the Ministry of Antiquities, told the Weekly that several attempts had been made by the former Egyptian-Saudi owners to restore the building and convert it into a luxury hotel or night club, but the attempts had failed because the planned restoration works were rejected by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), now the ministry, as they did not follow strict enough standards.

In 2005, Sayed said, the cabinet had agreed to transfer the ownership of the palace to the SCA and compensate the owners by offering them a 115-feddan plot of land in New Cairo.

The palace was then completely cleaned, and the bats were removed from the building. In 2007, 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. However, in the event the company did not start the restoration.

Antiquities Minister Mamdouh Eldamaty recently carried out an inspection tour of the palace and gave the go-ahead for the 2010 restoration project in collaboration with a Belgian mission. The project had come to a halt after budgetary problems in the wake of the 25 January Revolution. The Belgian restoration project was revived in 2012, and it aims at ending the deterioration of the palace, restoring it to its former glory by transforming it into an international cultural centre.

A small museum showing the history of Heliopolis from 1907 to 1911, the period in which the palace was built, will be set up in the Centre. Documents and rare books from the same era are also scheduled 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 and decorations restored.

Eldamaty told the Weekly that a month ago the ministry had carried out minor restoration and consolidation of a number of the palace’s decorative elements and sections facing problems. He said that the ministry was reviewing the Belgian restoration plan and studying the palace’s architecture in an attempt to draw up a complete restoration project that would allow for future use.

He also announced that revenues from ceremonies held in the Palace’s gardens would be allocated to the restoration budget.

Baron Empain’s Palace was built in 1906 to be the residence of the Belgian industrialist Edouard Empain who came 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.

French architect Alexandre Marcel built him the palace in the Avenue of Palaces in Heliopolis (now Al-Orouba Street), being inspired by the Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat and the Hindu temple of Orissa. Marcel incorporated into the external design reproductions of a variety of human figures, 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 well-known at the time, and they had already constructed the Oriental Pavilion attached to the Royal Palace of Laeken in Belgium.

The palace consists of two floors and a small extension near the roof. Windows studded with small pieces of Belgian glass were especially created so as not to lose sight of the sun during the 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 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 then occupied the palace, but in 1957 it was sold by its owners and began to fall into ruin. Some parts of the Indian decorative elements and sculptures crumbled and fell away, and the beautifully designed parquet floors and gold-plated doorknobs went astray. As negligence took its toll, the palace became the abode of bats, which in an odd way suited its Gothic aspect. The gilded ceilings, the decorations and the famed Belgian mirrors that once graced the walls were hidden by bats and bat droppings.

Rumours about the palace spread, and to many it became a house of horror. Some said that it was used by drug dealers as a storage space for illicit goods, while others believed it was haunted by devils and called it the “House of Vampires” or “Count Dracula’s Castle”. The Palace’s neighbours called it the “Ghost House,” claiming to hear the sound of voices and dragging furniture in the middle of the night while the lights in the garden lit up and turned off suddenly.

Am Abdel-Rehim, who worked as a guard at the palace in the 1990s, insists that the building is haunted. 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 had vanished, he said.

An Internet site then said that there were many reasons that might explain the smoke, writing 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 Mariam weren’t allowed to enter it. This room was known as the Chamber of the Rosary and has doors leading to the Basilica where Empain was buried after his death.” What increased the rumours of the presence of ghosts was the fact that people who broke into the Baron’s room claimed that the mirrors were stained with blood.

The site also makes claims about members of the Baron’s family, claiming that Baroness Helena died after falling from the balcony of an interior room. It also claims that Empain’s daughter Mariam was found lying face down dead in the well of the elevator used to carry the Baron’s breakfast upstairs.

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