Sunday,09 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1411, (27 September - 3 October 2018)
Sunday,09 December, 2018
Issue 1411, (27 September - 3 October 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Legendary palace to open

The legendary Baron Empain’s Palace in Heliopolis is to open to the public next year after its completed restoration, reports Nevine El-Aref 

The legendary Baron Empain’s Palace in Heliopolis is to open to the public next year
The legendary Baron Empain’s Palace in Heliopolis is to open to the public next year

Twelve months ago, the legendary Baron Empain’s Palace on Orouba Street in Heliopolis, built in an Indian architectural style, was almost hidden under scaffolding and its gardens were buzzing with restorers and workers wearing yellow helmets and bearing electronic equipment and various tools.

This signalled that the palace was no longer to remain abandoned and that after years of negligence the long-awaited restoration project had begun at the palace in collaboration with the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces.

Today, the opening date of the newly restored palace has been revealed. “In mid-2019, the exquisite Palace of Baron Empain will open its doors to visitors not only as a tourist destination but also as a cultural and social centre in its own right,” Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany told reporters during his inspection tour of the palace on Monday. 

He said that the work was going on as planned and that the team had succeeded in solving even unexpected problems. When working on the consolidation of the palace walls the engineering team had realised that the reinforcement bars were in a critical conservation condition. This meant that workers had to restore the bars before starting the consolidation procedures. 

The palace, El-Enany said, had an old-fashioned drainage system that had led to water leakage, and this had also had to be replaced. “Today, almost 60 per cent of the restoration work has been achieved with a budget of more than LE100 million,” El-Enany said, adding that work would continue at full swing to meet the 2019 deadline.

Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, director of the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project and responsible for the restoration of the palace, told Al-Ahram Weekly that a comprehensive study of the palace’s condition and detailed architectural and archaeological surveys had been carried out before starting the restoration work.  

The studies had included the palace’s photographic documentation and exploratory drilling in some parts to inspect the condition of the foundations. An integrated documentation file of all the architectural elements and façades had been prepared using 3D technology and comprehensive monitoring, he added.

The story of the palace started in 1904 when Belgian industrialist Edouard Empain arrived in Egypt 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, and although his company, the Chemins de Fer de la Basse-Egypte, failed to complete the intended project, Empain remained in the country and married an Egyptian, Yvette Boghdadi.

Two years later, he established the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company, which laid out plans for the new suburb of Heliopolis 10km northwest of Cairo. When it was finished, Heliopolis was a luxurious and leisured suburb with elegant villas with wide terraces, apartment buildings and tenement blocks with balconies, hotels and facilities, as well as recreational amenities including a golf course, a racetrack and a large park. 

While workmen were busy constructing the new suburb of Heliopolis, Empain asked French architect Alexandre Marcel to build him a magnificent palace in the Avenue of Palaces (now Orouba Street) that would stand out from the others being built in the same period.

Inspired by the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Hindu temples of Orissa in India, Marcel incorporated into the external design of the new Palace 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 decoration.

Both architects were well-known at the time as they had already constructed and decorated the Oriental Pavilion attached to the Royal Palace of Laeken in Belgium.

Baron Empain’s new palace consisted of two floors and a small extension near the roof. Windows studded with Belgian glass were especially created so as never to lose sight of the sun.

The 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 later 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 and began to fall into ruin. Some parts of the Indian decorations and sculptures crumbled and fell away, and the beautifully designed parquet floors and gold-plated doorknobs disappeared.

As negligence took its toll, the palace became the residence of bats, which in an odd way suited its more Gothic aspect. The gilded ceilings, the decorations and the famed Belgian mirrors that once graced the walls were masked by hundreds of bats and their droppings.

Rumours about the palace spread all over Cairo, and for many it became a house of horror. Some said 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”, while the majority of Cairo residents called it “The House of Ghosts”.

“The relationship of the Ministry of Antiquities with the palace started in 1993 when it was listed on Egypt’s Antiquities List, but it was then still owned by an Egyptian-Saudi owner,” Abdel-Aziz told the Weekly. He said that in 2005, the cabinet had agreed to transfer the ownership of the palace to the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), now part of the Ministry of Antiquities, and compensate the owner.

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