New roles for the palace?
Plans are afoot to convert the Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis into a cultural and social centre as well as a heritage site and theatre, writes Nevine El-Aref
Many people looking at the awe-inspiring Baron Empain Palace on Al-Orouba Street in Heliopolis today may wonder how it became a house of horror for many Cairo residents despite its distinguished Indian architectural style.
Rumours about the Palace have spread throughout the city, and those visiting the monument today may feel that they might meet one of the ghosts that have long been claimed to inhabit the palace. However, the truth is more ordinary, since this is only an abandoned building in a very bad state of conservation.
The story of the palace started in 1904 when the Belgian industrialist Edward 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. Although his company, Chemins de Fer de la Basse-Egypte, failed to complete the intended project, Empain remained in Egypt 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 town of Heliopolis 10 km 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, racetrack and 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 Al-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 Temple 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.
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 by its owners 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 rather 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 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 “House of Ghosts” and 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.
Amm Abdel-Rehim, who worked as a guard at the building behind the palace, insists that the building is haunted. He says that noises can often be heard from the palace in the middle of the night, especially of shifting furniture.
He told Al-Ahram Weekly that in 1982 he and others had seen smoke coming from the palace’s main room and up through the tower, but in the evening all traces of a fire had been extinguished.
An Internet site, kafsoa.hubpage.com, said that there were several reasons that might explain the smoke phenomenon. “Baron Empain had his main room in the tower, which wasn’t entered by anyone but him. Even his sister Helena and his daughter Merriam weren’t allowed to enter it,” the site said.
“This room was known as the Chamber of the Rosary, and it has internal doors that lead to a tunnel joining it to the Basilica where Empain is buried,” it added. According to rumours, people who broke into the Baron’s room found all the mirrors stained with blood, along with a huge number of bats.
The site says that the death of Baroness Helena was caused by her falling from the balcony in the palace’s interior. Empain ran to help his sister, it says, but it was too late. Empain’s daughter Merriam was also found lying face down dead in the palace, the site claims, in the well of the elevator used to carry the Baron’s meals upstairs.
It goes on to suggest that many of the palace guards left shortly after being hired, and some have testified that blood appeared in the Chamber of the Rosary after the Baron’s death “as the Baron was the cause of suffering for the whole family”.
Blood belonging to cats killed by devil worshippers has been found in the palace, some say.
“All these stories about the palace are simply unfounded rumours created by people’s imaginations,” Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, director of the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project and responsible for the restoration of the palace, told the Weekly.
He said that the blood spots found on the walls were from killing the bats that have lived in the abandoned palace for decades.
In 1993, the palace was listed on Egypt’s Antiquities List, he said, but was then still owned by an Egyptian-Saudi owner. In 2005, the cabinet agreed to transfer the ownership of the palace to the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of Antiquities, and compensate the owner.
In 2007, the ownership of the palace was transferred to the SCA and the building was cleaned and the bats removed. A restoration project was launched, and an Indian company suggested that it would restore the Palace and embarked on an inspection tour, taking photographs and carrying out a detailed architectural survey.
In the event, this company did not start the restoration. In 2009, a Belgian company offered to restore the palace, and after a year of studying the state of the building it proposed a plan to restore the historic landmark.
In 2010, a comprehensive restoration project for the palace was launched in collaboration with a Belgian mission in an attempt to turn the building into a cultural centre and museum. Unfortunately, this stalled after the 25 January Revolution, when work ceased due to budgetary problems.
In January 2015, the Ministry of Antiquities carried out the minor restoration and consolidation of a number of the palace’s decorative elements and sections having particular problems.
In August, the ministry re-contacted the Belgian agency that had drawn up the 2010 restoration plan. Two Belgian architects arrived in Egypt to review the palace’s conservation condition and compare it with the situation in 2010. A workshop was organised with the Heliopolis Heritage Organisation and a number of heritage professionals in order to agree on the best solution to restore the palace.
In collaboration with the Misr Bureau for Investment the Ministry of Antiquities then launched a competition in Al-Ahram for ideas and suggestions on the rehabilitation of the palace and its best use after restoration.
In April 2016, a scientific committee of architects from Cairo University and the French University in Egypt was formed to select the best ideas to rehabilitate the palace and reuse it after restoration.
Abdel-Aziz told the Weekly that the selected project for the Baron Empain Palace was divided into two parts. The first would return the building to its original glory and the second would reuse it after restoration.
According to the standards agreed by the ministry’s Permanent Committee for Islamic and Coptic Monuments, three suggestions were selected by the committee. The first was to use the palace as a cultural centre by using its front garden as a cafeteria and an exhibition area while the back yard would be used as an open-air theatre.
The second was to use the basement of the palace as a social centre, while the ground floor would be used for different purposes. The first floor would be used as a “royal wing” where visitors could spend the night.
The third was to use the palace as a new cultural centre devoted to reading in particular.
“Nothing has yet been done apart from the restoration project,” Abdel-Aziz said, adding that the three suggestions would be submitted to the ministry’s Permanent Committee for further consideration.
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