Restoring the Baron's Palace
Restoration work at the Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis finally started this week after years of delay, reports Nevine El-Aref
"In 18 months, the exquisite Palace of Baron Empain will open its doors to visitors not only as a tourist destination but also as a theatre and a cultural and social centre," Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, director of the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project and responsible for the restoration of the palace, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He said that the work had started in collaboration with the Armed Forces Engineering Authority which had assigned the Arab Contractors Company to execute it with a budget of LE113.738 million.
"This budget is part of a larger amount of LE1,270 billion provided by the government to the Ministry of Antiquities to restore and develop eight archaeological sites and monuments that are in dire need of work," Abdel-Aziz said.
He said that these sites included the Mohamed Ali Palace in Shubra, the King Farouk Rest House at Giza, the Alexan Palace in Assiut, the Jewish synagogue in Alexandria, the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, the Giza Plateau Development Project and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat in Cairo.
In order to achieve the work, Abdel-Aziz said that a comprehensive study of the palace's condition and detailed architectural and archaeological surveys had been carried out before starting any restoration work.
The studies had also included the palace's photographic documentation and exploratory drilling in some parts of the palace to inspect the condition of its foundations. An integrated documentation file of all architectural elements and façades has been prepared using 3D technology and comprehensive monitoring stations.
According to the Palace Rehabilitation Project agreed upon in principle by the ministry's Permanent Committee for Islamic and Coptic Monuments, after restoration the palace will be used as a cultural centre, with its front garden hosting a cafeteria and exhibition area and its backyard being converted into an open-air theatre.
The basement will be a social centre, while the ground floor will be used for different purposes. The first floor will be used as a "royal wing" where visitors can spend the night. A new cultural centre devoted to reading in particular will also be provided in the palace.
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 Matareya on the far side of Lake Manzala.
He became entranced by the country and its distinguished civilisations. Although his company, the 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 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, 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 Temple of Orissa in India, Marcel incorporated into the external design of the new ppalace 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.
They even claimed that in 1982 they 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.
The death of Empain's sister Baroness Helena by falling from the balcony in the palace's interior added more value to such rumours. Empain's daughter Merriam was also found lying face down dead in the palace in the well of the elevator used to carry the Baron's meals upstairs.
"All these stories about the palace are simply unfounded rumours created by people's imaginations," Abdel-Aziz said, adding that it was only an "ordinary abandoned building" built in a distinguished Indian architectural style.
He said the blood spots on the walls were from killing the bats that had lived in the abandoned palace for decades.
"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," Abel-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 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.
Regretfully, the company did not start the restoration, but 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 of the same year, 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.
"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," Abdel-Aziz said.
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