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Heliopolis on show
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 06 - 2019

When Belgian entrepreneur and industrialist Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Empain, started the construction of the Heliopolis suburb 10km northwest of Cairo from 1905 onwards, he had the support of Boghos Nubar, the son of Egyptian prime minister Nubar Pasha.
Once finished, it 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.
Heliopolis also offered a variety of leasing and purchase options, making it a practical choice for Cairo's well-heeled society at the time. This upscale character has remained the area's hallmark, and for over a century it has been a prime location in Cairo.
Empain also built his own magnificent palace in the Heliopolis Avenue of Palaces, now Orouba Street, in an Indian architectural style inspired by the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Hindu temples of Orissa in India. Its external design incorporated reproductions of a variety of human figures, statues of Indian dancers, elephants, snakes, Buddhas, Shivas and Krishnas.
The palace consists of two floors and a small extension near the roof. Windows studded with Belgian glass were specially created so as never to lose sight of the sun.
However, as negligence later took its toll, the palace became the residence of bats, which 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.
In 2017, a long-awaited restoration project began to return the [alace to its original look, and it is now scheduled to reopen in October this year.
Several ideas have been suggested to rehabilitate the palace upon the completion of its restoration. Some have suggested transforming it into a boutique hotel, while others want to see it turned into a cultural centre or library. A third group wants it to be a multi-functional edifice that will combine a library and cultural centre with musical and theatre performances.
“The Ministry of Antiquities has another idea that could be implemented in collaboration with the Belgium Embassy in Egypt, the Centre for the Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT), and the two NGOs of the Heliopolis Heritage Foundation and the Heliopolis Association,” Nevine Nizar, assistant to the minister of antiquities for museums, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
She said that there were plans to organise an exhibition relating to the history of Heliopolis and its development over time. The exhibition would put on show a collection of photographs, archival documents, maps, drawings and letters in relation to the history and construction of the Masr Al-Gedida suburb that includes Heliopolis and Matariya.
In addition, the exhibition would display objects reflecting the life styles of the suburb's inhabitants during the earlier period, such as chairs, lamps, tables or telephones. Photographs showing the different phases of the palace restoration project would also be on show, along with panels on the Hindu architectural style and Baron Empain and his family.
The 1910 Heliopolis tramline, now replaced by the modern metro line, will also be a part of the exhibition.
A cultural panoramic show portraying the history of Heliopolis through nine interactive 180-degree panorama screens could be provided by CULTNAT, along with augmented reality screens. Other screens showing documentaries on the history of the suburb and its construction would also be provided.
Cultural activities for children to raise their awareness of the country's heritage have also been suggested.
Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, supervisor of Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project, told the Weekly that the restoration project cost LE100 million as a whole. 80 per cent of the project was complete, he said, and the palace would be officially inaugurated in October.
Heliopolis is built in a style synthesising elements from Islamic, European, Persian and Moorish architecture.
Near the Baron's Palace there are still some wealthy residences. Facing the palace is the Arabesque palace of Boghos Nubar Pasha, now a military building, and just opposite stands a presidential guest-house that was the former residence of sultan Hussein Kamel who reigned over Egypt between 1914 and 1917.
The presidential palace behind the Heliopolis Club was established as the Grand Heliopolis Palace Hotel in 1910 by Empain's company.
The Heliopolis Commonwealth Cemetery is located on Nabil Al-Wakkad Street, and it contains the Port Tawfik Memorial to the 4,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army who fell in World War I.
The Catholic Basilica on Al-Ahram Street is another famous landmark in Heliopolis, and it is the burial place of Baron Empain. There are also 16 major mosques and Islamic charities located in Heliopolis, including the Imam Hassan and Omar bin Abdel-Aziz mosques.
Giza Street is one of the many streets in the area that still look like pieces of Europe, with small gardens, townhouses, and semi-detached buildings no higher than three storeys.


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