The Baron's Palace
Fables, Legends and Controversies
by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
Editor's Note: It would seem that the Baron's Palace in Greater Cairo, after the Great Pyramid and Sphinx of Giza, is subject to more fables, legends and rumors than any other monument in Egypt. I was astounded to hear from a guide, who was very serious, that the old palace was build upon a type of turnstile that would rotate the whole building so that its windows were always facing the sun. Of course, that was urban legend in Cairo, but for many years, this building in Heliopolis has ignited the imagination of the local population with all manner of fables, legends and rumors.
Today, the Barons Hindu Palace remains the subject of countless rumors. From time to time new rumors spread about this landmark which has been deserted for many years. Its haunted by bats, stray dogs, and others believe by ghosts. And while the place attracts some architects for it richness, it also seems to have attracted teenagers for their wild parties. They would break into the place on weekends, drink beer and smoke hashish. In the late 1990s, the palace was said to be filled with tattooed, devil-worshipping youths holding orgies, skinning cats and writing their names in rats' blood on the palace's walls. Of course, as old houses go, we suppose it could or could not be haunted, but the palace now has two guards who are responsible for making sure that nothing too extraordinary happens inside.
The Palaces builder was the Belgian-born industrialist, Baron-General Edouard Louis Joseph Empain (1852-1929) the prodigal son of a village school teacher who became one of Europe's greatest colonialist entrepreneurs of the 20th century. Empain had extensive business interests in Indonesia and in time became a well known amateur Egyptologist. He arrived in Egypt during January, 1904, intending to rescue one of his Belgian company's overseas projects, which was the construction of a railway line linking Matariya to Port Said. That project had run afoul of British interests and he ended up losing it to the Britons. Beaten in the railway department, Empain lingered in Egypt, however, instead of cutting his losses and going back home. Those who knew him claimed then that he had fallen madly in love with the desert. Others murmured that, despite a long-standing affair in Belgium, which had been blessed with two illegitimate children, he had succumbed to the charms of Yvette Boghdadli, one of Cairo's most beautiful socialites. He then came up with the idea of acquiring low-cost land and using it to build a residential area linked to Cairo by fast public transportation. He set up the Heliopolis Oasis Company in the following year.
His efforts culminated in 1907 with the building of the new town of Heliopolis, out in the desert ten kilometers from the center of Cairo. It was designed as a "city of luxury and leisure", with broad avenues offering sweeping monumental perspectives, equipped with all necessary conveniences and infrastructure, including water, drains, electricity, hotel facilities such as the Palace Hotel and Heliopolis House, and recreational amenities including a golf course, racetrack and park. In addition there was housing for rent, offered in a range of innovative design types targeting specific social classes with detached and terraced villas, apartment buildings, tenement blocks with balcony access and workers' bungalows.
The new city also represented the first large scale attempt to promote what later came to be called the "modern Arab style", known in its own day as the "Moorish style". However, for his own extravagant house, that was build between 1907 and 1910 and overlooks the town, he chose an architectural style that was very different.
For his own home he chose a prestigious location in Heliopolis and ordered Alexander Marcel, a French architect and a member of the prestigious French Institute, to build him a Hindu palace. Some say it was supposed to be more or less a copy of the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia that he had seen during his travels in that country, while others say it is modeled on the fabulous Hindu temples of Orissa.
Empain brought the best Indonesian artists and sculptors for its construction. They built it on an artificial elevation to enable the Baron to watch the rising of Heliopolis. The palaces striking exterior was the responsibility of Marcel, who reproduced a motley of busts, statues, elephants, snakes, Buddha's, shivers and Krishna's. The sophisticated interior was the responsibility of his French associate, Georges-Louis Claude. This team was also responsible for the construction and decoration of the Oriental Pavilion attached to the Royal Palace of Laeken in Belgium.
The Palace was, of course, built in a very select neighborhood. Amongst other lofty neighbors, to his left facing Avenue Baron was the Arabesque palace, which is now military Headquarters, but which originally was the home of Boghos and Marie Nubar Pasha. It was the pasha who assisted Baron Empain in purchasing the 6,000 acres of empty desert at one pound each on which he built Heliopolis. Diagonally opposite stand the former residence of Sultan Hussein Kamel, who reigned over Egypt between 1914 and 1917. Today, that is a presidential guest house.
Since visitors are not allowed into the palace, not much is known about its interior today. It consists of two floors with two additional subterranean floors. The underground floors contain a family mausoleum, a kitchen and the servant's room. There are two elevators and even a tunnel that connects with the nearby church built by the Baron.
Of course, the Baron himself was the first to occupy the palace. He entertained all of Egypt's hotes de marques including King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians during the Pre-World War I visit to Egypt. Although dwindling in numbers, there are those who still remember when the landscape surrounding the Hindu Palace was a wonderland festooned with ascending green terraces each with its own set of erotic marble statues and exotic vegetation. As guests negotiated the terraces on their way to the grand steps leading into the awesome palace foyer, they felt as though some mythical Deus was watching from the palace's interior. These theatrics pleased the Baron to no end.
Next to occupy the palace was his playboy son, Baron Jean Empain. He entertained his guests either at the Heliopolis races or at his innumerable palace balls where he cut a dashing figure with his multiple consorts. It was an American cabaret dancer Rozell Rowland a.k.a. Goldie who finally nailed him to the altar. The 'prince' and the showgirl had met in a Cairo night club where she performed painted entirely in gold. The last of the Baron's family to occupy the palace were Janine and Huguette Empain, who actually preferred the lounges of the trendy Heliopolis Sporting Club or the Roof Garden of the old Semiramis Hotel to the sepulchral halls of their grandfather's palace. The palace was finally sold off by its owners in 1957 to two families, Alexem and Reda, who were of Saudi origin.
Today the spark of the place has vanished. It has become an architectural masterpiece that produces incredible stories and rumors, but like these stories and rumors, is void of inner beauty. Gone are the Fresco murals, massive gilded doors, balustrades, parquet floors, gold plated doorknobs, and the Belgian mirrors which were wrenched from their sockets. Now it is best known for the bats which inhabit it, and desecrate the floors with their droppings.
The Egyptian government would perhaps like to turn the palace into a desert museum, or maybe a pantheon for Egypt's great. Unfortunately, they do not own the building and those who do are said to have an asking price of $50 million US. That is far more than the Supreme Council of Antiquity's annual budget. The owners talk of turning the palace into a gambling casino or even a Euro style medical center. Unfortunately for the owners, their options are limited. Law 117 forbids the selling or purchasing of buildings that are deemed to be antiquities. So for now it would seem, the Baron's Palace remains one of those landmarks that is yet to see the light of restoration.
No doubt incredible stories will continue to come out of this palace and its lost fortunes. None however will be more unbelievable than the one about the priceless architectural treasure left to decay and crumble in full view of every minister, VIP, tourist and other air passenger as they motor up the airport road on their way in or out of Cairo.
Last Updated: June 9th, 2011