The Baron’s palace lies decayed and decrepit but its inside story tells of a dazzling beauty.
The palace of Baron Empain in Cairo (photo: TNN)
What do you get when you build something thought up by a Belgian entrepreneur, constructed by a French architect, built by Indonesian craftsmen and is located in Cairo?
An utterly bizarre structure looking thoroughly out of place. It’s Qasr Al-Baron, or Baron Palace, the dark, yet distinctive, historic mansion in Heliopolis, the grand old suburb northeast of central Cairo.
Entrance to the Palace of Baron Empain (photo: TNN)
The Baron Palace lies in the Avenue des Palais (renamed Orouba Avenue following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952), just a stone’s throw away from the Presidential Palace of the incumbent Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and near the former residence of the former president Hosni Mubarak.
For many years, this strange structure, by all accounts an architectural masterpiece, has ignited the imagination of the local population and incredible stories have come out of this palace and its lost fortunes. None, however, will be more unbelievable than how this priceless treasure has been left to decay and crumble without a single person, official or otherwise, lifting a finger to help or raising a voice to protest.
Today, the palace is off limits, standing as a tourist attraction – without the tourists. Nobody can enter and few tourists venture up-close to the palace, preferring instead to perhaps snap a picture or two as they motor up the airport road on their way in or out of Cairo.
That could change now that Philips is working with the government to redesign the lighting for the Baron Palace “which creates an almost mythical atmosphere that brings history to life”. Philips said the challenge was to devise effective lighting while respecting the authenticity of the monument. “The lighting had to enhance the beauty of the site without overwhelming it.”
The lighting makeover of the Baron Palace combines warm and cool daylight colours from the latest LED technology to highlight the palace’s features. It allows energy savings of 80 percent over the traditional lights currently used in the palace. It also has a lifetime of up to 50,000 hours compared to 12,000 hours with conventional lighting. Maintenance costs will be reduced and energy consumption will be cut by 80 percent.
New lighting could shed light on the palace (photo: TNN)
This new lighting could shed light on the palace and shine the spotlight on its builder, the Belgian 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. Baron Empain was a wealthy engineer and financier as well as an amateur Egyptologist.
Empain arrived in Egypt in January 1904 intending to rescue one of his Belgian company’s overseas projects, the construction of a railway line linking Matariya to Port Said. The project ran 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 claimed he had succumbed to the charms of Yvette Boghdadli, one of Cairo’s most beautiful socialites.
Whatever the reasons for the baron’s love affair with Egypt, he came up with the idea of acquiring low-cost land and using it to build a residential area. So in 1906, he set up the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company which bought 25 square kilometres of desert to the northeast of Cairo at a low price from the Egyptian government. The company then proceeded with the building of the new town of Heliopolis, in the desert 10 kilometres from the centre of Cairo. It was designed as a “city of luxury and leisure”, with broad avenues and equipped with all necessary conveniences and infrastructure, including water, drains, electricity, hotels, 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, and tenement blocks with balcony access and workers’ bungalows.
For his own home Empain 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 modelled on the fabulous Hindu temples of Orissa.
Regardless of origin, the palace is a distinctive work of art and construction. Empain brought the best Indonesian artists and sculptors for its construction. The architect designed the palace to be made with reinforced concrete over an unusual rotating base that turned the palace 360 degrees so that its windows were always facing the sun. They built the palace on an artificial elevation to enable the baron to watch the rise of Heliopolis from the desert, from the main tower in which Empain had his rooms.
The palace’s striking exterior was the responsibility of Marcel, who reproduced a motley of busts, statues, elephants, snakes, Hindu deities and mythical creatures. The sophisticated interior which boasted frescoes, gilded doors and Belgian mirrors was the responsibility of his French associate, Georges-Louis Claude.
To enter the palace, guests had to negotiate verdant terraces, each with its own erotic statues set amid exotic vegetation.
Beneath the palace were underground chambers from which a tunnel was said to lead to Empain’s mausoleum in the nearby Catholic basilica which he built.
Of course, the Baron himself was the first to occupy the palace when it was finished in 1911. He entertained all of Egypt’s elite including King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium during a pre-World War I visit to Egypt.
The baron lived in the palace, followed by his son, but after the revolution of 1952, they left and the villa was sold. Legal problems ensued and the new owners never did anything with the palace which was left to decay for over 40 years.
During that time, it would seem that the baron’s palace was subject to more fables, legends and rumours than any other monument in Egypt: it’s haunted by bats and stray dogs who desecrate the floors with their droppings, and ghosts – a real house of horror.
Some believe that the palace was haunted by the spirit of the baron’s daughter, and that her soul is still wandering somewhere in the corridors. There are stories serving as evidence of the existence of ghosts in the palace. People claimed seeing flashlights, believing them to be ghosts, while others claimed to see light and hear music emerging from it, as if it were coming from bygone parties. Others – at midnight, when else? – heard sounds as if furniture was being moved across the rooms of the palace.
The palace 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 performing satanic rituals, holding orgies in its underground rooms, skinning cats and writing their names in rats’ blood on the palace’s walls. The palace now has two guards who are responsible for making sure that nothing too extraordinary happens inside. But the guards are not above being bribed, especially by young people who go in at night and damage it further with their graffiti.
Today, amidst the upheavals of Egypt’s two revolutions, the palace stands empty, a deserted building closed to the public, surrounded by barbed wire. Aside from its animal inhabitants, it attracts only rumour, superstition, some architects for its richness and the camera lenses of passing tourists.
Since visitors are not allowed into the palace, not much is known about its interior which was stripped away by looters long ago. 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 were two elevators. Gone are the Fresco murals, massive gilded doors, balustrades, parquet floors, gold plated doorknobs, and the Belgian mirrors which were wrenched from their sockets.
When the palace was bought by the Egyptian government in 2005 – the 100th anniversary of Heliopolis – there was some hope that the authorities might repair its decrepit and vandalised masonry. They had at least started to bring its gardens back to life, but only two months after being opened to the public, it was closed again without explanation. Renovation of the house is, in the end, difficult and extremely costly. For now, the grounds are used for just TV events and musical concerts.
Is been reported the Egyptian government would perhaps like to turn the palace into a desert museum, maybe a pantheon for Egypt’s great heroes, a gambling casino or even a Euro-style medical centre. Supposedly, though, Law 117 forbids the selling or purchasing of buildings that are deemed to be antiquities. So for now it would seem, the palace remains one of those landmarks that is yet to see the light of restoration.
Cairenes can only hope that the illumination of the Baron Palace will encourage the government to finally complete renovating the site and bring back the days and times of Empain and the house the baron built.