A Blog to Keep the Lizards Away. It's about posting and sharing the things I'm into. Hope you enjoy the show!

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Belgian Baron's Hindu Temple in Cairo - Fact and Fantasy


Baron Empain's 1906 Fantasy in Heliopolis 
Cairo's New City of the Sun


A modern garish light show illuminates the Baron's Palace

The Baron’s Palace, of course, is not a temple at all, but was built between 1907 and 1911 as the eccentric home of the wealthy Belgian industrialist, Eduard Louis Joseph, Baron Empain, where he lived on and off until his death in 1929. Baron Empain had come to Egypt in 1904 to try and salvage a contract of one of his companies to build a railway line between Mansoura and Matariyah. The contract was lost to another company, but the Baron stayed on, as many foreigners have done before and after him, entranced by Egypt itself.


The newly completed Palace in 1912

In 1906, he established a company on six thousand acres of land acquired from the government at the ridiculous price of one pound an acre. The land was in the desert, ten kilometres from Cairo, but Empain was to transform it into the chic suburb of Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. Just as modern cities like 6th October and El-Obour provide many of Cairo's citizens with cleaner air and more space, so back then Heliopolis offered every amenity to the wealthy patrons who chose to live there. Spacious villas and exotic apartment blocks were built next to a golf course, a racetrack and park.


Gardens, Fountains and Parklands. 
Now the Palace sits swallowed by urban sprawl and on the way to  Cairo Airport

To preside over all this, Baron Empain had built for himself an extraordinary residence, atop an artificial hill from which he could survey his city of the sun, and no doubt be seen by all its residents. It is said that not only could he see the whole of Heliopolis from the palace tower, but could even see as far out as the pyramids, so many miles away.


Taking just over three years to build, and inspired by the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and by Hindu temples in Orissa, the palace was designed by Alexandre Marcel, who also designed the Basilica in Heliopolis. It was he who had constructed and decorated the Oriental Pavilion next to the Royal Palace of Laeken in Belgium. King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians must have been reminded of home, when they stayed here during their pre -World War One visit to Egypt.


Decoration above the Front Door

Surprisingly, the whole structure is made of reinforced concrete, although its design suggests sandstone. 
        

The exterior of the palace is covered with so many statues of so many varied designs.   

Snakes and elephants sit alongside Buddhas and Renaissance figures. The overall effect is truly astounding, making onlookers pause to take a second breath as they view it for the first time. A team of artists and sculptors was brought over from Indonesia to give the exterior such an oriental feel.




The interior was designed by Georges-Louis Claude and is equally extraordinary, with marble and wood alongside painted ceilings and stuccoed walls. Or that, at least, is what it used to look like before the decay which set in when the Empain family sold the property.







After the 1952 Revolution it fell into a condition of total disrepair, the parquet floors, Belgian mirrors and gold door-knobs being stolen by anyone who could manage to get in.

The palace remained in this condition until just a few years ago.

Far from being the home of a wealthy industrialist and his family, the palace became the home of thousands of bats and stray dogs, with stories of ghosts and strange goings-on to accompany them.

To mark the centenary of the building of Heliopolis, the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Culture managed to acquire the property from its owners and to begin a restoration. Whilst the interior has been thoroughly cleaned, there still remains much to be done. The exterior of the palace, though, and its grounds have been beautifully restored. The long-term future use of the Baron's Palace is yet to be decided.

Baron Empain, fabulously wealthy in his day, now lies in a granite tomb beneath his Basilica in Heliopolis, whilst his extraordinary home is now a ruin.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing some facts about Baron Palace. I'm from Helipolis and Im so happy to see people interested in one of the landmarks found in my district.

    ReplyDelete