Photo: Wikicommons.
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The Dreamworld of Baron Empain

The Belgian Baron who built a city on the outskirts of Cairo and his own Hindu Palace in the middle of it.

 

“We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us”
– Winston Churchill

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When I visited Cairo last February I encountered an unusual panorama: an eerie appearance of normalcy paired with a complete lack of tourists. The Arab Spring dealt a heavy blow to Egypt’s tourism industry, and most of its landmark sites are virtually abandoned. In these conditions, touristic excursions can be tiring; you either end up wandering aimlessly for hours, or fending off hawkers who focus all their attention on you for lack of alternatives.

Being here for work, I hadn’t really planned my free time. I asked Ahmad, my couchsurfing host, if he had any ideas. He was the first person who told me about the Baron’s Palace in Heliopolis, providing me with a point of fixation.

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Édouard Empain was born the son of a schoolteacher in the Belgian town of Belœil, and was buried 77 years later a Baron, in Egypt, under an imposing black mausoleum.

His tomb lies in the crypt of Our Lady of Heliopolis – a stunning Catholic basilica of yawning rosy arcades – located in the extravagant town of Heliopolis, a town built in its entirety by Baron Empain himself. More than just making his bed and lying in it, the Baron now rests in a city of luxury and leisure of his own construction.

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The Baron Empain. Source: Wikicommons.

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His life story (1852-1929) reads like that of a flesh-and-bone Citizen Kane with a penchant for Egypt and railways. He began his long rise to success at age 26, when he started work as a draftsman for a metallurgical company. Soon enough, outraged that the Belgian countryside could only be traversed via muddy pathways, he founded his own regional transport corporation.

The success of the Liège-Jemeppe railway line in Belgium catapulted him onto the international stage. He went on to build tramlines on three continents and, as one does when facing hostile creditors, even founded his own bank, the Banque Empain.

In July 1897, his company was tapped from among six bidders to build the Paris Métro. Seeing the completed project convinced the King Leopold II of Belgium to bestow the title of Baron upon him.

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Everything about Heliopolis feels out of place. Its haughty Greek name, French-style avenues, and massive Islamic buildings all look like the product of a mad architect’s fever dream.

Baron Empain erected the town in 1906 on a patch of desert land some kilometers northeast of Cairo, although it has long since been absorbed by the sprawling Egyptian capital.

Today, Heliopolis is synonymous with wealth. As I walked down its boundless sidewalks, I found myself surrounded by fancy clothing retailers, pricey restaurant terraces, and the villas of Arab celebs and politicos.

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The tram-line running through Heliopolis

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Finally, after plodding through most of Heliopolis, I found what I was looking for: the Baron’s Hindu Palace. Across a stream of furious traffic, behind a bolted iron gate, flanked by crumbling stone elephants, nymphs, and dragons, stood the most beautifully bizarre building I have ever seen.

During a long trip to India, Baron Empain fell in love with the local culture. Thus, during the construction of Heliopolis, he commissioned the architect Alexander Marcel to design him a Hindu palace in the heart of his neo-Islamic city.

Marcel drew inspiration from the Hindu architecture of Angkor Wat, an ancient temple complex in modern Cambodia. The result is probably what Disneyland would have looked like had it been erected by the Khmer Empire.

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The Palace/Photo: Wikicommons.

Aleph

If we could pause time and space in the very first instant after the Big Bang, the whole universe and everything that would ever happen in it would be contained in a single point. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about a point in space that contains all other spaces. He named this point Aleph, after the first letter of the Semitic abjads, or alphabets. Hebrew Kabbalists believe the letter Aleph represents the oneness of God, and mathematicians use Aleph to represent the number of elements in an infinite set. Some argue that existence is random and chaotic, others advocate for the interconnectedness of all things.

Whichever the case, thanks to the construction of the Paris Métro, the architecture of Angkor Wat can now be found in the heart of Cairo.

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In 1906, Baron Empain established the Cairo Electric Railway and Heliopolis Oases Company to connect Heliopolis (then still in planning) with Cairo’s city center via an electric tramline system. The company bought 25km2 of dunes from the British colonial government at the ridiculously low price of one Egyptian pound per feddan (0.42 hectares).

The Baron’s vision was to build sumptuous Islamic-inspired buildings on a French-style urban plan. Seven years later, elegant posters were plastered all over Cairo advertising the new city of Heliopolis as an “oasis moderne de salubrité et d’agrément.” His vision had come true: Heliopolis was a wonderfully insane jumble of Islamic architectural traditions crisscrossed by wide airy boulevards.

In keeping with Citizen Kane, the Baron also built his own Xanadu. Like many fin de siècle businessmen, the Baron was spellbound by exotic cultures, and the Hindu Palace from which he supervised the rise of his Franco-Islamic oasis is an homage to that love, an Orientalist’s dream come true.

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1913 Advertisement for Heliopolis

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After the Baron’s death in 1929, his son Jean Empain inherited the Palace. Jean was married to the American cabaret dancer Rozell Rowland, aka Goldie. This flamboyant couple mostly used the Palace to host Great-Gatsby-style debaucheries. Years later, the property was passed on to their son, Édouard-Jean Empain, famous for being kidnapped in Paris in 1978.

Édouard-Jean Empain sold the Palace at auction in 1957 to a group of Saudi investors who were hoping to resell it at a profit. However, the Palace was neglected by its new owners and fell into ruin.

In 2005, Megan K. Stack described it in the Los Angeles Times thusly: “Cavernous and crumbling, the Baron’s Palace is the sort of place where dreams go to die and ghost stories linger. (…) Carved with stone snakes, elephants and dragons, the one-time home of a famed Belgian businessman has become a hopelessly neglected eyesore clinging to memories of better times (…). The stone structure still stands solid, but vandals and looters have knocked the heads and breasts off sculptures, stripped away the mirrors and marble, and scrawled the walls with swastikas and pentagrams.”

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Map of Heliopolis, 1913.

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Hoping to take a peek, I started to climb the fence, but was stopped by a kid who asked for $200. This didn’t strike me as an official inquiry, so I tried to sneak past him, but he chased me away with all the might of his entrepreneurial zeal.

I noticed a couple posing in mid-smooch for a wedding photo on the palace steps. How did they get in? Some hipster told me they had government permission. But the gate was still bolted. I was very confused.

I can’t say I was heartbroken by my failure to get in. The Egyptian government bought the property in 2005 with the intention of renovating it, but it’s still pretty creepy. So far it looks as desolate and foreboding as ever, despite the new lush garden on the Palace grounds.

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The Palace was regularly looted until one day a group of plunderers broke into the Baron’s chamber and found his Belgian mirrors covered in blood. Since that day, all manner of supernatural legends have been attributed to the ruin.

The palace tower, it is believed, was built on a revolving base, so that the eccentric Baron could enjoy a 360º view of Heliopolis without leaving his chair. One day, his sister Helena fell from her balcony and died. Some say the Baron didn’t notice at first because he was too busy fooling around with his spinning tower. According to popular legend, Helena’s ghost jammed the tower’s revolving system to punish the Baron for not coming to her rescue, and it has never spun since.

The Baron’s daughter Miriam, who was born with physical disabilities, was traumatized by her father’s harsh treatment during her childhood (rumor has it he often locked her in the basement). She had been missing for some days, when her lifeless body was found crammed into the dumbwaiter. Some say she killed herself.

The ghosts of Miriam and Helena are said to wander the Palace to this day.

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Heliopolis Palace Hotel

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That night, when I returned to the apartment, Ahmad lit up a joint and told me more about the Palace’s sinister reputation. When he was a kid, it was common for mothers to threaten to lock their children in the Palace if they didn’t behave. And in the ‘90s, it was rumored that a satanic cult met regularly in the basement to skin cats, drink rat blood and host orgies.

Ahmad himself was skeptical. During his teenage years he and his friends would break in at night and wander the halls where the Baron’s son hosted his parties, past the service elevator shaft where Miriam’s body was found, to the graffiti that reads “evil evil ghost of death.” Their flashlights made the shadows of the erotic Hindu bas-reliefs crawl up walls like fingers.

Until one night, leading a gang of jittering teens through the second floor, near the Baron’s chamber, Ahmad stopped. He heard a rattled exhalation and felt a cold breath on his face. He never went back to the Palace again.