The Reincarnation of Baron Empain Palace*
The Baron palace always seemed to be an intriguing place. For some reason it has been associated by many with the Beast’s palace in my favourite Beauty and the Beast the Cartoon. Childish..Superstitious..could be! But a palace like this is bound to have a captivating story behind it. Many questions are begging to be answered!
The story goes like this: A month or less before the Heliopolis Centennial Celebration, a festival that took place in May 2005, the national newspapers announced that the Palace is now state-owned property and would be opened soon to visitors. Fifty-five days later the palace was closed.
Considering its history and the interesting story behind it, I decided to pay it a visit….the minute I stepped inside the large garden I felt a sense of royalty… the palace itself is literally a massive architectural extravaganza.
In 1904, Belgian Baron Edward Louis Joseph Empain first arrived to Egypt with only one intention: rescuing his company’s project to construct a railway line connecting Matariya to Port Said. Although the mission failed and he lost the contract to the British, he made up his mind to stay in Egypt. It is said that the Baron had fallen in love. But no one knew whether it was with the desert or one of the Egypt’s most beautiful elites.
In 1907, Baron Empain decided to build a home from which to overlook the rise of the promising City of Heliopolis. He commissioned two French artists to design his castle; Alexander Marcel was responsible for the exterior, and the interior was assigned to Georges-Louis Claude. The palace architecture is of a cross-cultural nature with an extraordinary mixture of Hindu and Renaissance architecture along Marcel’s own adaptation of the Cambodian temples in Angkor Wat. Located in Heliopolis, the palace was apparently built on an artificial elevation in order to allow the Baron to continue his ongoing work in the new project back then “Heliopolis”.
While passing through the small yet immeasurably artistic details, one wonders how on earth they completed it in just three years! Floral designs and other images are carved in the stone walls surrounding the terrace. Dragons, Krishnas, and Shivas engraved in leaf-shaped formations mark the four edges of the terrace to make for a Stunning huge ornamented façade. The rooftop especially stands out with its 3 or 4 shaded benches and a concrete stage in the middle. One can presume that Baron Empain probably used it as an entertainment facility, yet there are no references to this.
Although exploring the palace is a great pleasure, it was like seeing a beautiful bride in her coffin. The walls are totally covered with such lines as “for the memory of…” which made me wonder with horror if they were painted during the restoration process! The parquet floor is stripped off and thin marble cracks spread out like spider webs behind the huge stylish fireplace. Frames are only left with no mirrors, doorknobs are missing and kitchens and bathrooms are lacking their most distinctive characteristics like sinks, bathtubs, and toilet seats. Even the elevators the Elevators! The torn out belts gives the only clue that they even existed. The Baron Empain Palace had been abandoned in every sense of the word.
Only three generations occupied the mansion before it was deserted: the Baron Empain himself, followed by his Son Baron Jean Empain, and finally Edward Emapin’s grandchildren Janine and Huguette; after which the huge mansion has became a rich source for legends and fables.
Superstitions usually arise with the unknown, and the Baron Palace was no exception. One myth affirms that the palace is built on a rotating base to allow the Baron to manage the entire area while sitting in one place.
Another one says that there is a secret tunnel that connects the palace with the Basilique church. Moreover, there have been countless accounts and tales of lights mysteriously turning on and music emerging from the house.
No matter what happened, the place is so peaceful inside; one can easily imagine what it was like during its days of glory. Its spirit of royalty becomes apparent as soon as you step onto the outside stairs that lead to the main entrance; it is there mingling with the air, bringing the past to life and giving its visitors an opportunity to hear its stories. Unfortunately, it has been vigorously neglected, as the case with many of our unobserved national treasures.
The palace has closed its doors again and is under restoration, with the ” intention of turning it into a museum”. One must visit the palace to find the truth. We are looking forward to seeing those doors open again announcing the reincarnation of the Baron Palace.
* The Art Review, June issue.