“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Winston Churchill
Although Winston Churchill wasn’t describing the palace his quote is a very apt description of the strange building that I saw very briefly on my way to the Egyptian Museum . When I got the opportunity on the way back to stop and have a look I was absolutely fascinated. l say a closer look, the closest you can get to it is from outside the grounds. The tall decorated pillars of the gateway hold the iron gates firmly in place and closed but there is enough space to shove a camera through the bars to get a photograph.
All around as far as I could see were barbed wire fences, everything is shut up tight but perched on a plateau was a terracotta coloured building that was covered in decoration.
I had to find out more and what a tale I uncovered. ‘Baron Empain Palace, ‘Le Palais Hindou’, ‘The Hindu Palace’, ‘Qasr el Baron’ are just some of the names I found that the building has been known by.
The palace was the brainchild of Édouard Louis Joseph Empain, later to be made a Baron Empain by the King Albert I (1907). He was a Belgian millionaire and industrialist who in 1906 purchased a block of land 8 km north of the centre of Cairo that neither the French or British wanted and was therefore going cheaply. At the time, Cairo was undergoing a real estate boom and in some areas land cost as much as in Paris or London.
Empain wanted to build a city in the desert and within a few years of buying the land there were 29 km of streets and avenues, 168 buildings, including two hotels, followed a year later by a race course and Luna Park amusements area. Within ten years Heliopolis as the area was named had a population of 7,000.
He decided to build his own villa in Heliopolis, he chose his plot and had a plateau constructed on which the building would be placed so he could look over Heliopolis from his lofty perch. He chose a French architect Alexandre Marcel who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Marcel’s previous work included the Jagatjit Palace in Indian and the pavilions of Cambodia and Spain as well as the ‘Panorama du Tour du Monde’ at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. The Panorama consisted of a journey through various buildings that included a Cambodian temple, a Japanese gateway, a Chinese Tower and a balconied building that was of Indian influence. Many of the motifs from these buildings found their way several years later onto the Empain’s villa.
The building of the palace took four years from 1907 – 11 to complete and was built using the Hennebique system of reinforced concrete; one of the first major creative uses of such material in Egypt. The ‘Palace’ is actually a fairly conventional villa of two floors above ground and two subterranean floors. The structure is made to look larger by placing it on elevated plateau above a series of terraces, almost mimicking the step pyramid a Giza. The addition of the 30 m tower and the impressive number of decorative features adds to the buildings presence.
The villa’s interior was designed by the French interior designer Georges-Louis Claude who was also responsible for the decoration of parts of the Heliopolis Palace Hotel. The interior walls were covered with frescos and huge mirrors situated in decorative wooden frames, the coffered ceilings were gilded as were the doors. Art Deco tiles and fittings were used in the bathrooms and Belgian glass was used in the multi-paned soaring windows.
There were decorative pillars and cornices, marble fireplaces, decorative balustrades, gold finished door knobs and highly decorative parquet flooring on which the furniture from Belgium was set. The open roof terrace was a cornucopia of balustrades, seating, covered walkways and pillars; every surface is covered with sculpted decorative cladding. These include representations of Ganesh, elephants, snakes, dragons, grotesque faces and all manner of mythical beasts.
The Palace was occupied by three Baron Empain’s, before being sold to Middle Eastern business men in the 1950s, whom it is said tried repeatedly to change its use into a hotel or casino but the government would not issue the permits for this to happen. The Egyptian government bought it in 2005 and it was opened to the public for a short time (I’ve read that it was only two months), but has since retreated behind barbed wire fences.
In the period between the Empain family owning the palace and the Egyptian government buying it the palace and its contents were looted, furniture and fittings were stolen sometimes ripped from the walls (large mirrors), the frescos and masonry have been damaged and covered in spray painted graffiti. The beautiful decorations sculpted and painted by Indonesian craftsmen is damaged and in some places destroyed.
The gardens died and the Greek, Roman and Far Eastern statuary that was scattered throughout became the victim of mindless destruction. When the government bought the palace, they did reinstate the gardens and the palace is once again surrounded by green terraces.
You can hire the grounds in which to hold weddings celebrations. It can be hired from the government for a fee of 50,000 to 60,000 Egyptian pounds (£2,125 – £2,500), ($2,700 to $3,300) for every 300 guests. If you are interested there is a video on YouTube of a wedding celebration.
There is another video that shows some more detail, if you start it at the 4.40 mark you will a group of architectural students who were allowed access to the building. More details of the internal damage and of the external decoration can be seen. There is one final video of a VIP tour, the quality of the video is very poor but every now and again it clears and more decorative details are highlighted,
Any building that is left empty soon becomes the repository of urban myths, legends and tales to curdle the blood. What I write from here on in is some of the stories I have found and I am sure there are very many more floating about.
If you put Baron Empain Palace into any search engine it will tell you basic information and it will then say either the Baron’s wife/sister/sister-in-law Helena fell down the spiral staircase to her death and his daughter Merriam/Miriam/Mariam who suffered long-term psychological problems was found dead in one of the basement chambers/well of the lift a few years later. I can find no sourced information online about either death.
I have looked at Baron Empain’s family tree, his sisters were called Marie Louise, Florence, Anne-Marie, Irma and Louise and his brother’s wife was Ghislaine. The only marriage I can find listed for him was to Jeanne Becker in 1921. His sons were born in 1902 and 1908 and changed their name from Becker to Empain when their parents married. Without further information, I can only surmise that he had a long-term affair with Jeanne and married her after the death of wife number one (Helena) and his daughter. There is a book about the family but it is in French, only available in paperback so unless someone can help me I am stumped.
The palace has become the repository of all sorts of tales; of blood running down mirrors (obviously before they were looted), sounds of large objects being dragged across the floors, chanting, satanic rites and orgies taking place. Ghosts are supposed to walk the halls and strange emanations of smoke have been seen appearing and disappearing. A chamber in the basement is supposed to have run with blood when the first baron died. The garden lights up for no reason and then the light dies away and windows open and close on their own.
I’m sure that any building left uninhabited will soon be used for nefarious reasons; drug taking, hiding contraband, drinking etc. The building and grounds aralso inhabited by bats and stray dogs, add into that the unusual carvings on the outside and you have a real recipe for making of tales of horror.
Having seen the outside and read so much about it I would really like to see the inside but I think the chances of that happening are very remote. There have been a number of studies to look at the deterioration of the concrete and of opening the palace as part of a wider regeneration of Heliopolis. But many projects are on hold as there is not enough money being generated by tourists to fund the project and The Empain Palace appears to be one of these unfortunately.
The little I have been able to find out has proved fascinating and I am sure there are many other tales of life at the Empain Palace yet to come to life.
Unfortunately most of the photographs for the palace are copyrighted as so few people have seen the interior, but there is a Pinterest page where the copyright holders have posted them and also a Flickr page as well.
If you have enjoyed this blog you may want to read the blogs I kept when I lived in Vietnam and Costa Rica.