| One day in the early 1900s, a man traveled from Belgium to Egypt on a business trip. Although his trip wasn’t successful, he decided no to go back, instead he decided to invest in Cairo, but not in the Cairo every one knew at the time. Instead, he invested in a new extension of the capital that he believed would succeed.
In 1905, Baron Empain, the Belgian industrialist, Egyptologist, and a renowned European entrepreneur, headed the Heliopolis Oasis Company with Boghos Nubar, son of late Egyptian prime minister Nubar Pasha. Together, they built Korba and its surrounding areas that make up the heart of Heliopolis.
At the time this area was 10 kilometers away from the center of Cairo and, with minimal transportation services, it was considered a desert. So Nubar Pasha’s government gave Baron approximately 6000 acres of land to build his dream city. To motivate people to come live in his city he built a tramline to connect the center of the city to his desert oasis.
“This city is very cosmopolitan as it has [enjoyed] very high religious tolerance since it’s beginning,” says Ahmed Moussa, third-generation ‘Heliopitan’ and volunteer in a civil society organization to maintain the Heliopolis heritage. “The Baron built all types of churches, mosques and even Jewish synagogues to attract people with different faiths to come live in his city.”
Designed by Belgian architect Ernest Jasper and Alexandre Marcel, the city had its own unique architectural style that has become known as the Heliopolis style, drawing on Moorish, Persian, Arabic, Islamic and European influences. It had spacious European-style sidewalks, stretching gardens overlooked by stylish arabesque balconies and domed rooftops evoking Islamic and Ottoman architecture.
When it was first built, the neighborhood also had a gold course, which is now know as the Ard El Golf (Golf Land). Right in front of the Merryland Park, there had also been a horse racetrack and a famous nightclub. Although the Merrlyand has stood the test of time and many still enjoy the traditional Merryland picnic of tea by the artificaial lakes followed by a pedallo ride, the nearby attractions are now ruins.
The city has two main areas, an industrial area, now know as Medan El Gamee (The Mosque Square) and El Korba; coming from the Italian word La Curva, or the curve. El Korba was then home to mostly aristocratic Egyptians and some Europeans, although unlike other Egyptian cities at the time. After the 1952 military coup, it became home to the educated middle class.
The presidential palace at the end of Baghdad Street in Korba was originally the Palace Hotel, built in 1910, and served as a military hospital in the First World War.
Down the road from the presidential palace, Marcel carefully designed the Baron palace on Orouba Street after the Cambodian palace of Angkor War and the Hindu temple of Orissa.
Although three generations of Empains lived in the palace, it was sold in 1957 and largely neglected until around 1993 when it was listed as an antiquity and then later in 2000 when the spotlight was again shed on it.
Haunted by myths, legends and Goth culture, the palace has passed through series of attacks and claims it was haunted by evil spirits and used to worship Satan and perform sacrificing rituals. The palace has been transferred ownership in 2005 to the Supreme Council of Antiquities and has been long closed off to public but often used for private or public events and has undergone maintenance work to preserve its architecture and history.
Only a walk away from the palace, the Baron ordered Marcel to design the Basilique church, to which it is said there was a path connecting it to the Baron Palace. The Baron was also buried in the catholic church that was designed after Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia.
In nearby Baghdad Street, the unique Heliopolis architecture that gave the area its flavor is being preserved by the law. The state has renovated the building fronts, reconstructed the Islamic-style wooden balconies and kept the paint unified throughout the street in celebration of the Heliopolis centennial.
Other areas aren’t as lucky and haven’t received as much attention though.
Many other buildings in Heliopolis have a right heritage and architectural significance that volunteers are trying to preserve and fight against the destruction of the area in favor of commercial high-rises that the infrastructure can’t afford.