Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Abandoned Ghost House

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

With its share of legends, myths and ghost stories, Baron Palace or Qasr El-Baron is one of Cairo’s landmarks that has been standing for over a hundred year at a halt. On one of the main roads leading from the airport into Cairo, this unique palace with its extraordinary and curious architecture has been ignored for years until recently.
The Baron Place was the brainstorm of a Belgian-born industrialist, Baron-General Edouard Louis Joseph Empain (1852-1929), who came out to Egypt in 1904 to rescue one of his Belgian company's overseas projects, which was the construction of a railway line linking Matariya to Port Said. Losing the project to the Britons, he then came up with the extravagant idea to build a new high class residential area out in the desert, ten kilometers from the center of Cairo. The new luxurious quartier was called Heliopolis (or Masr el-Gedida translating to New Cairo) and was linked to Cairo by rapid transit and roads.
Baron Empain acquired the 6,000 acres of desert land for the trivial amount of one Egyptian pound per acre, over which he intended to build his city with all the necessary infrastructures, like water, drains and electricity, hotel facilities such as the Palace Hotel and Heliopolis House, and recreational luxuries including a golf course, racetrack and park.
The house he built for himself was truly individual and was finished in 1910 and took three years to build. It was built over an artificial elevation so as the Baron could watch over the building of Heliopolis, his brainchild. The palace followed a Hindu style and was designed by Alexander Marcel, who was a prestigious French architect. The Baron also brought in the best Indonesian artists and sculptors for its construction.
The unconventional exterior of the palace is decorated with busts, statues, elephants, snakes, Buddhas and Krishnas. The Baron was entertained by the idea that as guests crossed the gardens up the grand steps leading into the striking palace foyer, they felt like they were being watched from the palace’s interior. Personally I admit to feeling the same but not believing in ghosts I attribute this feeling to the abundance of statues that eye you as you come close up to the building.
The Baron was himself the first resident of the palace, where he entertained his guests in lavish style. The place was inherited to his playboy son Baron Jean Empain, and finally it was occupied by Janine and Huguette Empain. The palace was finally sold off by its owners in 1957 to two families, Alexem and Reda, who were of Saudi origin.
For so many years the palace was abandoned, and stood dwarfed in the shadows of growing Heliopolis. Its reputation of being haunted was the only thing keeping it from being completely forgotten. Over time it became popular with bats, stray dogs and teenagers who snuck into the subterranean floor at night to drink and smoke hashish, further damaging it with their graffiti of swastikas and pentagrams.

The owners of the palace had plans to sell it for a notorious $50 million US, but according to Egyptian law it was forbidden to sell or purchase a building that was deemed to be antiquities. The stalemate finally ended in 2005 when the Egyptian government managed to wrestle the property from foreign owners, reimbursing them with another chunk of land in the Cairo suburbs.

Since restorations have been done on the gardens but renovation to the house will be costly so have been as yet difficult. The palace grounds are now used for TV events and musical concerts.
Heliopolis, the city that Baron Empain has envisioned has now become synonymous with power in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak lives less than a mile from the Baron’s Palace. The Military intelligence headquarters stands around the corner. Just opposite is the former residence of Sultan Hussein Kamel who ruled Egypt between 1914 and 1917 and is now the Presidential Guest House. And the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s villa is just down the street.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem