Foul for a Fool
The Weird and Wonderful Baron Empain Palace
Updated: Apr 10, 2022
Prior to the building being done up and opened to the public, many of you, myself included, have driven past this then-abandoned building on Salah Salem and wondered, why the hell does Cairo have a hundred-year-old Cambodian Hindu temple?
While for non-Heliopilans, the existence of, let alone the story behind this building, is unknown to us, it is a well-known landmark and point of pride to Heliopolis residents. Officially known as the Baron Empain Palace, it is locally referred to as The Hindu Temple, or as Heliopilans say in French, Le Palais Hindou.
The building has always been shrouded in mystery, with fantastical stories of its origins, structure and hauntings (more on these later), but its actual history and story is nonetheless pretty interesting and surprisingly important to the history of Cairo.
Based on the stunning temple complex in Cambodia's Angkor Wat, the construction of the two-story mansion started in 1907 and it was completed in 1911. The palace is a cacophony of all manner of styles and influences, as the Buddha and Hindu deities along with elephants, tigers, and even Kama-Sutra-inspired scenes, are surrounded by statues from Roman and Greek mythology, and parts of the inside are decorated in a very, very French style. Oddly the only pantheon that seems to be missing is that of ancient Egypt.
The building was designed by the French Belgium-born architect Alexandre Marcel, who was at the time well-known for a host of other "exotic" Orientalist buildings around the world, with his designs often based on Japanese, Chinese, Indian and other national styles. However, he also left his mark on other parts of Heliopolis, having designed the Heliopolis Basilica, which coincidentally is the burial place of Edouard Empain, and the grand hall of the then-Heliopolis Palace Hotel, now one of three presidential palaces.
While the palace is certainly a sight to behold and its eccentricity is fascinating; if anything, it is an expression of Orientalism with a staggering inability to look beyond the aesthetic. The museum suggests that the eclectic mix-match of styles may have been a way of portraying Baron and his various businesses' global reach or was inspired by the 1900 Paris International Exhibition. However, this by no means takes away from the buildings' importance now, on the contrary, it is why it so fascinating and interesting.
The man behind this unusual palace is also the man who was behind the creation of Heliopolis, Baron Edouard Louis Joseph Empain, a Belgian industrialist who built railways and was noted as being an important part of the construction of the Paris Metro, which led to him being awarded the title of Baron from the French king
Baron first visited Egypt in 1904 to try and attain a contract to build a railway connecting Mansoura to Matariya, but after this failed, he quickly fell in love with Egypt and was very much a part of the Egytpomania that attracted foreigners to Egypt from across the world, in addition to trying to get rich out of the colonialisation of the country. Some have also speculated that he stayed in Egypt because of his alleged romance with Cairo socialite Yvette Boghdadli.
Soon after arriving, he founded the Cairo Electric Railways & Heliopolis Oases Company that built Cairo's first tram network, a once iconic part of Egypt's capital, which remained until the 1990s a quintessential part of Heliopolis' identity. The museum includes a beautifully preserved tram from Heliopolis in the palace grounds as a nod to this very-much missed part of Heliopolis.
Baron Empain with the Cairo Electric Railways & Heliopolis Oases Company then embarked on building Egypt's first modern desert city of Heliopolis. Empain envisioned Heliopolis as a green oasis rising out of the desert with luxury apartments with his residence, the Baron Palace, overseeing it on an artificial mound. When Empain lived there, the palace also had an incredible view of the Pyramids of Giza to the south-west, now of course obscured by the blossoming city of Cairo, not to mention the smog. The history of Heliopolis is fascinating and it is full of architectural wonders, but I'll save all of that for a future article and in the meantime, persuade anyone interested to take a trip to Heliopolis' beautiful neighbourhood of Korba.
In addition to building tram networks and Heliopolis, Baron founded several companies in Egypt and left his mark in an innumerable amount of ways. Impressively, across the whole globe, Empain founded 105 companies over four continent and thirteen countries.
At the onset of World War One, Empain left Egypt and acted as a general overseeing the production of weapons and ammunition for the war for the French. Ten years after the end of the war, Empain died in 1929, aged 76, and his body was returned to Egypt, according to his wishes, to be buried at Korba's Basillica, where he lays to this day next to his son.
Following Baron Empain's death, the palace was mostly occupied by his son, known for his extravagance and playboy ways, who characteristically married an American burlesque dancer called Rozell Rowland, known for performing in Cairo night clubs painted gold. The Empain family occupied the palace until the 1952 revolution and, after switching hands several times, ended up in the ownership of the Egyptian state, enabling them to finally open up this important part of Cairo's history to the Egyptian public.
Empain certainly seems to be idealised to a certain extent; however, I'd be caution against this and insist that he should be seen in relation to the harsh colonisation of Egypt and all that entails. Particularly, his business in Congo and relationship with King Leopold should not be ignored, an occupation that resulted in ten million Congolese deaths and unspeakable acts of cruelty.
More recently, the building has been awash with imaginative stories of ghosts, flashing lights and even allegations that it can rotate all the way round for continual sunlight and has a secret tunnel linking it to the Heliopolis Basilica up the road in Korba, along with a special vehicle to take him along the tunnel. On the more sinister side, it's said that that the daughter and sister could not enter a bedroom in the basement, known as the the pink bedroom and magic room. The reasons for which vary from it being a place dedicated to the contact of the dead, both by Empain and his daughter, and being the entrance to the secret tunnel. It was said that the room turned red after Baron Empain's death, although other versions claim the red-stained mirrors were due to animal sacrifices done in more recent years by satanists.
It has also been quite widely reported that the main tower used to rotate 360 degrees to either give Emapin sunlight throughout the day or as a way to view the whole of Heliopolis without ever leaving a chair, although I was unable to find any evidence of such a mechanism from my research. Empain's wife was found dead after falling from the beautiful staircase and this has been blamed upon the sudden jolt of rotation throwing her from the stairs; although, it has also been proposed to have been a suicide, the likely of cause of which might have been her torment from Empain's affairs, notably with servants from the palace.
There are also stories that the palace is haunted, mostly attributed to the ghosts of his wife and daughter, both of which sadly died in the palace in suspected suicides. Apparently, locals have reported that they have heard screams and seen fires, yet these all miraculously disappeared upon closer inspection by concerned onlookers. A controversial event in 1997 led to the palace being further closed to the public after the police raided the palace and arrested dozens of alleged satan worshippers that had gathered in the palace, although despite the rumours of animal sacrifice and satanic rituals, they seemed to have just been rich Egyptian teenage metalheads looking for a suitably atmospheric venue for a party.
In addition to the impressive restoration work of both the palace and the garden, the museum has some very well-written information boards and video projections to lead you through the history of the palace, Heliopolis and its founder, Baron Empain.
The impressive decoration inside also features some curious and playful wood engravings illustrating famous European folklore tales, which are fun to decipher and figure out.
Heading up the beautiful and unusually shaped staircase, you get to the roof, which offers a great view down into Korba; however, I'm sure its original view before Cairo was overrun by tall apartment blocks would have been far more impressive. Despite being partly engulfed by the buildings now surrounding it, you can happily waste away your time up there looking at the city below.
The roof also has some Angkor Wat-esque statues and structures to inspect and some nice shaded areas to get a bit of rest-bite. Legend has it that Baron Empain used to hold lavish parties on the roof with Cairo's elite in attendance, with even King Albert and Queen Elizabeth just before the First World War
Flanking the palace on either side are two preserved vintage cars, one is a 1945 Rolls Royce that belonged to King Hussien of Jordan while he was studying in Alexandria. The garden also houses some other surprises for you to explore, not to mention a nice cafe on the lawn.
Talk of turning Baron Palace into some sort of museum had been common for decades, and no one really believed it would come to anything as the palace slowly deteriorated further in
front of commuters' eyes and graffiti lined the walls. But the palace was indeed restored, turned into a museum, and has been an incredible success. Since opening, Cairenes have flocked to the palace and social media is awash with pictures of people posing in and around the building.
For those living in Cairo, the Baron Palace is a place you have to visit, but be warned the hype around its opening means that the tickets queues are currently very long. Maybe leave it a few months and head out there when the crowds have subsided.