On the last day of June 2020, throngs of Cairenes queued patiently to enter a little piece of India in a suburb of the Egyptian capital. The doors of Le Palais Hindou (Hindu Palace), or the Baron Empain Palace, were thrown open to the public after a $10.9 million renovation by Egypt’s Armed Forces Engineering Authority that took three years. The building, which was restored to its original copper red colour after having a beige appearance for decades, was the brainchild of Baron Edouard Empain, a Belgian engineer-turned-industrialist who is best remembered in Egypt as the founder of Heliopolis, a township that was built in the desert near Cairo.
At the reopening, jubilant residents of the Egyptian capital posed for photos in front of a balustrade of Shiva on a Naga and a Yali, which seemed to particularly fascinate the Cairenes. The building which many claimed was haunted by the spirit of Empain’s sister, who allegedly fell to her death from a balcony, had slowly fallen into disrepair. The mansion changed hands a few times after the 1950s and its one-time Saudi owners wanted to convert it into a casino. Its very existence, however, marks the success of Empain, who fought difficult childhood circumstances to build a multinational empire.
The making of a Baron
Edouard Empain was born in Beloeil, a small municipality in Wallonia, Belgium, and was the first of seven children of a schoolteacher who found it difficult to make ends meet. Inspired by the Industrial Revolution, Empain wanted to become an engineer, but his family could only pay for his secondary school education. Determined to succeed, he made it to university and pursued his dream.
Empain began to get noticed in a Belgium ruled by King Leopold II when he set up a company that built public transport connecting villages to towns.
In 1891, he became one of the first industrialists to use electric engines for urban trams, building electric tramways in Brussels, Boulougne, Lille and other cities in Europe. He achieved fame after coming up with the idea of an underground electric tram in Paris that was later extended to become the city’s metro. His business interests expanded as far as Russia and China and he even tried to set up shop in India, but that was not to be. Empain’s India travels were unfortunately not well documented, but he seemed to have developed a liking for the country’s temples.
In the early 1900s, Empain moved to Egypt with the aim of bagging the contract to construct the railway line connecting Al-Mattariyah to Port Said. He would not win the contract, but decided to stay back in the country, where he found success when his company was awarded the rights to build Cairo’s tram network. The Belgian industrialist, who was awarded the title of Baron by King Leopold II, developed a good business relationship with Boghos Nubar Pasha, an Egyptian-Armenian businessman (and son of the country’s first prime minister Nubar Pasha), and the two established the Heliopolis Oasis Company.
The company bought land in the desert near Cairo from the British occupiers to build Heliopolis, a new luxurious township. The Belgian entrepreneur came up with the idea to build Heliopolis when he went to the desert on horseback. “I want to build a city here,” Empain told fellow Belgian and noted architect Ernest Jaspar. “It will be called Heliopolis, the city of the sun, and first of all, I will build a palace there. A huge palace...” Jaspar was tasked with designing the new township, which would contain a mix of Persian, Moorish, Islamic and European architecture.
Empain wanted the new township to have broad avenues, a racetrack, a golf course, and mansions that would rival those of the French Riviera.
In 1907, Empain hired French architect Alexandre Marcel to build his dream house that would look like a Hindu temple. Renowned for the international-style buildings that he designed, the Frenchman had achieved fame for his designs at the 1900 Paris Exposition, where visitors were awed by his Asian-style designs such as the Cambodian pavilion. Marcel was also in demand in Asia, where he designed the French Embassy in Tokyo and the Maharaja’s palace in the Indian princely state of Kapurthala.
Marcel was tasked with building a Hindu temple-inspired palace for Empain, who wanted to live in a mansion that was one of its kind in Egypt.
Some websites claim the inspiration for the palace was the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, while others claim the temples of Odisha, north or south India were the model. There is also a belief that the 11th century Kandariya Mahadeva Temple in Khajuraho was partly the inspiration for Empain’s palace, while the gate of the Sanchi Stupa was the model for the mansion’s gate. The palace actually combined elements of several Indian styles of architecture, and the façades were replete with sculptures of Hindu gods, apsaras and animals. Marcel, who was known for experimenting with different architectural styles, likely wanted to make the building representative of all Hindu temples in India.
The interiors of the palace, designed by George Louise-Claude, had a much stronger European influence. Although there were a few Hindu and Buddhist statues inside, the idea was for the mansion to have the feel of a palace in Europe. The ground floor had a decorative wooden ceiling with cornices that were inspired by Greek mythology. Rooms in the upper floor were designed in Baroque, Islamic and Rococo styles. With its parquet floors and golden doorknobs, the house had windows with Belgian glass that would attract maximum sunlight.
It took four years to build the 12,500 square-metre house which was one of the first buildings in Egypt made with reinforced concrete, and Empain moved into it in 1911. The mansion’s terrace and compound, with its green terraces and marble statues from Greek and Roman mythology, hosted many a party for Cairo’s elite in the pre-World War 1 period. At that time, an invitation to the mansion, which stood out among the graceful and large structures of Heliopolis, was one of the most coveted in the Egyptian capital.
During the war, Empain was given the rank of major-general and was put in charge of armament production for the Belgian army in Europe. He was also in charge of transportation at the front and was wounded while in service. His business empire continued to grow after the 1918 Armistice, and he set up several electricity companies in different continents.
Empain passed away in 1929 in Belgium but was buried in the Our Lady of Heliopolis Co-Cathedral, making his final resting place the township that he envisioned and built. Till date, Egyptians fondly remember Empain as the founder of Masr El Gedida (New Egypt), the Arabic name of Heliopolis.
Three generations of the family lived in the mansion after Edouard Empain’s death. It was sold in the 1957 at a public auction.
Decades of disrepair
The house slowly fell into disrepair and its golden doorknobs and other fittings vanished, while bats took over its ceilings, and pigeons found safety and comfort in its vast interiors. It also became a hotspot of criminals and drug dealers over the next few decades.
There were several stories of the house being haunted by the ghost of Edouard Empain’s sister. Neighbours claimed hearing screams at night, which were attributed to the woman who allegedly fell to her death from the mansion. Others claimed the house was haunted by demons and vampires. In the 1990s, underground heavy metal concerts were held in the abandoned palace, and many locals mistook them for Satanic rituals. The concerts came to the attention of the media and the authorities, who clamped down and even arrested some musicians.
Lack of proper maintenance for decades took its toll on many of the mansion’s Hindu and Greco-Roman statues. This state of disrepair continued for decades but hopes of the house being revived were raised in 1993 when it was placed on Egypt’s antiquities list.
The Egyptian government acquired the property in 2005 from its Egyptian-Saudi owner in exchange for land in New Cairo. The renovation of the building began in the middle of 2017 and involved complete repairs of the interiors, including the restoration of the windows and ceilings.
Le Palais Hindou is now a museum of local heritage. Since its renovation, it has also become a popular spot for pre-wedding photo shoots, especially at night. Restored to its old glory, it remains the only Indian-style building in a country that has millennia-old civilisational ties with India.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.