Baron Empain Palace, Cairo’s Hindu Mansion

The edifice’s main façade

photography by: Yasser Nazmi/ Wikimedia Commons

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For decades now, the incessant influx of Indian migrants to oil-rich countries across the Middle-East bestowed the region with dozens of Hindu temples. However, long before this recent revival of Hinduism in the region, one Arab capital has boasted its own Hindu-inspired landmark. Tucked away in a suburb of Cairo, the aptly nicknamed Le Palais Hindou stands out as an architectural oddity in a city renowned for its Islamic monuments and buildings.

Baron Empain

Famous for its juxtaposition of old and new architecture, Cairo is home to a multitude of unusual structures beyond its famous pyramids. While the many mosques, citadels and towers are intriguing, perhaps the most unique building in this ever-evolving metropolis is Baron Empain Palace.

 

Alternatively known as “Le Palais Hindou”, the mansion is the brainchild of Baron Empain, a prolific industrialist, engineer and entrepreneur as well as an amateur Egyptologist. Dedicated to the expansion of railways in particular, Empain was awarded the title of “Baron” by the King of Belgium for his contributions to the Paris Metro and tramway lines across Belgium, Northern France and the Netherlands.

 

Upon arriving in Egypt in 1904, the businessman quickly expanded his empire and founded the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company, both of which were essential to the development of the newly established municipality of Heliopolis. The former desert region was deemed to be a “city of luxury and leisure”, replete with broad avenues, modern conveniences and recreational amenities.


The Palace

Inspired by the unique construction of Hindu temples, Baron Empain wanted to create a masterpiece to contribute to the cultural richness of the then nascent city. The resulting palace’s construction began in 1907 and was completed in 1911, showcasing an impressive blend of Persian elements and neoclassical European aspects.

 

Motivated by the captivating beauty of religious sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Hindu temples of Orissa in East India, the structure was designed by French architect Alexandre Marcel and decorated by Georges-Louis Claude.

 

It featured an array of rich ornamentation, including statues of Buddha, Shiva and Krishna, marble floors, stained glass windows and embellished chandeliers. Both the lavish accoutrements and the use of reinforced concrete as the primary building material cemented the mansion as a symbol of luxury and status at the time.

 

On its completion, the Baron and his family made the palace their home but despite their wealth, tragedy struck on more than one occasion, with both the Baron’s wife and daughter dying tragically and somewhat mysteriously at the ostentatious residence.

 

After serving as a general in World War I, the Baron returned to Europe and remained there until his death in 1929, while his son took over the now-decaying mansion. Lacking funds to continue its upkeep, it had been sold by the time of the 1952 coup in Egypt.

 

Rumours abound as to its use at this time; while it appeared to fall into disrepair, haunted by the ghosts of its former residents, there are some theories that it was employed as a military base or government office.

 

Still other pervasive myths imply that Satanic rituals were carried out at the abandoned dwelling, although it was more likely that these stories were spread by those who opposed the social revolution and were averse to the wild parties held there by young people keen to throw off the shackles of the former conservative regime.

 

The estate seemed destined for dereliction until it was acquired by the Egyptian government in 2005, who recognised its architectural significance by classifying it as a historical monument in 2007.

 

A joint restoration project with the Belgian government began in 2016, aiming to transform the building into an international art and cultural centre, although an official timeline for this plan remains unknown.


Getting There

Located 10 kilometres northeast of downtown Cairo, Baron Empain Palace is easily accessible by taxi or private car from any part of the city. Public transport options are also available via the metro to Heliopolis Station (Line 2) followed by a short walk or bus ride. It is open daily from 9am to 4pm and tickets range from 100 EGP for a single adult entry to additional charges of 50 EGP to access professional cameras or 50 EGP to enjoy the views from the panoramic rooftop.