By Norbert Schiller
The Baron Empain Palace in Cairo’s suburb of Heliopolis was a landmark for me during the two decades that I lived in Cairo. The reason why the palace was such an important visual reference is not I because I was particularly fond of this Hindu temple-inspired relic or that I even lived in the vicinity. My anticipation to spot the palace had a more practical explanation. When I was bogged down in Cairo’s notorious traffic on my way to the airport, I would only begin to feel a sense of relief when I reached the palace where traffic would normally begin to ease up.
As I passed this landmark on my airport rides, which I couldn’t even begin to quantify over a period of over 20 years, I would wonder why nothing was done to preserve this most unusual structure that blended Hindu, far eastern and Gothic architectural styles. The palace, which seems so out of place in a neighborhood where buildings were a blend of Arabic, Moorish, and European designs, continued to deteriorate as the years went by looking like a grey skeleton surrounded by grounds that had turned to sand after so many years of neglect. I remember stories going back to the early 1980s when I was a student at the American University in Cairo about ghosts haunting the palace and mysterious screams and lights going on and off in some of the rooms.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned about a restoration campaign to turn the palace into a museum. In March 2022, I visited the Baron Empain Palace Museum and was pleasantly surprised by the quality renovation work to revive both the palace and its gardens. The building now has a healthy terracotta color instead of the ashen grey that distinguished it over the past decades and the grounds are alight with greenery and flowery shrubs. The information, archival images, and videos displayed in the museum tie in the palace’s history with that of Heliopolis, both of which were built thanks to the vision of Edouard Louis Joseph Empain.
Using the historical information provided to visitors on the museum panels, my recent photographs, as well as historical images from my archives, I have created a short narrative and photo essay about the Baron Empain Palace. The day that I visited, a wedding crew was setting up for a lavish reception. The kitsch 21st century plastic wedding decorations juxtaposed with the palace’s hodgepodge historical designs made for a surreal photographic composition.