The Ancient City of Heliopolis
Once an ancient city, Heliopolis was one of the major cities in ancient Egypt. Taking its name from the Ptolemaic Greek name Hēlioúpolis, meaning “City of the Sun”, the city also appears in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts as the “House of Ra”.
Reportedly, Alexander the Great made a stop in Heliopolis on his march from Pelusium to Memphis.
The district became a hub of culture and learning during the Greek period. According to Herodotus, the priests of Heliopolis were the best informed in matters of history of all the Egyptians.
Sadly, there are little to no remains today of the ancient Egyptian city. The only surviving monument is the obelisk of Sesostris I, the oldest obelisk in existence.
Once Isolated, Now Integrated
Heliopolis was first established outside of Cairo in 1905 by the Heliopolis Oasis Company. The company was helmed by Belgian industrialist Baron Empain, an Egyptologist, and entrepreneur. Empain first arrived in Egypt in January of 1904 to construct a railway line between Al-Matariyyah and Port Said. Sadly, the project eventually fell through.
The Company was able to obtain a large stretch of land to the northeast of Cairo. In 1907, the region became the new town of Heliopolis.
Architecture: The Heliopolis Style
The city was so unique that it had its own architectural style named the Heliopolis Style. It was also a trailblazer in terms of including all modern conveniences. It was equipped with water, drains, electricity, hotel facilities, a golf course, racetrack and a park. Furthermore, the area also contained terraced villas, apartment buildings, and workers’ bungalows.
The Man behind the City
Baron Empain (1852 – 1929), was a wealthy Belgian engineer, entrepreneur, financier and industrialist, and Egyptologist. Baron Empain began his career when he became involved in railway construction in Belgium.
Afterwards, he expanded his work to France. In 1881, he established his own bank, Banque Empain, which later became the Belgian Industrial Bank. His group of companies continued to expand and do business in Russia, China, the Belgian Congo, and Egypt.
Baron Empain arrived in Egypt in 1904 to oversee the construction of a railway line linking Mansourah to Matariya. He continued his stay in Egypt after that and established the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company. The company managed to buy 25 km2 to the northeast of Cairo at a very low price from the government, where the city was erected.
Baron Empain’s Palace: A Heliopolis Landmark
Baron Empain chose Alexander Marcel, a French architect, to build his residence, a Hindu style palace between 1907 and 1910. The Palace has now become a well-known landmark of Heliopolis and is visited by many.
The neighbourhood was also home to some of the wealthiest Egyptian residences. To the left of the Palace lies the Arabesque palace of Boghos and Marie Nubar Pasha. Opposite of the Palace, you’ll find the former residence of Sultan Hussein Kamel.
From the time of its inception, Heliopolis was home to the upper class of Egyptian citizens. After the 1952 Revolution, it became occupied by the wealthy and educated middle-class citizens. As the Egyptian capital grew and expanded, Heliopolis no longer remained outside of the city as an isolated suburb. It is now quite integrated within the borders of the city.
Another landmark is the Catholic Basilica church on Al-Ahram street where Baron Empain is actually buried. The area is quite religiously diverse as it includes Islamic mosques, the Saint-Rita church, and the Jewish Al Missalah Street synagogue.
The district was never short of places for entertainment as well. Heliopolis Club, alongside El Shams Club, remains as one of the most well-known sporting clubs in Egypt. It was established in 1905. It also has no shortage of modern cafes and restaurants, such as Harris, Starbucks, Cilantro, Costa Coffee, and Beanos, in addition to cinemas and major shopping malls.
Heliopolis also features some of the most luxurious hotels in Cairo, such as Fairmont Towers, Le Méridien, Novotel Cairo Airport, Sonesta Hotel and Casino, InterContinental Cairo Citystars, Holiday Inn Cairo Citystars, and The Baron Hotel.
Moreover, the importance of the district of Heliopolis lies in the fact that it houses many military headquarters. The Egyptian Military headquarters and the Egyptian Air Force headquarters are located there.
Additionally, the regional headquarters for the World Health Organisation and the Red Crescent are in Heliopolis. The Egyptian Republican Palace and the president’s office are also located in the district.