By Hatem Maher, ABC News
(CAIRO) — Mysteries and superstitious tales surrounding an Indian-style mansion in an upscale Cairo district have finally been put to bed as the 109-year-old palace opened to visitors for the first time on Tuesday following an $11 million restoration project.
Named after the millionaire Belgian industrialist who was its original owner, the neglected Baron Empain Palace was rumored to be home to ghosts, with occasional tales of lights flashing inside.
Also common were rumors of hidden tunnels and a rotating tower that offered a 360-degree view of the surrounding area and allowed the palace to be exposed to constant sunlight.
The truth is that the run-down palace was only sheltering stray dogs and cats as well as the occasional vandal and looter. It was in an advanced state of decay.
“Talks of ghosts and similar stuff are nonsense,” Abou Rami, a doorman at a nearby residential building who has been living in the area for over 20 years, told ABC News. “Such rumors were spread by people who are not residents of Heliopolis; it’s always calm here. Such things are always said of neglected places.”
Baron Edouard Louis Joseph Empain, a famed businessman credited with the construction of the Paris metro in the late 19th century, resided in the palace he built in 1911 before developing the surrounding area from a sprawling desert into what is now known as Heliopolis, an upscale east Cairo neighborhood.
The two-story mansion, designed by French architect Alexandre Marcel and made from reinforced concrete, was modeled on Hindu-style temples, with its exterior adorned by statues of Hindu and Buddhist legends and elephants.
Visitors who entered the castle for the first time Tuesday were bursting with excitement as they roamed around, posing for photographs and inspecting the palace’s interiors as well as its vast roof that used to host Empain’s parties.
“I pass by the palace every day on my way to work,” 35-year-old engineer Ahmed Sobhi said, grinning cheerfully. “I always wanted to get inside, especially given the mysterious nature of this place.”
In the 1950s, the palace was sold by the Empain family in a public auction then fell into disrepair. For decades afterwards, it was sparsely used for social events, with some horror films also being shot there. Egypt’s housing ministry bought the palace in 2005 in exchange for granting its foreign owners a plot of land further east, before the armed forces’ engineering authority embarked on a restoration project in mid-2017.
Restoration included repairing the palace’s decayed ceiling slabs, filling and stitching cracks in the walls, replanting its lush gardens and repainting the building to its old copper red color.
It was the repainting that stirred hot debates in Egypt last year, with some claiming that the palace had deviated from its original appearance. However, the country’s antiquities ministry insisted it had reviewed Marcel’s original documents of the building’s design to make sure there were no irregularities in the restoration.
The ministry also said the palace’s grayish color was the result of erosion and weather damage over the years.
The palace was due to be opened earlier this year but its opening was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, visitors were required to wear face masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines before entering the building.
Egyptian officials hope the Baron Palace’s opening and other recent major discoveries will lure back tourists as the country gears up for the resumption of international flights in July.
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