Egypt to Restore the 'Haunted' Remains of the Baron's Palace

Times Staff Writer

The decades have done their work. Cavernous and crumbling, the Baron's Palace is the sort of place where dreams go to die and ghost stories linger.

The nearly 100-year-old landmark mansion, a wild flight of architectural fancy, through the years has sunk into a pitiful state. Carved with stone snakes, elephants and dragons, the one-time home of a famed Belgian businessman has become a hopelessly neglected eyesore clinging to memories of better times in the Egyptian capital's most exclusive neighborhood.

The stone structure still stands solid, but vandals and looters have knocked the heads and breasts off sculptures, stripped away the mirrors and marble, and scrawled the walls with swastikas and pentagrams.

Generations of teens have paid guards a dollar or two to slip inside, drink and debauch. The chambers became shooting galleries for displaced drug addicts. Strange lights flickered late at night; wild stories poured from the structure's aging body.

The haunted house is something of a cross-cultural phenomenon: In towns all over the world, aging and neglected buildings become receptacles for collective fears and neuroses.

The Baron's Palace is no exception. People in Cairo say the ruins are haunted. Urban legend hangs from its crumbling arches. Some of the tales have a germ of truth; most do not.

They say the Belgian baron who built the house had a beautiful daughter whom he imprisoned. (He didn't.) They say her spirit still walks the corridors. Then there was the satanic cult that many Egyptians aver took over the basement chambers to skin cats, drink rats' blood and hold orgies.

"People would see flashlights and say there were ghosts, but there were no ghosts," said Ola Shoushan, a 54-year-old who lives in a gated villa across from the palace. "We are the ghosts, not them."

This decadent hulk of stone has been a long-standing provocation, a source of annoyance and dismay among Egypt's architects and historians. In its prime, it was considered a strange and singular architectural treasure, but has degenerated visibly on one of the busiest roads in town.

Nobody goes from downtown Cairo to the airport without driving past its sorrowful frame. For decades there was no saving it, because it fell into the hands of Saudis who wanted to sell it for a reported $50 million -- until now.

The stalemate came to an end this spring. In a campaign spearheaded by first lady Suzanne Mubarak, the Egyptian government finally managed to wrest the palace away from its foreign owners, reimbursing them with another chunk of land in the Cairo suburbs.

At last, resurrection of the Baron's Palace is underway, but there's a long way to go. Workmen began this month by hauling off the sand that has flooded the long-since-eroded gardens. They dug trenches to irrigate the dead gardens and planted palm trees. They made their way tentatively up dilapidated stairwells, past the graffiti reading "evil evil ghost of death" and into rooms smeared with bat dung.

The mansion was culled from the flights of fancy in 1907, when the iconic Belgian adventurer, Baron Edouard Louis Joseph Empain, built his strange dream home. The weirdly wrought, neo-Hindu palace must have seemed like a mirage when it appeared on what were then the desert fringes of Cairo.

"I call it Walt Disney architecture," said Yehya El Zeini, chairman of architecture at Egypt's Supreme Council of Culture. "Pure fantasy."

Lush gardens climbed the terraces to the front door. Erotic statues were nestled among the flowers and clustered on the roof. Elaborate parties and dances were staged. That was before the palace was sold at auction, before it was stuck in limbo and left for looters to sack.

The palace restoration is pegged to the 100-year anniversary of Heliopolis, this most elite of elite suburbs, home to much of Egypt's ruling class. It was the Baron Empain who founded Heliopolis when he pushed quixotically northeast into these desert wastes to create a city linked by tram to downtown Cairo.

At the time, the idea was novel. Cairo sprawled into the fertile lands along the Nile, not out into the empty sands. But the baron, judging from his stone animal-encrusted house, was a man of original vision.

The city he invented has now become synonymous with power in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak lives less than a mile from the Baron's Palace. Military intelligence headquarters stands around the corner. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's villa is down the street.

Amid the swank and swagger, the Baron's Palace is an anachronistic reminder of a Cairo that has since been swallowed up by a honking, sweating, dust-choked metropolis. The palace has come to resemble some toothless and moth-eaten countess, its faded glories rising from a field of trash and sand.

Living next to the faded lady has had its disadvantages. Gardeners working for neighbor Shoushan found empty syringes in the bushes. Stray dogs and cats roamed its shadows. Great billows of dust rose from the dried gardens, enveloping the neighborhood.

"To see it as dirty as it was, it was very depressing," Shoushan said. "But if you discard all the rubbish around it and just look at the palace itself, it's just beautiful."

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