Between a gracious past and a bloody present, a familiar and prominent Heliopolis landmark has witnessed history unfolding. From its official opening in 1910 as a key cornerstone of the newly founded city of Heliopolis (the city of the sun), a city conceived and executed by the Belgian industrialist Baron Edouard Empain with the assistance of Sultan Hassan, Sultana Malak and Boghos Nubar Pasha, springing up from the desert with its distinctive and eclectic architectural style, its visionary urban planning and its artery to the capital—the famous metro line. Two great architects, Ernest Jaspar and Alexandre Marcel, the masterminds behind Heliopolis’ other great buildings, designed the Heliopolis Palace Hotel. It was planned to be the biggest and grandest hotel in the world, and indeed with its 400 rooms, its sweeping staircases, domed dining rooms, marble columns, nearby golf course and horse race tracks, the hotel attracted an aristocratic international elite clientele. For Heliopolis residents, it was the place to see and to be seen. Some of today’s senior residents recount memories of going to the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, dressed in their finest, to sip tea on its magnificent terrace or to attend weddings and sumptuous feasts prepared by world renowned chefs.
With the advent of World War I and World War II, the hotel was temporarily used as a hospital, and then resumed its normal activities until 1958. The revolution of 1952 led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers had ousted Egypt’s King, declaring a socialist republic. The hotel’s days as a meeting place for the rich and famous were numbered. The government in 1958 nationalized the owning company and the Heliopolis Palace Hotel closed its doors as Egypt ushered in an era of wars and frugality, and it began to decay. In 1961 the hotel was fenced off from the city of Heliopolis and used as government offices. It became the headquarters of the failed experiment, the union between Egypt, Libya and Syria, hence one of its popular titles as the “Itithadiya” roughly translated as the “Union.”
In 1981, after undergoing extensive renovation and restoration, the building was turned into the administrative premises of the President of Egypt, and continues to serve this function till today. During former President Hosni Mubarak’s time, the Palace was well guarded, cars were not allowed to park anywhere around its perimeter, and the president’s goings and comings were very discreet going mostly unnoticed.
Standing firm and grand, the Itihadiya or the Presidential Palace witnessed yet another peaceful revolution on January 25, 2011. Following President Mohamed Morsi’s election, it became the site of vocal demonstrators and small crowds of people coming to present their complaints and appeals to the President. This peace was dramatically shattered on Wednesday 5th December 2012, when peaceful protests turned violent and bloody clashes between supporters and detractors left several people dead and hundreds injured. Today, the gracious tree lined boulevards surrounding the Presidency are filled with barbed wire, torn up sidewalks, stones, the inevitable batata (sweet potatoes) and tea vendors as protesters camp out and gird themselves for a long stand-off that they feel will define the future of Egypt.
In 2010, Steven Vanackere, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Belgium described Heliopolis (Masr el Gadida) as a meeting place for the cultures of the East and West. In his words, “The moment of grace that Heliopolis embodies arose from its urge towards cosmopolitanism, and from the men and women from many different backgrounds who came together to build a place of freedom.”
My wish for Egypt is that we come together once again, powerful in our diversity, united by our common humanity.