Heliopolis: from Desert to Unique Suburb of Cairo

It is hard to imagine that Heliopolis was only desert in the year 1900. Postcards and photos from the beginning of construction in the area show how desolate it was initially. The area quickly grew into one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations, thanks to wise planning and good marketing.


In 1906 the ‘Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company’ was founded, with the Belgian baron Edouard Empain and the Egyptian statesman Boghos Pascha Nubar as the main driving forces. Baron Empain had made himself a fortune in Belgian Congo. Boghos Pascha was the son of the powerful Nubar, minister in the government of Ismail Pascha.

The founders of the company were interested in electric railways, but mainly as a tool for creating access to the magnificent piece of desert they had bought, ten kilometers northeast of Cairo. In those days, you had to be a visionary to think that Heliopolis could ever become a neighborhood for the wealthiest Egyptians and foreigners.  

The name for the empty piece of desert, Heliopolis, was chosen for public relational value; the actual pharaonic Heliopolis, the city of the sun-god On, is the area that is nowadays called Matareya.   

Baron Empain was a shrewd businessman. Even before he setup his company for developing the area, he made sure that one of the most luxurious hotels in the world of those days would be built at the heart of his development scheme, the glorious Heliopolis Palace Hotel, now the presidential Ittihadeya Palace. And the hotel and its surroundings were well advertised by the postcards from Heliopolis, produced for the first visitors to tell their families back in Europe that all  was okay. 

In 1909 Heliopolis got its own post office, just outside the hotel. This post office still exists in the same location, in Post Street, off Baghad Street (which was originally called Ismail Street). It is great fun (for me) to collect mementos of the good old days: postcards, photos, maps, postage stamps and mail sent out from or received at this post office.   

Another great way to attract initial residents to Heliopolis was the astounding architecture of the first villas. The Luna Park, the race course (now Maryland), the Heliopolis Club and the amazing Roman Catholic Basilica and other churches made Heliopolis an attractive place for Greeks, Italians, Brits, and yes, even for some Egyptians.  

The Luna Park had a few nice attractions like a water slide. And, rather hard to imagine, there was an ice skating rink in Heliopolis, beside the Luna Park. The Luna Park has made way for modernity (read, ugly apartment buildings). And many of the great villas of the early days have also been torn down of the sake of a good profit. The Korba area, however, still stands as a memory of those glorious early years of Heliopolis.  

In 1910, Heliopolis got some great international PR by the air show that was organized in the area around what is now Midan Higaz. That area was desert in 1910, and it was the perfect center for a large airfield that was created for this air show.  The most famous pilots with their tiny airplanes came to Egypt to show off their flying skills. They stayed in the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, where else?

One of the first villas in Heliopolis was the one for Baron Empain himself. Anyone driving over Orouba Road has seen the strange ‘hindu palace’ where Empain used to live. Not far to the south on Orouba Road is the large villa that used to be owned by Boghos Pascha Nubar. As co-developers of the area and as friends they wanted to live beside each other. In the early days, there was a straight road from the Hindu Palace of Empain to the basilica where Empain lays buried. He died in 1929.

World War I had great impact on Heliopolis. The Royal Air Force descended on the Almaza airfield. The British army also sequestered the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, the ice rink and made the Heliopolis Club their hospital for thousands and thousands of wounded soldiers, mostly Australians, came from Gallipoli and other places to be treated. 

After the Great War life returned to normal, and Heliopolis continued to grow into the unique suburb of Cairo that has never really lost its liberal and mundane flavor. Even today, the people of Heliopolis, especially those in the area of the Korba, speak semi-jokingly about their neighborhood as the Gumhuriyat el-Masr el-Gadida, the Republic of Heliopolis.    


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