I realise I haven’t written much – if anything – about my new place, and the point of this blog was to get a bit up close and personal, unlike my newspaper articles. So: I now live in Heliopolis, as the foreigners call it. The locals call it Misr el Gedida, or New Egypt. The ancient Greeks, if they read the name, would have translated it as ‘Sun City’.
I saw some photos from the turn of the century, and this area wasn’t much more than fields. Then – and I admit freely to paraphrasing liberally from my Lonely Planet amongst other sources – a cashed-up Belgian industrialist, Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Empain, built his desert city 10km from Cairo in the early 1910s. It was a planned city, though walking around it today, you could dispute that, judging by the amount of times you’ll get lost and the inaccuracy of the maps. But then, hey, people get lost in Canberra, too.
There are some notable landmarks here, the most striking being the Baron’s palace. He went all Asian and had built a Hindu palace (see the pic) by French architect Alexander Marcel. It is visible when you drive to and from the airport. So there you are expecting Pyramids and Sphinxes, and the first and last thing you see in Egypt is a palace littered with statues of the elephant god Ganesh and Hindi dancing girls.
Apparently it is hugely haunted, and has underground tunnels leading to the nearby Catholic basilica, and was the site of satanic rituals in the 1990s. The Lonely Planet explains – “The fantastical look of the place contributed to a citywide panic in 1997 about ‘Satanists’ allegedly holding rituals here – turned out there were a bunch of upper-class teenage heavy-metal fans.”
I mentioned to an unnamed (of course) Cairo friend who was delighted to learn that his antics of smoking hash and listening to Metallica there has made it into the global guidebook. It still is a creepy, though absolutely striking, memorial. The Baron is now interred in the basilica.
Nearby is Hosni’s House – aka home of the Egyptain president and dynasty builder, Hosni Mubarak. There’s also a swathe of military headquarters, which led to Heliopolis being bombed when Egypt was at war with Israel.
Going back a little earlier, the elegant, old Amphitrion cafe was a drinking spot for Allied soldiers in both world wars and there are more than 4000 British Indian Army soldiers buried in the Heliopolis War Cemetery.
There are such cute streetnames as Cleopatra Street, some of the city’s most beautiful turn-of-the-century villas and still a few formal gardens, such as the one near my apartment, have not yet been built on top of.
But the most striiking architecture is the row of white Moorish buildings along the chic Baghdad and Al-Ahram streets. Divine, many look like they’re ready for condemnation, human habitation indicated only by a rusting satellite dish. But Heliopolis is once again on the rise, with KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut built into these beautiful buildings’ ground floors, a flush of tiny, artisan handcraft shops dealing in jewellery, leather and antiques, and the sight of more than one beautifully kept balcony up on high, indicating the true wealth of the suburb.