From time immemorial, the ancient and mysterious Egyptian city of Heliopolis has fuelled the collective imagination of both East and West. But this 4,500-year-old city, located at the head of the Nile Delta, is more than just the stuff of dreams. Port of call for travellers in Antiquity, place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, and cradle of a complete new town founded at the beginning of the 20th century by captain of industry Édouard Empain, Heliopolis is now part of Cairo. Its present-day originality and dynamism derive from the dialogue between cultures of which it is an expression, making it one of the most remarkable districts of this great metropolis.
Iunu, the ancient Heliopolis, capital of the thirteenth nome (territorial division) of Lower Egypt, was the theological centre of the greatest sun temple of pharaonic times. Sited slightly north of the modern-day suburb that bears its name, Heliopolis was mentioned by Greek and Roman authors like Strabo, Diodorus of Sicily and Herodotus, and from medieval times by travellers from both East and West.
Westerners, accepting the tradition that the Holy Family sojourned at Materieh (al-Matarayah, in the vicinity of the ancient city) during their flight into Egypt, adopted it as a place of pilgrimage.
This was the fabulous setting that Édouard Empain, an enlightened Belgian banker and industrialist, who had already constructed the Paris Metro system, chose for his own amazing enterprise. His dream was to build a garden-city in the desert, grafted onto the conurbation of Cairo by a first-class public transport system. In 1905, he established a company under Egyptian law and acquired a 2,500-hectare tract of sand. To avoid building his New Heliopolis on the remains of the ancient city, he funded excavations which were directed by the Belgian Egyptologist Jean Capart. The following year, the new city was staked out and the work began with the basic infrastructure and a hotel worthy of the Thousand and One Nights. This was followed by arcaded boulevards, villa complexes and more modest districts, with a sprinkling of fine buildings designed by Belgian and French architects. But the enterprise was more than an attempt to export European living standards or to reinterpret Islamic tradition in a style somewhere between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The masterful planning of this ambitious project and the adoption of the latest construction techniques (reinforced concrete) had much in common with the new towns of the second half of the 20th century. For this reason, and because it proved to be a unique social experiment, Heliopolis is an exceptional aspect of our urban heritage.
Anne VAN LOO
Architect and town-planner with a doctorate in architecture. Specialist on the Modern Movement in Belgium. Scientific advisor then curator of the collections of the Modern Architecture Archives in Brussels (1980-1992). Secretary of the Royal Commission for the Monuments and Historic Sites of the Brussels Region. Scientific publications and editorial direction of the Dictionnaire de lArchitecture en Belgique de 1830 à nos jours (Fonds Mercator, 2003).
Archaeologist and art historian with a doctorate in Philosophy and Literature. Specialist in Egyptology. Scientific director of the Musée Royal de Mariemont. Guest lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain. Publications in the field of Egyptology, exhibition catalogues. Designer of exhibitions on ancient Egypt at Mariemont. Archaeological research in Alexandria (Smouha) in collaboration with the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities and the Centre for Alexandrian Studies.