I was excited to read news reports earlier this year that in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall the palace his administration has occupied since the early 1980s was to be returned to its original use as a hotel. This is the former Heliopolis Palace Hotel, which, so rumour at the time had it, was planned as a casino to rival Monte Carlo – until iron-fisted Lord Cromer, the British Consul-General and effective ruler of Egypt, said ‘No gambling’. Even without the gaming tables it still made the headlines on its opening on 1 December 1910 as one of the world’s largest hotels, with 400 rooms, 55 of which were suites. It had a main dome that soared 35 metres high and the basement service area was so extensive that a narrow-gauge railway was installed running the length of the hotel.
Which is all well and good but you do wonder whether anybody stopped to consider whether Heliopolis was really an appropriate setting for so much luxury accommodation. A new town in the desert, Heliopolis lay far to the north of central Cairo meaning that hotel guests were inconveniently distant from all the tourist sites and well out of the social circle that was one of the main attractions of the Cairo hotel scene. Little surprise that the Palace never recovered from the crash in tourism brought on by the swift one-two of World War II and the 1952 Revolution. Proximity to the airport helped for a while and the hotel was kept busy with over-nighting cabin crew (several airlines also had their offices here) but the last room key was returned in 1958. The following year the building was converted into offices for civil servants. Soon after Mubarak became president in 1981, the Palace became the headquarters of the new presidential administration. So, happy as I was that the public might soon have a chance to venture where formerly only Mubarak’s minions could go, I was also sceptical to say the least. Sure enough, it turns out that the news reports got it wrong; a contact at the department responsible for Egypt’s hotels and tourism told me the comment about the Heliopolis Palace becoming a hotel once more was only a joke and was misreported.