Tag Archives: Heliopolis

An early aviation meet

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I bought the wonderful poster that in a slightly Photoshopped form features on the cover of Grand Hotels of Egypt from an auction house in New York. I’ve been on its mailing list ever since. The latest online catalogue pinged into my inbox yesterday and one of the items in a forthcoming 25 February sale caught my eye (see above). According to the catalogue description it is a poster promoting the first aviation meet held in Africa, which was organized by Baron Édouard Empain and took place at Heliopolis. This poster doesn’t include the date, but it was 6–13 February 1910. In other words, just seven years after the historic Wright Brothers flight that marked the birth of powered aviation.

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For the purpose of the meet an Egyptian Aero Club was created, and the event was also supported by the Automobile Club of Egypt, the Egyptian Tourism Association and the French Ligue National Aérienne. The head of the organising committee was Prince Ahmed Fouad, who would in 1922 become King Fouad I. A five-kilometre course was laid out in the desert, overlooked by two grandstands, and 12 pilots and 18 planes were entered in the competition. The flyers arrived by ship from France. Several had their planes damaged en route. Among the pilots was the Baroness Raymonde de Laroche, real name Élise Deroche, and the first woman ever to enter an aviation meeting. A total prize fund of 212,000 francs was raised for what would be several days of competitions for distance, speed and altitude. One of the events was the Prix Boghos Pacha Nubar, offering 10,000 francs for a flight from Heliopolis around the Cheops pyramid and back.

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The organising committee for the meet

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One of the flyers and the Heliopolis meet

The official opening day was Sunday 6 February, a perfect day for flying with a clear sky and no wind. Several pilots went up and made test hops. One landing caused a horse to take fright and it ran over a Mr Tarihaki, who had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Flying was a new and enormous novelty and the first day of the event drew 40,000 people. The following days were a bit hit and miss: at this time the planes were little more than string and canvas, and any bad weather meant they stayed grounded. One day’s flying was cancelled because of a sandstorm, while heavy winds on another day caused the race to the Pyramids to be called off. Mechanical mishaps and crashes – one pilot crashed four times – kept other aircraft grounded but at least there were no deaths (death being a common occupational hazard for early aviators). You can find out more about the meet here.

As for the poster, it was painted by French artist Marguerite Montaut, who was the wife of a famous French automobile illustrator Ernest Montaut. She specialised in aviation subjects, which she sometimes painted under the pseudonym Gamy, an anagram of her nickname Magy. Here’s some more of her work:

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Vedrines flying his 'Borel' monoplane, c 1911.

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The Heliopolis poster is being sold by Poster Auctions International of New York; the estimate is $1,200 to $1,500, which strikes me as very reasonable given its rarity and historical significance, not to mention its beauty.

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Nights at the palace

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I’ve just written a story on the Baron’s Palace for Eight, a magazine that is distributed through the Dusit Thani hotels. The editors asked if I could contribute something from Cairo on a theme of myths and legends. I was tempted to write about Lord Carnarvon’s tragic end in a room at the Continental-Savoy, or about the well in the courtyard of the Gayer-Anderson house that leads down to the domain of Sultan al-Watawit (the Sultan of the Bats), but I’ve always had a fascination with the Baron’s Palace, a building with more than its share of tall tales. Back in the late 1980s, when I worked up in Heliopolis for a spell, I used to make nocturnal visits to the palace with friends. As I write in the story, there was only an old watchman as security. He occupied a small wooden hut the size of a garden shed, over on the north side of the grounds, towards the Airport Road. If you approached from the southeast, the bulk of the palace was between you and him and, unless he was out on patrol, which was rare, you wouldn’t be seen. The fence was just barbed wire and easily slipped through. Then it was just a quick dash of a couple of hundred metres across the hard, dry ground to the sheltering shadow of the building.

It was easy enough to get in. Somebody had already removed one of the boards covering a window at lower-ground level. You crouched down, squeezed through and dropped. That was scary – it was a short drop but you landed in the pitch black. We never thought to bring a torch. After a few minutes, your eyes adjusted a little bit and then you could make out a doorway across the room, but you still couldn’t see where you were stepping and we were always afraid of snakes. You went out into an equally dark corridor at the end of which were some stairs. As you went up, there were some windows, which the moon just about strained through.

64.	 Baron Palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, 2011

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The light didn’t penetrate far. We could just make out that the rooms and halls on this, the ground floor, were completely empty except for filthy rags, crumpled newspapers and the sort of garbage, covered by a solid layer of dust, that suggested hobos had at some point long ago sheltered here. Once we braved the darkness of a corridor only to trigger a squealing whirlwind as a colony of bats loosed itself from the ceiling and swarmed us. After that we just stuck to the stairs and directed our explorations upwards.

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There were only two floors above basement level but the staircase continued up into the tower, splitting in two, curving in two directions around the walls. Where they rejoined, one narrow, ladder-like flight extended out across the void to an upper gallery. We once took a few steps on it but our nerve wouldn’t take us any further. Instead, we found a door that exited to the roof and there we used to hang out, larking around and looking over at the nightlights of Cairo in the company of stone-carved temple dancers, dragons and elephant gods.

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The rest of my story deals with the various legends associated with the palace, some of which are true – the son of the original builder did throw lavish parties and did marry a former burlesque dancer who used to appear naked except for a coat of gold paint – but most of which are not: the revolving sun room, the Satanist rituals, the suicides and ghosts. But you can hardly blame people for making up tales about the old palace – just look at it. Could you conceive of a better model for a haunted house?

I read recently that work was supposed to be beginning on the first phase of an architectural rescue of the building. As I haven’t been in Cairo for a little while now, I don’t know if this is happening. But as with all stories connected with the myth-shrouded Baron’s Palace, I will believe it when I see it.

All the photographs, by the way, are from Xenia Nikolskaya’s book Dust, which I have previously blogged about here.

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Mystery Heliopolis pics

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I have had the images above and below sitting on my hard drive for several years now. Obviously, they are the Baron’s Palace in Heliopolis, but that’s all I know. Who painted them and when? And why? And where do they come from?

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If anyone has any information on the origins of these paintings I would love to hear from you.

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Heliopolis, the Clapham Junction of the African skies

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By coincidence, shortly after I posted the pic of the flying boat in front of the Winter Palace (see the post before last), a piece appeared on the BBC News website by Gerald Butt, titled Frank McClean: Forgotten pioneer of the sky. It’s about an Irish aviator who in 1913 flew from Alexandria to Khartoum and back, a journey that took exactly three months thanks to no fewer than 13 breakdowns. The seaplane he flew had been built by the Short brothers of Derbyshire, England, founders of one of the earliest aircraft manufacturing companies. They would become particularly notable for their flying boats – that’s one of their’s in the Luxor photo.

As torturous as the flight was, it showed that by using rivers and lakes for landings, Africa could be traversed by aircraft without the expense of preparing airstrips. The eventual result was that in 1931 Imperial Airways introduced a weekly England-to-Central Africa service. Egypt became a key stopover.

Butt writes: ‘Cairo became synonymous with all the glamour and luxury attached to the early years of commercial flight. As early as 1919, the head of civil aviation in Britain, Sir Frederick Sykes, had correctly predicted that “Egypt is likely to become one of the most important flying centres. It is on the direct route to India, to Australia, to New Zealand, while the most practicable route to the Cape and Central Africa is via Egypt.” A journalist the following year described Heliopolis as “the Clapham Junction of the Empire air routes”.’

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He goes on to describe how senior colonial civil servants would rest overnight in the grandeur of Shepheard’s. ‘The following morning, a launch would ferry passengers to the waiting Imperial Airways Empire flying boat and they would be regally wined and dined as the majestic airliner headed south.’

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Palace intrigue

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.

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