The magnificent church of the Basilique Notre Dame d’Héliopolis – Our Lady of Heliopolis, known simply as “The Basilique”, was last February the focus of a public outcry by the residents of the east Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, as well as everyone concerned with urban planning or heritage preservation. I wrote on the topic on 14 February 2021 under the title: “Basilique flyover: Sacrificing heritage to traffic?” The outcry was in response to a government plan to achieve traffic fluidity in areas normally choked with traffic. The plan involved widening existing roads and erecting new roads, flyovers, tunnels or whatever it took to solve the traffic problem. In Heliopolis, residents were astounded to discover that the plan to link main traffic axes would include a flyover that would cross over the Basilique and would alter a number of heritage roads in Heliopolis, the suburb built in 1905 – 1910 by Belgian financier and industrialist Baron Edouard Empain (1852 – 1929). According to a statement by Egypt’s Architects Association which strongly criticised the prospected flyover, “the Basilique flyover follows a path that encompasses buildings, villas, and churches which feature unique architectural styles designed by the Heliopolis Company in 1905 – 1910. It proceeds to the gem of Heliopolis, its most important square which houses the Basilique where Heliopolis founder Baron Edouard Empain (1852 – 1929) is buried. The church is surrounded by a wide garden and Moorish style buildings designed by the Heliopolis Company. The flyover then passes over al-Ahram Street the prominent landmarks of which include what used to be the 1920 Heliopolis Palace Hotel and is now the Etihadiya presidential palace. The final point of the path is the long-standing Heliopolis Sporting Club, also built in 1920.”
The public outcry led the government to backtrack on its plan; the flyover was never erected. Attention was drawn, however, to the Heliopolis gem of heritage and architecture: the Basilique. A hashtag that called for rejecting the flyover plan was named “no to basilique square bridge”. The splendid locality had been frequented by Heliopolis residents for years and years but was taken for granted till the threat posed to it mobilised everyone to protect it and ensure it remains unscathed.
In this issue of Watani, we print a story on “The Basilique, Heliopolis’s fleur-de-lis … a story of history”. Before I cite excerpts of the story, let me say that it brought to my mind a painful situation on the ground that has become common with our churches—and with many other beautiful buildings. In case of churches, the situation is the outcome of a ‘crisis’ of land shortage owing to years of near-impossibility of obtaining licence to build churches or affiliated buildings. Churches thus took to answering their need for more space to accommodate their services and activities by expanding inside their limited grounds, leading to new buildings crowding over the original church and robbing it of its aesthetic value. In 2016, however, Egypt got its first law for building churches, which should ease the situation. The loss of architectural aesthetics in the crowding of buildings in a small space should thus be avoided.
Back to the Basilique. The foundation stone of the Catholic cathedral was laid in 1911, building was completed in 1912, and it was consecrated in 1913 in the name of Notre Dame de Tongres, after a small church in Belgium where the Baron used to be an altar boy.
The church was designed by Alexandre Marcel, a French architect practising in Egypt at the time; the Baron asked him to create another Aya Sophia of Istanbul, but the reduction of scale to the fourth degree changed the perception of the overall proportions.
Throughout its history, the church received many prominent visitors. Elizabeth, Queen of Belgium, and Crown Prince Leopold attended Palm Sunday liturgy there on 25 March 1923; on 12 March 1930, King Leopold III and Queen Astrid of Belgium visited the church and descended to pay respects to Baron Empain who was buried in the crypt; on 27 February 1977, Crown Prince Albert paid a visit to the church; on 14 December 1975, French President and Mrs Valerie Giscard D’Estaing attended Sunday Mass there. On 14 January 1979, the Baron’s grandson Edouard Jean Empain attended Mass at the Basilique, and said a short prayer at his grandfather’s burial place.
The Basilique is not just another heritage building, it is the Heliopolis gem worth preserving.
29 October 2021