During the last century, Cairo’s northern suburbs swallowed up villages and farmland and expanded far into the desert to form a great arc of residential neighbourhoods stretching from the Nile to the Muqattam. Heliopolis, with its handsome boulevards and Art Deco villas, is still favoured above the satellite suburbs that have mushroomed in recent decades, and retains a sizeable foreign community.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the doubling of Cairo’s population and the exponential growth of its foreign community had created a huge demand for new accommodation, which fired the imagination of a Belgian entrepreneur, Baron Édouard Empain, itching for new projects after his successful construction of the Paris Metro. Baron Empain proposed creating a garden city in the desert, linked to the downtown area by tram: a venture attractive to investors since Empain’s company would collect both rents and fares from commuting residents of the new suburb, which was named Heliopolis after the ancient City of the Sun nearby in Matariyya. The suburb’s wide avenues were lined with apartment blocks ennobled by pale yellow Moorish facades and bisected by shrubbery. Wealthy Egyptians settled here from the beginning; merely prosperous ones moved in as foreigners left in droves during the 1950s. Heliopolis is known in Arabic as Masr al-Gadida (“New Cairo”).