One of the most attractive and exciting neighbourhoods in Cairo, and perhaps Egypt, is Korba, located in the Heliopolis district. Built as a sanctuary for wealthy foreigners and aristocrats, the earliest development of Heliopolis was in the Korba neighbourhood during the early 20th century. Though modern-day Heliopolis has spread far beyond the limits of Korba, Korba remains its cultural centre. Modern-day Korba is a quaint shopping district that boasts original architecture, fascinating cultural sites as well as some of Cairo’s finest cafés and restaurants.
Korba is internationally renowned for its architecture. The unique architectural design, commissioned by Belgian Baron Empain, combines Islamic and art-deco styles. The elegant balconies and spacious European-style sidewalks are located amidst buildings of stylised decorative patterns, emulating the arabesque architectural tradition. Circular domes also crown several of the buildings, enforcing the influence of Islamic architecture.
These styles unite further in their mutual regard for geometric shapes. Columns, windows, domes and even air conditioning unit covers follow a visually balanced ratio of shapes that lends an elegant, functional and glamorous feel to the city. The heart of Korba is a walkable neighbourhood of shops with antique francophone signs surrounded by villas, as well as old apartment buildings with tremendous allure and architectural integrity.
In 2005, for the neighbourhood’s centennial anniversary, several buildings underwent major renovation. There are still stringent laws about how the original architecture of the building or foundation cannot be altered. This has allowed for the neighbourhood to maintain a strong, cohesive visual narrative. Korba was recently beautifully captured on film in Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla’s feature film Heliopolis, as well as in the Canadian film Cairo Time.
History & Sites
In 1907, Belgian Baron Empain began building modern-day Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb that he envisioned would attract the residence of wealthy aristocrats and encourage affluent foreigners to visit for the day; entertaining themselves in parks, restaurants and shops. A tram connecting Korba to Ramsis Square , which is still operating today, facilitated transportation to the wealthy suburb.
Located on Orouba Street , the Baron Palace is the former residence of Baron Empain. The Palace was designed by French architect Alexandre Marcel and was modelled after two Hindu temples in Cambodia and India . Unfortunately, the palace is not currently open to the public, but it can be viewed from the street, and especially from the side-street that faces the building’s rear.
The Basilica of Notre Dame, a Catholic church on Al Ahram Street, was commissioned by the Baron and is modelled after the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul . It’s also where the Baron was buried in 1929. Other antiquated places of worship include Saint Maron and Saint Rita church on Beirut Street as well as a Jewish synagogue on Al Missalah Street. Many contemporary mosques lie on the outskirts of Korba, alluding to the once harmonious fusion of the three Abrahamic faiths in the neighbourhood.
Dining & Nightlife
Korba is famous in Cairo for its dining scene. If the weather is nice, head to Le Chantilly to enjoy their outdoor garden space while you snack on their delicious fondue and other Swiss delicacies. Don’t miss the opportunity to try their delectable sweet dessert profiterole suchard.
There are also several recommended cafés, including Harris Café, a quaint place ideal for meeting up with friends or enjoying a light lunch. Don’t miss a visit to L’Amphitrion if you’re in Korba. As old as Heliopolis itself, this restaurant was once a social hall for soldiers during WWII, as well as a hip hangout for rich aristocrats and Mediterranean expats. One of Heliopolis’ popular bars Deals is also located in Korba. This bar is great for an intimate gathering with friends or a football match– and the prices are reasonable too!
But if all of this sounds too shi-shi foo-foo for you , and you’d rather kick it baladi-style, Korba’s got that too. Whether it’s Ahwet el Sawaisa or Koshary Hind, Korba also delivers up Heliopolis’ cheaper eats and hangouts.
Korba Street Festival
Since its centennial anniversary and major renovation in 2005, Korba has been holding annual street fairs on Baghdad Street. The festival takes place in May, before Cairo ’s heat becomes unbearable.
The festival lasts the whole day from 10AM to 10PM, and includes a parade, live music and various food vendors with interesting international food and homemade crafts. There are also paints and chalks available for children to play with. In previous years, Egyptian bands like Wust El Balad performed and there have been puppet shows featuring songs by Om Kalthoum. Unfortunately, the Korba Street Festival was cancelled in 2010 for unknown reasons.
If you’re looking for a fun activity for a free Friday afternoon, have a walk around Korba. You’re sure to fall in love with its beautiful architecture, trendy shops and great eateries.