Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Concrete against history

If rumours about the fate of Cairo’s Agricultural Museum are true, it would be travesty and offence against the civilisational history of Egypt, writes Mohamed Salmawy

How accurate are the disturbing rumours being circulated by residents in the vicinity of the Agricultural Museum in Dokki? Is it true that the Ministry of Agriculture has announced that it has earmarked LE22 million to turn the agricultural land in the museum compound into a parking lot complex with cafeterias, shops and recreational centres? If so, then we are speaking of no less than a crime against nature, against Egyptian civilisational history, and against public monies.

The government has recently scored a major achievement in its recuperation of thousands of acres of state land that had been purloined by a number of private citizens. True, there were a number of mistakes made in the process, but the president has acknowledged this, which means that similar mistakes will be avoided. But the point here is what do we say about the government when the victim is the public purse?

The Egyptian Agricultural Museum, which should be celebrating its 80th anniversary next year, is the oldest agricultural museum in the world. This is only natural since, after all, Egypt is the country that invented agriculture. It tamed the land on the banks of the Nile and established one of the oldest agrarian civilisations in human history. During the monarchical period, the government realised the unique value of our agricultural history and decided to dedicate a museum to it. Princess Fatma, the daughter of the Khedive Ismail, donated her private palace for the purpose and the director of the Hungarian Agricultural Academy was brought over from Budapest to supervise the project and ensure that it incorporated the latest museum technologies of the time. Ivan Nagi became the first director of the museum when it was opened in 1938.

This unique museum is situated inside a garden stretching across about 30 acres. Unfortunately, just as usurpers of state land set their sights on large tracks of property to parcel up into plots and sell to those who specialise in turning fertile agricultural land into cement blocks, it appears that the ministry has been tempted to encroach on that extensive garden, which is the property of the people, in order to build “cafeterias and recreational centres” and to “give the initiative to businessmen to turn the empty spaces into restaurants and shops along the lines of what is happening in Europe,” as a ministry official told the press.

No, this is not what is happening in Europe, my good sirs. If you knew what was happening there then you would know how important it is to preserve verdant nature from the onslaught of reinforced concrete, how to protect history from the attempts to efface its landmarks and monuments, and how to safeguard public monies from those bent on usurping local green lungs in order to turn them into shopping centres so they can rake in profits.

The establishment that we call the Agricultural Museum is actually seven museums spread across several buildings. Princess Fatma Ismail’s palace serves as the main building and it now houses a museum dedicated to the history of Egyptian animal husbandry. Visitors can view display after display of mummified animals, some species of which are now extinct. Another museum is devoted to Egypt’s agricultural and plant wealth, and yet another specialises in cotton, the “white gold” for which Egypt had acquired international renown and which also appears to be on its way to extinction. Also in that amazing complex is a museum dedicated to works of art that depict the rural environment, some of which have been painted by world famous artists.

Does it seem right to turn the land surrounding this historic museum complex into a shopping and entertainment centre? To me it seems like a flagrant abuse by the government of public funds and an assault against the nature of the place and against the history of our country.

To whom can we appeal in order to halt this aggression being undertaken by our own government? In the not too remote past, we had a special park known as Azbekiya Gardens in which one meandered beneath towering trees and alongside charming ponds. It has since become a cement jungle. We also had the Orman Gardens rich with the fragrances of a plethora of old and rare species of trees and plants. After the 30 June Revolution, this park was invaded by the hordes of ignorants who had no ability to appreciate the value of their surroundings and who trampled on and uprooted plants and sawed of limbs of rare trees in order to use as firewood to cook tea. Those people, who fought against the revolution of the Egyptian people, operated on the basis of the byword, “to hell with Egypt”. But what is the Ministry of Agriculture’s excuse? I would have thought that the job of this ministry is to breathe new life into our parks and gardens, which have suffered from years of neglect.

The Agricultural Museum contains, for example, preserved samples of ancient Egyptian plants that are now extinct. As for the lotus, a symbol of ancient Egypt, it is nearing extinction. Has it occurred to the Ministry of Agriculture to turn some parts the museum gardens into small farms dedicated to reviving strains of plants that no longer exist, perhaps by means of cloning or cross fertilising using genetic material derived from some of the preserved samples in the museum? Now that would be “along the lines of what is happening in Europe”. This way our garden could be transformed into a beautiful oasis featuring authentic Egyptian plants and flowers and, perhaps as well, Egyptian birds and other types of animals that are at risk of disappearing from our desert habitats. Such a project would be much more in keeping with the cultural and historic function of the museum than a parking lot with shops and fast food joints. In fact, what harm would come from merely turning that area into a large park in our capital city that is unique among world capitals for its lack of public parks and gardens, which is to say the green lungs that help refresh the polluted air its inhabitants breathe?

The parking lot project is a continuation of that mushrooming of ugliness in our urban environment during recent decades. I happen to know that it is not the idea of the current minister. The project actually began under the previous government but ground to a halt thanks to resistance on the part of residents of the area. However, apparently, when the new minister was brought in certain parties with an interest in that project decided to persuade him to revive it, arguing that it would earn the ministry money. But why should the proper utilisation of the garden not offer just as good an opportunity to generate the revenues the ministry needs? In fact, we have a model to draw on: the Pharaonic Village created by Hassan Ragab on the banks of the Nile that soon became a tourist attraction that generated much more income than any asphalt parking lot could. The Pharaonic Village also became an educational and cultural landmark for schoolchildren.

Surely it would be more appropriate for the ministry responsible for agriculture in Egypt to take the lead in initiating and promoting the types of projects that profile our country’s history and civilisation, along the lines of what they do in Europe?

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