Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Rejuvenation of a green epoch

Cairo’s historic parks and gardens are at last set for regeneration after long years of neglect, writes Gihan Shahine

Al-Azbakiya gardens remain the only green lung in a highly-congested area

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things

From God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins


There is, perhaps, no better testimony of how nature’s “dearest freshness” still lives “deep down things” than that offered by Cairo’s historic parks and gardens.

A hike around what’s left of many of Egypt’s historic gardens may be a poignant experience for those who lived during their heyday or have seen old pictures of their picturesque landscapes. But, for the careful observer, walking among the surviving rare, sometimes giant, trees of those parks and down what’s left of their lanes can somehow turn a stroll into a blissful journey into the past and an experience full of inspiration and hope for a better life for the future.

Indeed, as a book entitled Illustrated History of Landscape Design suggests, “gardens and landscapes of the past serve as an endless source of possibility and inspiration.” In the case of Cairo, the historic parks remain full of a potential that, if rightly restored and managed, could change the face of the city. This may happen soon if current government plans to preserve and restore Egypt’s urban green spaces go as scheduled.

“In a historical city like Cairo, layers of history are illustrated in parks and gardens,” noted a 2016 study entitled Egyptian Historical Parks: Authenticity vs Change in Cairo’s Cultural Landscapes by architect Nourhan Abdel-Rahman. “With resourceful and directed management, these spaces could dramatically change the view of Cairo as a suffocating, dense urban tissue to a more perforated and engaging urban experience for its community,” Abdel-Rahman wrote.

Going to one of Cairo’s most ancient parks in central Cairo’s densely-populated Al-Azbakiya district is not smooth sailing, as one has to wade through heavy traffic and an arsenal of street vendors. The Al-Azbakiya Gardens, previously a premier public garden, are hardly popular in the area either as they have lost much of their former glory and more than 60 per cent of their original area.

Al-Azbakiya gardens’ former picturesque landscape

Located between the crowded Ataba and Opera Squares in the downtown district, the Gardens are the only green lung in the traffic-congested area. They have enormously suffered under the onslaught of long years of neglect and surrounding urbanisation. Modern concrete structures have encroached on the gardens, including the ugly multi-storey garage built on the site of the Opera House built by the khedive Ismail in 1869 and gutted by fire in 1971 and the new subway line which started in 2007.

But once inside the gardens, a sense of serenity reigns as one listens to the silence and the sound of birds while feasting the eyes at the sight of budding spring flowers.

“We come all the way here to relax after work,” said Aya, an 18-year-old hairdresser living in the densely populated area of Al-Haram. Her sister, Israa, nodded in approval, while their youngest seven-year-old sister was smiling and shaking her legs in bliss. “We just love the place and feel at ease among the trees,” Aya went on. “Gardens are as important as houses and infrastructure. They cannot just be compromised. Come share our bench,” she said invitingly.

Many of the gardens’ benches were broken, while dead leaves and poorly maintained grass filled the passages. But that seemed hardly to dissuade dating lovers from camping on the grass to enjoy a lazy Saturday afternoon.

The Orman gardens

“Do you like the Al-Azbakiya Gardens,” a voice suddenly asked as I was indulging in a serene walk round. The voice belonged to one of the gardens’ security guards who volunteered to explain. “I noticed you are the only one here contemplating the gardens. Most of our visitors are dating lovers who couldn’t care less about this botanical treasure.”

    We stand at the foot of a 400-year-old gigantic tree that remains standing in its majesty. Soon the fading rays of the late afternoon sunshine peep through the long palm trees, reflecting beautifully from the gardens’ historic grotto where a rare collection of botanical species once nodded to the tunes of concerts thrown by legendary singer Um Kalthoum.

The subway construction nearby, however, makes it hard to contemplate the beautiful historical fountain now registered as a national monument and cordoned off for protection. Sitting in the other side of the gardens overlooking Opera Square allows visitors a view of the statue of Ibrahim Pasha built by French sculpture Charles Cordier in 1872. I paused for a minute: the statue seemed to be gazing in majesty from afar, as if in reminiscence of the good old days.

The Al-Azbakiya Gardens date back to 1837 and were named after the Mameluke emir Azbak who built the area as a private garden with a small lake. They were redesigned several times and became Cairo’s first modern-era public gardens and the city’s premier gardens and cultural hub in the 1860s under the rule of the khedive Ismail.

The Giza Zoo, built by Khedive Tawfik in 1890, lost much of its area and past glory

“The design of the gardens followed the example of the Parc Monceau in Paris,” says a 2015 Masters thesis entitled “Architectural Identity in Contemporary Cairo” by researcher Mohamed Rashed. “They contained a grotto where waterfalls cascaded into a small pond in the middle of the gardens. Pathways between lawns were planted with flowers. Belvederes were built to provide a panoramic view of Cairo. There were several shops and booths, including for photography, tobacco, toys, shooting galleries, and even a Chinese pavilion.”

The gardens remained a premier recreational destination in the 1950s when concerts were held in them and the surrounding area hosted the oldest book market in the city.


IN MEMORY OF A GREEN EPOCH: “It is often when high-quality buildings and green spaces occur together that special ‘gems’ of the townscape are created,” a 2002 study by the University of Sheffield in the UK suggested.

That was also probably the concept behind the 1860s euphoria when khedive Ismail went on a spending spree in pursuit of his dream of “an Egyptian empire in Northeast Africa and of Cairo as the Paris on the Nile,” according to Rashed. In fact, most studies show that nearly all the city’s parks and gardens were established in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which corresponds to the era when the former ruling Mohamed Ali Pasha family sat on the throne in Egypt.

The Giza Zoo

Rashed describes how Ismail spent “heavily on the services of renowned European designers such as Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps, chief landscaper for the city of Paris” and Belgian landscape designer Gustave Delchevalerie in pursuit of his dreams.

“During his reign, in less than a decade new quarters, gardens and promenades were created at the edges of the old city and streets were cut through the old urban fabric,” Rashed wrote. “These improvements were vastly more significant than anything implemented in any other capital at the time.”

Al-Azbakiya and Khedival Cairo, then named Ismailiya, were the first quarters founded in Ismail’s attempt to turn Cairo into a European city. “Al-Azbakiya featured a new urban design by French urban planner Jean-Antoine Cordier Bey,” Rashed wrote. “It was built in the area of the old Al-Azbakiya Lake, which was transformed into a garden during the reign of Mohamed Ali.”

The quarter, according to Rashed, “consisted of a smaller garden of an octagonal shape in the centre (the Al-Azbakiya Gardens), bordered on the north by residential buildings holding commercial arcades, on the south and west by ministries, grand hotels and entertainment facilities, and on the east by the old city.”

Probably aware that greenery was a vital component of the urban landscape, the khedive Ismail lavished attention on lush greenery, creating public and private green spaces akin to those of Paris. “He had asked to see the plans of Parisian gardens to get inspiration for his interventions in Cairo,” Rashed said.

The Giza Zoo

In addition to the Al-Azbakiya Gardens, Ismail also created an enormous botanical park on 60 hectares of land on the Island of Gezira, known nowadays as Zamalek. “This park contained a variety of plantation species, artificial streams, kiosks, a zoo of African animals, an aquarium and a series of shaded promenades, some leading to the Pyramids,” according to Rashed.

Ismail also created numerous private gardens on his properties, including that of the Giza Palace on the west bank of the Nile, nowadays the site of the Cairo Zoo, the Orman and Fish Gardens in Zamalek and the vast Al-Qanater Gardens. Cairo was soon bathed in lush greenery that became recreational spaces and served as cultural hubs where famous singers held their concerts.

  “These green spaces invited various groups of users seeking entertainment,” noted Abdel-Rahman. “Most of the users were the elite of the society, the bourgeoisie, and Europeans who visited these spaces simply because they met their needs and expectations.”


GRADUAL DEMISE: But these parks and public green spaces were later neglected with the onset of socio-economic changes and political shifts. The 1952 Revolution dealt the first blow to Cairo’s historic parks and gardens as more pressing economic and developmental issues came onto the agenda.

The population of Cairo also tripled between 1952 and 2005, making the city one of the most densely populated cities in the world, according to a 2016 study entitled Social Mobility and Green Open Urban Spaces with Special Reference to Cairo by architects Ayman Wanas and Inas Samir. “By that time, the share per person of green space was one square foot,” they wrote.

The Giza Zoo

In 2010, that share further slumped to reach a mere 0.5 m2 per person, down from eight m2 per person in 1954 and 15 to 25 m2 per person in 1870, according to statistics provided by the Agha Khan Foundation, an international NGO. The shortage of green space coincided with a poor distribution of greenery between higher and middle-class areas of the city and lower-class areas and poor quality management.

A 2015 feature on all the green spaces in central Cairo by Mantiqti, a downtown-Zamalek community magazine that advocates for the regeneration of the whole of downtown Cairo, shows how the upper and middle-class districts of Qasr Al-Nil and Zamalek, for instance, boast 13 public gardens covering an area of 13,000 square metres, including those located in squares.

Although many of these green spaces remain neglected or poorly maintained, they are still considered a luxury when compared to working class districts like Al-Matariya where, according to Abdel-Rahman’s study, inhabitants have no access to any public green space at all.

“For many decades, the government was oriented to face problems related to economic development, informal urban areas, traffic and overpopulation,” Wanas and Samir write. “Building, developing and maintaining urban green spaces was at the end of the list of priorities. It came after infrastructure and providing services and utilities and so forth.”

Government policies not only ignored public green spaces, but also wasted the city’s green legacy. The Al-Azbakiya Gardens are a case in point, having lost an estimated 60 to 80 per cent of their area to urbanisation. “Street-vending activities and formal and informal markets have wasted the quality of the gardens,” Wanas and Samir lament. “Maintenance as well as waste and garbage collection have been ignored.”

Since the adoption of the Open Door economic policies in the 1970s, Egypt has also been oriented towards a more globalised culture that has changed lifestyles in a way that has also perhaps affected green public areas. Government deficiencies in providing public green spaces soon left the door open for the private sector, which stepped in with alternative indoor outlets and profitable upper and middle-class recreational complexes in the form of shopping malls, coffee-shops, private clubs and restaurants.

Such outlets attracted many former park users who found them “more accommodating venues.”

“The spread of shopping malls, golf courses and coffee shops instead of parks and public gardens is the reflection of the globalisation of lifestyles that caused the transformation of the urban green open spaces,” write Wanas and Samir. “That happened due to the adoption of a new way of life that affected Egyptian culture and identity.”

The poorer strata of society were left with few green spaces that were lacking in both quantity and quality. “In Cairo, green spaces were neglected and allowed to decay,” Abdel-Rahman wrote. “Yet, every citizen must have not only a fair share of urban space, but also the right to access and use and enjoy it freely.”

The city’s historic parks perhaps suffered the most of all the public green spaces, as there was no single authority responsible for their preservation and development. Previous attempts to preserve the parks were made by NGOs, which formed a body to oversee them, but such attempts failed in the absence of a unified authority and the lack of a sufficient budget.

Despite decades of neglect, however, the Al-Azbakiya Gardens are still there and birds are still singing in the branches of trees, as if in a bid for attention. But who will listen to the birds when their sweet voices are constantly overwhelmed by the buzz of traffic and building sites?


RENOVATION PLANS: However, some officials seem to be listening at last.

In May 2017, Mantiqti announced that the Cairo Heritage Development Committee (CHDC), formed a few months earlier by presidential decree with a mandate to restore Downtown and Historic Cairo, had made plans for the restoration of the Al-Azbakiya Gardens as perhaps the first step towards the refurbishment of all the city’s historic parks.

The committee, presided over by former prime minister Ibrahim Mehleb, envisioned the regeneration of Cairo’s green legacy as part of its masterplan to revive Khedival Cairo.  

According to Committee Spokesman Tarek Atia, also the publisher of Mantiqti, the committee has played a pivotal role in bringing together the efforts of different executive agencies, NGOs, and state and non-state stakeholders in its attempt to rejuvenate Khedival and Islamic Cairo and now to restore the historic parks.

“Today, the CHDC is breathing tremendous life into the Downtown area,” Atia said. “Heritage is our strongest resource, and the fact that this concept has been embraced by the highest authorities of the state is a major leap forward.”

In response, the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH), a heritage and urbanisation agency, also stepped in, volunteering with an initiative to collect data and define criteria to register historic parks nationwide and design a plan for their upgrading and reuse. It is joining forces with other government authorities, particularly the Ministry of Local Development, under the umbrella of the HCDC.

“There is a national project to regenerate the historic parks, but we are currently in the first stage of providing a national archive for all the historic parks, collecting data and defining guidelines for what a historic park is,” head of the NOUH Mohamed Abu Seada said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

“We have formed a committee of experts in the field, including urban planners, landscape designers, botanists and architects for that purpose.” Once the database is ready, a masterplan will be drawn up for the regeneration and reuse of the parks, Abu Seada said.

He said that the Al-Azbakiya Gardens were a priority. Their historic significance notwithstanding, the gardens also have a strategic significance, being the only green patch in the highly polluted area between the Ataba and Opera Squares and serving as a key link connecting Khedival and Islamic Cairo, both currently being revived.

Many would agree with Rashed that the value of the Al-Azbakiya area equally resides in “the socio-urban and cultural role that it has played, and is still playing, since the onset of its existence seven centuries ago.”

Abu Seada could not agree more. “We have started by registering important landmarks in the gardens as monuments, like the historic fountain and the historic arms club, all of which will be refurbished,” he said. “Then we will envision a plan to revive the gardens to their former glory.”

The NOUH has been volunteering by providing expertise, but the restoration budget will be split between the Cairo governorate and the Subway Authority, which has pledged to repair damage to the gardens since it started working in 2007.

Once reclaimed and restored, the NOUH will provide a vision for the reuse of the gardens, inviting private investors and stakeholders to throw their hats into the ring, providing recreational facilities and services to the highest international standards that promise to bring the gardens back to their heyday and turn them into a cultural and recreational hub, according to Abu Seada.

Mantiqti quoted the HCDC as saying that the Al-Azbakiya Gardens are envisioned as “a picturesque family park where visitors will be introduced to the history of their city” and preserved as “one of Egypt’s most important havens of rare botanical species.” To turn the gardens into a cultural hub, a passage will also be paved connecting them to an adjacent complex of theatres and cultural centres. Egypt’s largest used book market will also be restored and rebuilt in a style conforming with the historic character of the area, Abu Seada said.

Studies so far have stressed the importance of attracting activities that can generate income for the area to maintain its sustainability. Suggestions like “bringing back music” and adding a water element have all been made. Rashed suggests building a pond inside the gardens and throwing concerts as a way of restoring their “socio-urban and artistic-cultural role as a main Cairene water promenade and a regional cultural-musical attraction point.”


OUTSIDE CAIRO: The same mechanisms should be applied nationwide, but, as Abu Seada illustrates, each historic park in Egypt has its own character, identity and challenges.

“One main challenge facing the rejuvenation of most historic parks and gardens in the country is the fact that they are split among several government authorities,” Abu Seada said. He referred to the vast Al-Qanater Gardens as a case in point. These sprawl over lands that are split between the two governorates of Cairo and Qalyubiya and are also under the auspices of the Ministries of Irrigation and Agriculture

NOUH’s Haidi Shalabi concurred, adding that such a split in management had resulted in the loss of many of historic parks. “The Al-Qanater Gardens, for instance, have lost 150 feddans of the original area of 500 feddans while Al-Azbakiya has lost at least 60 per cent of its original area to urbanisation,” she said.

Abdel-Rahman similarly provided a table showing how “the loss of area of Cairo’s gardens has been large, up to 80 per cent in the case of the Al-Azbakiya and Shubra Gardens.” The Giza Zoo, built by the khedive Tawfik in 1890 and still a popular destination for low-income families, has also lost 60 per cent of its original area and is suffering from severe neglect. Even those parks which have seemed lucky enough not to lose much or any of their area, like the 1871 Fish Garden, have suffered “worsening conditions over the years”.

“This trend poses serious threats to other parks and gardens that might be facing the same aggressive erosion,” Abdel-Rahman warned.

Aware of the threat, however, Shalabi says that the NOUH’s current mission is focusing on “registering all green areas and parks of historic, botanical or architectural significance.” Once registered, they will be protected against urban encroachment and zoned for refurbishment and reuse.

“Any structure that has a historical element to it in a garden is registered, in addition to the botanical treasures of rare species that were brought to Egypt during the Khedival era,” she said. The Tea Island at the Zoo, for instance, has been registered for a “grotto having rare elements and built with an expertise that can hardly be matched today,” Shalabi added.

Preservation aside, research also stresses reuse plans that attend to the needs of visitors and residents alike. Although the Al-Andalus and Al-Horreya Gardens, for instance, in Cairo are in good shape, they are unpopular due to the absence of public cultural events.  

Finally, there has been much recent research on the importance of urban greenery, and the consensus is that green spaces are as important as infrastructure.

The question of whether “parks contribute to the community’s health and vitality, in the same way traditional urban structure does” was posed by UK landscape architect Will Rogers as early as 2004. Rogers is quoted in Wanas and Samir’s study as saying that “recent studies say parks are not an extra that can be ignored in tough economic times. As part of the urban infrastructure, they are as essential as roads, bridges, and utilities.”

A UN World Health Organisation (WHO) report on green urban space and health also provides evidence that urban green spaces have positive effects like “improved mental health, reduced cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, obesity and risk of type 2 diabetes, and improved pregnancy outcomes.”

“Mechanisms leading to these health benefits include psychological relaxation and stress alleviation, increased physical activity, reduced exposure to air pollutants, noise and excess heat,” according to the report.

Hind, a 26-year-old housewife from Aswan in Upper Egypt is probably unaware of such reports. But she decided to take her baby to enjoy the morning sun in the Al-Azbakiya Gardens anyway during her short visit to Cairo. “For me, greenery is an essential part of life and a priority that cannot be compromised,” she said.



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