During the sit-in in the Nahda Square in Giza, Muslim Brotherhood supporters spilled out into the nearby Orman Garden, damaging some of the garden’s plants and trees. Two months after the dispersal of the sit-in, some of this damage is still in evidence, but efforts have been made to restore the garden to its former glory.
At the entrance to the garden there is a huge iron gate that looks like that of a former royal palace but in fact announces the entrance to the historic garden. On entering the garden the first things visitors see are the two large lawns ringed with trees and separated by a pathway with a fountain in the middle. Not far away is a wooden bridge above a small lake that hosts many rare kinds of aquatic plant, including the famous Egyptian lotus. To the right of the bridge is the administrative building, the café and the herbarium, now damaged because of the Brotherhood sit-in.
The walls of the herbarium and the café look as if they have been caught up in a war, since they have been riddled with bullet holes. The ceiling of the herbarium has also been damaged. On the other side, there used to be a children’s playground that was damaged by Brotherhood supporters during the sit-in. There is also the flower and cactus garden, not open to visitors at present due to renovations. Visiting hours to the garden in general have been reduced to 8:30am to 1pm until the renovations have been finished.
On a recent visit, the other visitors to the Orman Garden were happy to see the rare plants and trees and the beautiful scenery, though some had reservations about the lack of benches in some areas and the missing café. “It is very nice and clean, but there should be a playground for children as many people who come here come for the sake of their children,” said one visitor. Another visitor said that the garden was “a wonderful place to spend the day with family and friends. The renovations are being carried out successfully and let’s hope nothing happens that will spoil them.”
A third visitor compared past and present in the garden. “The garden is now back to what it was two years ago, when people could come here to refresh their senses. It is also safer now that we have the police and military around. I believe they are doing a good job here, or else no one would come to visit. But they still need to fix the fence around the lawn and plant some more grass at the entrance of the garden.” A fourth visitor wanted to see more entertainment in the garden, possibly even some animals from the zoo.
Amr Rabie, head of the Central Administration for Arboriculture and Environment, described some of the damage that had taken place in the garden over recent months. “The sit-ins near the garden lasted for around 45 days, and they resulted in the demolition of the gates and damage to the garden near Nahda Street. The protesters considered the garden’s administrative buildings and cafeteria to be an extension of the sit-in and places for them to stay the night in. They also built 26 toilets in the garden. They used the famous bamboo trees to make weapons and supports for their tents, and they used wood from the trees for cooking. They also destroyed the irrigation pipes that feed the garden with water.”
In addition, Rabie said, the protesters had prevented employees from doing their jobs, such as taking care of the lawns, which make up about three-quarters of the garden’s area, or some 20 feddans out of a total of 28. “The demonstrators destroyed the three ticket booths for the herbarium, and they severely damaged the building itself. This plant museum contains specimens and drawings of rare plants, and many of these were lost. Most of the administrative buildings in the garden were also ruined, and they will take a lot of effort, time and expense to restore. Losses have been put at around LE50 million, but there are also some losses, such as of rare plants, that are priceless.”
Emad Wadie, who works in the herbarium, added to the list of damage. “A rare kapok plant and some medicinal plants were stolen during raids on the herbarium. In general, the garden has also been suffering because of the behaviour of some visitors who are unaware of its historical importance. It also needs new sources of financing. Wadie said that the garden’s management was considering options like renting spaces to mobile companies to build masts in the garden or raising the price of the ticket from the present LE1. A committee composed of representatives of the Giza governorate, the Ministry of Agriculture and NGOs has also been working on methods to save the garden.
The Orman Garden was established in 1875 during the rule of the Khedive Ismail, and it was designed to resemble the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. Its current area is around 28 feddans, and it contains some 1,000 plant species. The garden today is considered to be an open-air museum, and it includes tropical gardens, like the cactus garden, and gardens featuring plants from colder areas. As a result, the garden is a fine example of biodiversity.
Moreover, the Orman Garden is among the oldest in North Africa and the Middle East. “In 1910, the Ministry of Agriculture took charge of the garden, including of its monuments, which include the main gates, or Princesses Gates, which are like those of the former royal palaces,” Rabie said. Originally, the garden was established to provide the kitchens of the Khedive Ismail with citrus fruit, which is why the garden was once called the Hadeqet Al-Laymoun, or Lemon Garden. Its current name, Orman, means forest or wood in Turkish.
In 1919, the Ministry of Agriculture converted the garden into a botanical garden with a total area of 58 feddans, 30 of which were subsequently given to the neighbouring Giza Zoo, Cairo University and Giza Security Department. Today, the garden features a rock garden of 1.5 feddans in area that contains 200 species of cactus and succulents from 11 families, a rose garden of two feddans in area and an aquatic garden containing water plants such as Cyperus papyrus, Nelumbo nucifera, Nymphaea, Caerulea and Aeschynomene elaphroxylon.
There is also the herbarium that contains former king Farouk’s private collection of wild and medicinal plants, 15 greenhouses and a seed exchange unit. Among the rare plants in the garden are Saraca cauliflora, Ficus asprima, Ficus trijuja, Hovenia duleis, Ulmus parvifolia, Ulmus pumila, Holoptelea integrifolia, Acrocomia aculeata and Phoenix rupicola. The garden also has Egyptian plants like Salvadora persica, Moringa peregrina, Prosopis farcta, Dichrostachys cinerea, Cordia sinensis, Salix babylonica, Salix subserrata, Salix tetrasperma, Tamarix nilotica, Cyperus alternifolius, Nelumbo nucifera and Nymphaea caerula.
The garden includes perennials, annuals, tubers and bulbs, ground cover plants and medicinal plants. Among the plant families in the garden are Anacardiaceae (palm trees), Bombacaceae (cotton trees), Cyperaceae (Cyperus papyrus — the family of the Egyptian papyrus plant), Euphorbiaceae (wild olive trees), Fagaceae (English oak trees), Ginkgoaceae (a plant that survived the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima, according to Wadie), Gramineae (bamboo), Labiatae (rosemary), Lauraceae (camphor and cinnamon), Leguminosae (Arabic gum), Meliaceae (African mahogany), Moraceae (rubber plant-sycamore tree), Myrtaceae (guava), Nymphaeaceae (Egyptian blue lotus), Oleaceae (olive tree family), Palmae (palm tree family, including dates and coconuts), Pandanaceae (pine tree family), Passifloraceae (passionflower), Piperaceae (pepper), Punicaceae (pomegranate), Rhamnaceae (grapes), Rosaceae (apricot and peach), Rubiaceae (coffee), Rutaceae (jessamine) Sapotaceae (Spanish cherry), Violaceae (violet) and Zingiberaceae (ginger).
Famous trees, according to Wadie, include the traveller’s tree, so-called because its leaves store dew water for people to drink. In the herbarium silk worm plants are kept, these once being a crop as important as cotton in Egypt. There are also gardenia papyrus plants, used by the ancient Egyptians for boat-building.
The herbarium was founded by Mohamed Drar, former director of the garden, Swedish botanist Vivi Tackholm, a former professor of plant taxonomy at Cairo University, Mahmoud Ezzeddin and Badia Diwan. It originally contained some 3,000 specimens of wild and cultivated plants collected by Youssef Shabeti, some 2,000 specimens of Egyptian plants, and 2,000 specimens collected from the Orman Garden, the Zohriyia Gardens, the Zoological Gardens, the Fish Garden, the Aswan Botanical Island, the Anthoniades Gardens, the gardens of the Qubba Palace, and the Moharram Bey Botanical Gardens in Alexandria.
There are 240 sheets of drawings of plant specimens by Gamil Kamel, a wooden case dating back to the time of the Khedive Ismail containing types of sugar cane, 500 specimens of medicinal plants and illustrative models of cotton species like Ceiba pentandra (kapok) and Acacia nilotica (the Nile acacia).
Though the garden was damaged during the recent sit-ins, Rabie said that progress had been made in clearing up after them. “We have cleaned up a lot of the rubbish that was left after the end of the sit-in. We have rebuilt the parts of the fence that were destroyed, and we have taken down the temporary buildings that were built. We have also rebuilt the ticket booths, and there are currently plans to reconstruct the water pipe network.”
“On 31 August, the garden was visited by Ayman Farid Abou Hadid, the minister of agriculture and land reclamation, Ibrahim Mehleb, minister of housing, and Ali Abdel-Rahman, the governor of Giza, and this resulted in the decision to carry out a study for the renovation of the walls and main gate as part of the restoration of Nahda Square.”
Following the sit-ins there have been rumours of dead protesters having been buried in the garden. According to Rabie, “the authorities are investigating this at the moment as during the time of the sit-ins the employees of the garden were unable to enter to do their jobs, and as a result we are unable to be certain of what exactly went on.”
Today, “the public needs to reconsider the way they look at the Orman Garden. They need to see it not as the government’s garden, but as their garden. There needs to be more awareness about how to behave in the garden and how to treat a place of such historical importance. People should help to renovate the garden by offering ideas and donations. We already have benches that people have donated to the garden, putting their names on them, for example,” Rabie said.