Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

A walk in the Fish Garden

Mai Samih rediscovers the Fish Garden in the Cairo district of Zamalek

Al-Ahram Weekly

Anyone taking a walk in Zamalek and passing the Aquarium Grotto Garden, or Fish Garden as it is named locally, will find the kind of quiet atmosphere they may have thought had long since become extinct in Cairo. They may also think that the garden is closed, so quiet does it seem. However, this is not the case since far from being closed to visitors the Fish Garden is in fact undergoing extensive renovation.

The Fish Garden is about nine feddans in area and has a stylish white entrance gate with fish painted on it. On the left and right of the entrance are rooms housing the original irrigation pipes that are no longer used. Further on, there is a newly renovated playground for children, and in the middle of the garden there is a huge tree more than 150 years old called Ficus Benghalnesis (Indian banyan) under which birthday parties are now organised.

Next to this famous tree and in the middle of the garden is the grotto in the shape of a fish with rare flowers, plants and grass all over it. This grotto, or gabalaya, is made of red stone and sand bought from Aswan. It has stairs enabling visitors to climb to the top of it, but these are currently closed for renovation. Between the tree and the gabalaya there is a lake with colourful fish in it and a wooden bridge joining the two sides of the garden. To the right of the gabalaya, there is the greenhouse area in which fish tanks are kept to propagate the fish and where there is a fish lab.

Walid Shaaban, the Manager of the Fish Garden, narrates the story of the facility. “The Fish Garden was established by the Khedive Ismail in 1867 and was inaugurated in the same year as the Suez Canal,” he said. “But the garden at that time was part of the private property of the former royal family and was not open to the public. In 1902, it was opened to the public and the body responsible for it was the Giza Zoo. The grotto in the garden, the famous gabalaya, was commissioned by the khedive from the manager of the Paris parks at the time. It has four openings, caves, and tanks with fish from the Nile in it.”

The grotto originally contained 24 aquariums with 33 species of fish from the River Nile. In 2010, the garden was renovated and more security personnel added. In 2013, the renovation was repeated as visitors were complaining of the deteriorating state of the facility.

Shaaban lists some of the problems the Garden faces today. “The first is the conduct of the visitors, as they write graffiti on the walls and benches or they pick the flowers we plant. The second is the administrative situation of the garden and the fact that it is run by two government ministries: the gabalaya is the responsibility of the Ministry of Antiquities, while the rest of the garden is run by the Ministry of Agriculture. As a result, when we want to renovate the garden we need the permission of these two ministries, meaning there is a lot of red tape.”

Mohammed Al-Said, a visitor, said the garden had improved in recent years. “It is better than it was in the past, and it is cleaner,” he said. Karim Ahmed, another visitor, agreed but had reservations. “The conduct of visitors has to be improved, as some of them feed the fish bread and other types of food,” he commented.

In reply, Shaaban said that “we have been working on many types of renovation. The first is developing the buildings, and the second is developing the garden and renewing the activities in it. We started 18 months ago to clean the garden as it was far from clean. We also planted a new lawn and fixed the air compressor and water pump that are essential for irrigation. Some NGOs joined the development process, including the Zamalek Development Organisation (ZDO), the Egyptian Product Organisation, and the Agora (Made in Egypt Youth Organisation), all of which wanted to help regenerate the Fish Garden.”

 Working with the NGOs, a charity event to raise money was organised in March 2013, together with an event to promote blood donation, a mothers’ day festival, a children’s day festival and a Sham Al-Nessim event. “These organisations helped in the renovation of the playground, the toilets, the lawn and the water fountains,” Shaaban said.

“We have planted more than 2,500 flowers and renovated the stone path that has not been renewed since the garden’s inauguration. We have also painted the buildings in the park and the entrance and provided it with a wooden slope for wheelchairs. We have renovated the lake and put fish in it, and we plan to install a new filtration system in the near future. Around 18 months ago, the tanks that were in the greenhouses were rubbish dumps, but we have cleaned them and are now using them for breeding purposes.”

“Most of the fish species we have are from the Nile, the Amazon, or African rivers, but they are currently not on display because the gabalaya is closed for renovations. The idea is to renovate it to display the fish as efficiently as possible. The fish species that were in the gabalaya are currently in the lab and the lake. There are 32 species including crocodiles and turtles.”

The renovations have had an impressive effect on the garden’s revenues, going up by some 300 or 400 per cent since they started. “During the festivals, we often had a thousand visitors, and Fatma Tamam, Head of the Giza Zoo, has also personally intervened to improve working conditions in the garden,” Shaaban said.  

He added that the garden has a collection of rare trees, including the Ficus Benghalensis tree (known locally as the Tarzan Tree), royal palms (worth about LE150,000 per tree), and the Zallouh tree. The trees will be complemented by other vegetation as part of the garden’s “five-by-five” project that aims to plant the gabalaya, planting five different plants every day until the whole thing is planted. As for the fish species in the garden, there are angel fish from the Amazon and bolti and karakeer fish from the Nile, as well as parrot fish, sword tails, cichlids and guppies. The garden also has a rare collection of fossils and shells as well as rare trees from Madagascar, Australia and Thailand.

“For the future we have short-term and long-term plans,” Shaaban said. “In the short term, we plan to improve the services of the garden, especially those related to the green areas, as well as promoting it so more visitors come. We also aim to increase the number of fish and to provide visitors with flyers to inform them about them. In the longer term, we plan to develop the garden as a whole, which includes renovating the entire gabalaya and adding more fish from the Nile. There could be a museum, renovated greenhouses, and a gift shop for tourists and lecture hall for children to give them more information about the garden and the species in it. The museum could contain environments replicating the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Nile to enable us to compete with other such institutions around the world.”

At present, the price of entrance is LE5 for Egyptians and LE20 for foreigners, with children under four entering free of charge. There is a 50 per cent discount for visitors from charity organisations and school children.

Regarding present needs, Shaaban said that “we need the media to raise awareness of visitors, as most come only for the festivals and do not use the garden properly. For example, before Sham Al-Nessim or Easter we planted 1,200 flowers, only to find that only 200 were left at the end of the day. We need visitors to leave the place undamaged if they want to find it in a good condition the next time they come. We also need more rapid decisions on the renovation process.”

From the visitors to the garden, there was a desire for “more fish to be displayed, not just ones from Egypt but also from other countries.” Another desire was for the garden to “cut the grass on a more regular basis and to cut the prices in the restaurant as well.”

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