In a parallel universe, Egyptian parks were places where average families enjoyed quiet summer afternoons, lazy weekends, sunny winter days and the most splendid springs. Back in the day when average Egyptians wore neatly tailored suits and elegant dresses, public parks -- where the smell of jasmine lingered in the air -- were the number one outing for families, couples and children. “It was an essential part of the day; people of different social classes enjoyed going to parks and spending the day,” narrates author Gihan El-Sayed (Egyptians Now and Then, 2001).
Parks actually boasted a special lavish ambiance, being specifically designed for the luxury of enjoying Egypt’s beautiful weather. Some of them displayed rare species of flowers that were only planted in Egypt.
As the years went by, public green spaces – eroding under the burdens of socio-economic changes – began to be gradually replaced by concrete jungles, or neglected until eventual abandon. A few public gardens, however, still retain their charm.
The secrets of Al-Orman
Famous for its wide collection of flowers and over 500 rare species of plants, Al-Orman was first established in 1875 by Khedive Ismail to provide the royal palace with different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Set in Giza, next to the Zoological Garden and Cairo University, it was designed by French landscape architects employed by Ismail specifically for this cause.
“He actually brought more than 150 types of flowers from different parts of the world, such as China and Europe,” says Ahmed El-Refai, head of Al-Orman’s flower exhibition. Originally designed to cover more than 95 acres of land, Al-Orman was divided into three parts: Al-Haramlek (reserved for ladies), Al-Salamlek (for men) while the rest of the garden was later appended to the Giza Zoo.
Sedki Sayed -- a 91-year-old gardener whose face and sharp eyes bear the aura of a strong-willed man and whose hands evidence years of toil -- has worked at the park since he was a boy of 16. A few of what he calls “the secrets” of his “second home” he agreed to reveal to Ahram Online: “The garden was at its best in the 40s and 50s, but the times have changed,” he began. “Abdel-Halim [Hafez] and Soad Hosny [two of Egypt’s song and cinema icons] used to pay regular visits to the garden on weekends.” So did Queen Sophia of Spain, who would unexpectedly drop by without any security guards, Sayed went on.
Despite the faint shadow of the garden’s former glory that still lingers in the air, Al-Orman has lost many of its plants due to neglect and -- more importantly -- because of the changes that have swept Egyptian society as a whole, affecting the people’s perception of nature’s beauty. Sayed believes that “Nature has become something Egyptians only sees on TV. Malls have replaced gardens, which are now for the poor -- or so they believe.” An entry ticket to Al-Orman, incidentally, costs LE1.
This park at the end of Zamalek Island is where Abdel-Halim Hafez sang his first hit -- on the exquisitely designed Andalusian terrace -- at a party presented by actor Youssef Wahby. Although relatively small when compared to Al-Orman, Al-Andalus still reflects unmistakable shadows of its former glory. Scenes of ladies donning fine dresses and men in impeccable tuxedoes graciously dancing in the evening breeze instantly come to mind.
Located between Qasr Al-Nil and 6 October bridges, Al-Andalus was established by Mohamed Zulficar Pasha in 1935, during the final days of King Fouad’s era. It was originally designed as part of Khedive Ismail’s royal mansion -- as stated in 20th Century Cairo Gardens, published by the Egyptian Book Institute, 2013.
One of its two main spaces, the eastern Andalusia garden, follows original designs located in Spain. The Pharaonic garden, the upper section overlooking a spectacular view of the Nile, is famous for its centered fountain which features a peculiar Pharaonic, Roman, Islamic and mostly Andalusian mix. A statue of “Prince of Poets” Ahmed Shawki by renowned artist Mahmoud Mokhtar can be spotted to one side.
Ismail Gamal has been the keeper of the garden since the 70s. He informed Ahram Online that the garden still runs musical shows from time to time and that “it is never empty of foreigners who mainly come in to enjoy our famous lemonade and the breathtaking Nile view.” Tickets cost LE2 for the lower section of the garden and LE5 for both sections.
The Fish Garden
Exquisite wrought iron benches, colourful butterflies and blooming flowers, a breeze rustling through the trees, orange-shaded leaves scattered on the ground -- just like a painting capturing all the seasons of the year. It is summertime in the morning, spring at noon, autumn through sunset and winter kisses the moon good night. Across the 10 acres of Geneinet Al-Asmak (Fish Garden) in the heart of Zamalek, no guide need recount how enchanting the place is, or how old, although renewed.
Established in 1867 by Khedive Ismail, who wanted to build a cave-dotted garden, it is in relatively good condition when compared to other parks in Egypt. The plants -- with different species brought by Khedive Ismail from Australia, Madagascar, Asia and Thailand -- appeared particularly well-tended.
The garden is also famous for its fishing museum which showcases the history of fishing equipment. In addition, 200 types of mummified fish, more than 30 small aquariums and two large ones house 70 different types of Nile fish, according to Ahmed El-Zoghby, head of the garden’s aquarium sector and museum. Ticket costs LE1.
Despite the considerably low ticket cost of old parks in Egypt, the number of visitors has dramatically decreased over the years. Nowadays, only a foreigner or two meditating in Al-Orman can be spotted, or a girl reading a book, or a handful of children playing, while the rest of the scene is occupied by rubbish and strident Shaabi songs playing in the background.
As long as the charm and glory of yesteryear can be still be summoned by a visit to one of those gardens, however, all is not lost.