Gardens of memory: On the heritage of flora in Egypt

Fatemah Farag , Tuesday 1 Jun 2021

This year, trees have been brought down and much green space was lost, however, Egypt remains in possession of a great history of plants — reminders that our identity is one of green, water, and beauty


Long slender fingers trace across the flowers on the cover of my notebook. “This is a tulip; these are carnations and gulnar — the flower of the pomegranate. Stylised of course. Ottoman,” muses Ahmed Soliman, Plant Taxonomy specialist at the Herbarium of the Agricultural Museum.

The distinction between stylised and scientific drawing is everything. We are sitting within the herbarium under high ceilings that house massive wooden cabinets topped with towering files; documentation of Egypt’s some 2000 species of flora.

Established in the late 1930s, the herbarium hosts a collection of pressed and classified plant files that go back to the late 1800s. Samples are pulled out for me to understand: dried strands of dark green vegetation cover the yellowed sheet of paper dating back to 1882.

I had shut my notebook for a minute to listen to Soliman’s colleague who is studying pine trees. She tightens the red scarf around her face and informs me: “That tree outside is the only pinus of its kind in Egypt. Imagine, that one goes and there are none left.”

Egypt's Sugar: wood sample case in the era of Ismail Pasha. Part of the Orman Herbarium collection. Photo by Fatemah Farag

Everyone looks down into their glasses of warm tea. Outside the window is sunny, but the view is of a wasteland of weeds, often dying trees and closed museums. To reach the herbarium, an employee on the grounds instructs me: “Go past the Agricultural Museum buildings — which have been closed for three years now — then past the Museum of Cotton — which is closed — then past the Auditorium and Library — which are also closed — and across from the Arab Hall — which is closed — and the Museum of Ancient Egyptian Agriculture — which was never opened to the public — there you will find the herbarium.”

It is like sitting at the edge of a world forgotten, but Soliman tells me “To classify is to know. Here is the knowledge and memory of the plants of Egypt. This is where research for pharmacology, medicine, and agriculture often begins. Where we can track the changes and shrinkage of green expanses across the country. Where linguists must come to discover the origins of the word romman and pomegranate.”

Pressing plants for the files at the Orman Herbarium. Photo by Fatemah Farag

Modern day challenges

And the concerns of Soliman’s colleague echo true within these dusty walls. Egypt suffers desertification as a result of a “scarcity of water resources, with dramatic population growth, thus the intensity of human activity […] urban encroachment, pollution, depletion of the soil’s fertility, water and soil salinity, sand dunes, soil erosion, and other indirect reasons lead to land degradation,” explains Soliman in his paper ‘Desertification: Current Status and Trends’.

According to a study by Lancaster University “74,600 hectares of fertile agricultural land in the Nile Delta (Old Lands) was lost to urban expansion over a 24-year period at an average rate of 3,108 hectares per year […] Under a business-as-usual scenario, 87,000 hectares of land will transition from agricultural land to urban areas by 2030, posing a threat to the agricultural sector’s sustainability and food security in Egypt.”

This year, major city dwellers watched as large trees were hacked, in what some members of parliament this October called the “massacre of trees”, to make way for the expansion of highways, installation of bridges, and further building construction — and sometimes for no obvious reason at all.  According to statements made to the press by Abdelrahman Adel, a member of the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative, this year, 2,500 perennial trees were removed in order to widen the street for the traffic in Heliopolis alone.

In 2018, at the Biodiversity Convention, it was reported by Al-Ahram Online that “Egypt’s latest national report to the Convention of Biological Diversity says biodiversity in the country is declining at the level of ecosystems, species, and populations due to a myriad of manmade factors, including pollution, habitat loss and fragmentation, overexploitation and unsustainable use of natural resources, and climate change.”

Entrance to the Herbarium at the Agricultural Museum Complex. Photo by Fatemah Farag

The decrepit gardens of the Agricultural Museum Complex are filled with mementos of the past. “That was a greenhouse; the project to incubate seeds and plants that were on display in the museum; over there, a rose garden, once a project to attract visitors to these grounds; and over here is where there used to be a long line of mango trees,” I am told.

I meet Rim Hamdy, professor of plant taxonomy and flora at Cairo University, under a tree before we walk into the herbarium at the Faculty of Botany. The surface around the tree has been tiled, and the hanging roots are pulled into a metal fence built around it.

“This is a ficcus benghalensis tree and this, she points at the tile and fence, results in the ill health of the tree,” sighs Hamdy. I will discover throughout the course of our many discussions that this tree is but one of many that worry the professor. There is the gemiza across the street from the university, the three throne trees at the Nahr Gardens in Zamalek — the same tree whose foliage was used in the Tut Ankh Amun funerary bouquet and of which there are two in Tahrir and one at the Qanater Gardens — and the doum tree that fell over on the grounds of the Agricultural Museum, to name a few.

Over 2000 flora samples filed away at the Agricultural Museum Herbarium. Photo: Fatemah Farag

We have been talking about the recent tree loss and she recounts: “People will say to me, so what [in reference to the trees that came down on the Nile in Giza]? They were just camphor trees, and there are many in Egypt. But what they do not know is that in Egypt, we had over 15 types of camphor trees. Which ones were brought down? Did we actually lose some types in the destruction? Now, we will never know. Those who pull out plants have no knowledge to equip them to make a decision as to the value of what they are removing. And we are never asked.”

Lotus flower from the collection at the Agricultural Museum Herbarium. Photo by Fatemah Farag Photo: Fatemah Farag

On the seriousness of knowledge gaps, the origins of Yousef Effendi and Khedival collections

As the weeds take over, critical gaps in our knowledge widen. “There are few missions now for lack of resources. This means we have no way to know what has been lost and what might even be new,” explains the head of the herbarium back at the Agricultural Museum, “We know that over 50 percent of the flora of the north coast has been lost to the building of summer homes. Development along the coast of the Red Sea has done the same. And while, for example, we know there has been loss on the Alexandria-Desert Road, we have no way to know anything else.”

Wasteland of Weeds: the grounds of the Agricultural Museum. Photo: Fatemah Farag

It was not always such. “In Egypt, a wealth of ancient information on plants and their uses has been recorded in hieroglyphic inscriptions found in tombs and temples and in papyrus documents. Additionally, Egypt is the only country where an abundance of dry plants and fragments have been well preserved for more than three thousand years. Discovered in pharaonic tombs, these ancient plant remains are conserved in several museums and specialised collections,” indicates Marie-Luise Gothein in her book ‘A history of Garden Art’, which documents ancient Egyptian garden design as far back as 4,500 years ago.

Moving forward to more recent history, the investment in gardens and flora diversity, development, and documentation was evidenced during the time of Mohamed Ali and throughout the years of the monarchy. Some of this is captured in the book titled ‘Historical Gardens in Egypt’, published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation. They list 15 gardens established during the time of the monarchy, such as the Shubra Palace Garden, established at the time of the building of the Palace — which began in 1806.

“One of the students Mohamed Ali had sent to Europe to study agriculture — Yousef Effendi — brought back mandarin fruits as a gift to the pasha, and these grounds were used for agricultural testing before the mandarins were transferred to the School of Agriculture in 1833.”

Hence the name of the tangerine in Arabic.

But, perhaps, the point more importantly is “the grounds were not just a palace of government but a centre of sciences […] 100 feddans were allocated for the cultivation of exotic crops. Sadly, all these rare ancient trees are gone, with few exceptions.”

The Qanatir gardens, which included rare trees from all over the world; the Gezira Gardens, said to have included over a million plants, including the Zohriya garden, which was the first stage for the acclimatising of plants set up in 1870. The Gardens of Ezbekiya, once a lake dug by Prince Azbak in 1475, then converted into a public garden, of which less than half the original land remains. The Giza Zoo Gardens, the Manial Palace Gardens, the Japanese Gardens, and the list goes on.

Cairo University Herbarium established by Vivi Tockhalm. Photo by Fatemah Farag

At the Orman gardens — one of Egypt’s four registered botanical gardens established in 1875 — is an herbarium section established in 1964 by plant specialist Mohamed Derar and the Swedish Scientist Vivi Tackholm, who was a professor at the Faculty of Science at Cairo University and established the herbarium at the university as well.

Plant Samples from the Herbarium of Cairo University Photo: Fatemah Farag

Emad Shafik, head of the Orman herbarium opens cabinets and pulls out fragile samples with great care and pride. There are two cases which were part of the collection at King Farouk’s Palace, and according to the book ‘The Orman Gardens’ by Therese Labib — published by CULTNAT — these cases were made by Shatabay, an elusive member of the Jewish community in Egypt, for which almost no record can be found. These cabinets “contain a selection of Sinai and Mount Elba wild plants […] as well as the crops and the winter and summer perennial plants,” explains the book.

But the collection is not all intact, as unfortunately some of these were stolen and vandalised during the 2011 Revolution.

Ficcus benghalensis Photo: Fatemah Farag

“A khedival box of medicinal plants went missing; the khedival cabinets were ransacked, and we came and found files strewn all over the floor. Sample frames were smashed,” laments Shafik, who took it upon himself and the members of his staff to painstakingly piece back what they could with what limited resources they have.

We walk past a cabinet whose doors need to remain open. He shows me the lifelike samples of fruits and vegetables made from wax similar to some of the samples that can be found at the Agricultural Museum. “Otherwise, they will melt in the heat,” he explains.

He carefully opens a wooden box embossed with the name of Ismael Pasha. Inside, ensconced in velvet, are 17 glass vials. Each contains the sugar from a specific region of Egypt. “The one that is missing was smashed by the looters,” he says.

Plant samples from the Herbaruim of Cairo University Photo by Fatemah Farag

Next, he pulls out a drawer from the khedival cabinet and shows me the intricacies of its craftsmanship. How well adapted it is to the task of holding the files of plant samples. A plant sample is then pulled out, tied in blue ribbon. And the plant press and its basic mechanics are thoroughly explained. Finally, he is ready to show me the 244 illustrations which were drawn by artist Gameel Ibrahim Kamel in the 1960s in all of their coloured glory.

Photo by Fatemah Farag

Moving forward: what we risk losing or saving

There is a concern that this is a heritage we risk losing completely at this rate. The herbariums are under-resourced, there is no investment in the publication of the drawings or work of these taxonomists and botanists. The botanical gardens also suffer lack of resourcing, historical public gardens are shrinking, plants are being lost to various elements from climate change to urban development that does not take into account the importance of the greenery. The administrative responsibility for much of this is also separated between a myriad of government authorities with no national standards in place; the management of our plant heritage winds up being at best ad hoc.

Even the indefinite closure of the Agricultural Museum “for development” is a cause for concern. “To understand that this is a part of your identity, you have to know it. Like classification. People would come to the museums and know about their flora and fauna and how it was a part of them. Now, even that no longer happens. How will they be able to know?” asks Soliman.  

Hamdy calls me up to tell me she is out documenting plants in Zamalek early in the morning — do I want to come? And as I head out, my thoughts are that they will know through the tireless work of passion of people like her.

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