The gardens of memory

Sally Abed, Tuesday 30 Jun 2020

As the country eases the lockdown introduced to fight the spread of the coronavirus, people are yearning to revisit the gardens of Alexandria, writes Sally Abed

Mahmoudieh Canal
Fishing in Mahmoudiya Canal, 1903

The gardens of Alexandria have long been an integral part of the Alexandrian social fabric. With the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly closing public and recreational spaces such as gardens and forcing people into self-quarantine, more and more people are missing the green spaces their cities boast. This is particularly true in Alexandria.

These spaces range from the Montazah Gardens in the east of the city to the Nozha Gardens, which include the Antoniadis Gardens, and the Shallalat Gardens in the west. There are also smaller parks such as Khartoum Square, Mohamed Ali Square, and Stadium Park, also in the west of the city.

 Some of those parks have seen renovations, while others are subject to future renovation plans given their deteriorating condition. As “Rejuvenation of a Green Epoch,” an article on Cairo’s historic parks and gardens published in Al-Ahram Weekly, noted, there have been calls to upgrade public gardens nationwide. The National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH), a heritage agency, has volunteered with an initiative to collect data and define criteria to register historic parks nationwide and design a plan for their upgrading and reuse, for example.

This call is all the more pressing in Alexandria’s case since there are fewer public gardens. These areas are important to people as places of entertainment and for enjoying nature.

With people planning to revisit these parks and gardens soon as the lockdown eases, it is worth exploring their rich history through the Gardens of Memories Exhibition held in 2018 at the AmidEast Centre in Alexandria. The exhibition was part of the Journées du patrimoine Alexandrine on gardens and parks held by the Centre d’Etudes Alexandrine (CEAlex) to celebrate the city’s rich heritage and was a collaborative project between myself and Sara Abed, the curator of the exhibition, on Alexandrian parks and gardens through texts and images.

The photographs included family archives kindly shared by friends such as artist Salwa Rashad and writers Alaa Khaled and Maher Al-Sherif. Others were acquired on visits to flea markets, places where it is possible to stumble upon historic objects sold on the streets. The rich collection of photographs assembled for the exhibition helped us to piece together bygone lives and stories. With this valuable collection sorted out according to the various parks and the stories woven around them, we set up the exhibition as a tour down memory lane.

The space provided by AmidEast served us perfectly, as it was a lane-like corridor in the AmidEast villa in Alexandria. At one end of the corridor, we installed a vintage radio and clock and rusty tin boxes half open to show old photographs.

Bourse d’Alexandrie
Bourse d’Alexandrie

The following words greeted people as they started their tour: “between Montazah, Antoniadis, Nozha and other gardens, the Gardens of Memory exhibition takes you on a visual tour. The photographs and postcards are of people and places alike; some are known and some are not. But beyond the sea of faces and places, there are memories shared and stories told. The photographs of gardens display more than one Alexandria celebrated by different classes that range from royalty and Egyptians to foreigners. The exhibition is, therefore, an attempt to recover the past and reconstruct it from the point of view of people back then.”

 “‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ But how different is it? And is it truly different,” the exhibition asked.

Postcard of Al-Montazah Garden
Postcard of Montazah Garden

MONTAZAH GARDENS: Our tour begins with the Gardens of Montazah in the west of Alexandria.

 A secret marriage was behind the establishment of the gardens and its fairytale palaces by the khedive Abbas Helmi II in 1892. The inspiration to build the gardens started when the khedive was on one of his drives in Alexandria, He stopped in an area he greatly admired for its exceptional beauty and found a small cabin belonging to a certain M Zorié who had abandoned the property in favour of the khedive. The latter then bought up the adjacent land and created the vast Montazah Gardens.  

Building the fabled palaces followed, as the khedive ordered architect Dimitri Fabricious to build him a palace inspired by Austrian hunting lodges in a forest landscape. He took a personal interest in developing the forest and gardens to suit his tastes and please his beloved, the Hungarian countess May Torok von Szendro, whom he later took as his wife.

Their marriage took place secretly at the Montazah Palace. Later, the countess converted to Islam and became princess Djavidan Hanem. Both she and the khedive considered Montazah to be their favourite residence away from public attention.

During World War I, the romantic side of Montazah was overshadowed as the gardens became a Red Cross Hospital. In his Alexandria: A History and a Guide, English novelist E M Forster extols the beauty of Montazah, especially the “view of the circular bay with its fantastic promontories and breakwater” and the “beautiful walks in every direction and perfect bathing”.

What makes the gardens even more unique are the fragments of the ancient Taposiris Parva (Small Temple of Osiris) that once stood there, some of which form natural fishponds. Surrounded by such exquisite beauty, Forster wrote that “thousands of convalescent soldiers passed through [the gardens] and will never forget the beauty and the comfort that they found there.”

Mohamed Ali Square
Coptic funeral procession in Mohamed Ali Square

At the same time that the convalescent soldiers were experiencing beauty and comfort within the walls of Montazah, other foreigners were also sending postcards from Alexandria to France complaining of the war.

The beginning of the Montazah Gardens in a story of a romantic attachment sealed its fate as a place of enchanting stories.  In his Alexandrian Mirage, Harry Tzalas, an Alexandrian-born Greek author, recounts the story of “The Shoes of Happiness”, saying that one day Theodoros Bárvas, a poor Greek shoemaker, heard a little girl crying outside his shop because a stitch in her sandal had broken. He repaired the sandal, making the little girl happy once again. When he was offered money, he refused.

The girl’s nanny asked Theodoros to call the girl’s mother who would be glad to invite him for a cup of tea. To the shoemaker’s surprise, the telephone number he had been given was that of Montazah Palace, and the little girl’s mother was none other than princess Fawziya, the sister of former king Farouk. Theodoros happily accepted the invitation.

When he met the princess, he was asked to make a large number of women’s shoes for the next ball. It was a “pink ball”, and all the ladies would wear pink dresses and pink shoes. The next ball was the “green ball”, and all the shoes ordered were green. The balls kept on, and more and more colourful shoes were ordered. Theodoros acquired a reputation as royal shoemaker, and he opened a shop that kept him prosperous for the rest of his days.

However, just as the gardens witnessed stories of happy beginnings, they also witnessed stories of the sad end of the Egyptian royal family. Tzalas recounts that one evening, former king Fouad was taking a walk in the gardens when an old woman appeared. She told the king that as long as he used the first letter of his name, “F”, he and his posterity should rule. Upon hearing this, the king carved the letter “F” on the walls of his palaces and called all his children names starting with “F”.

The royal family fell from power when Farouk kept his second wife’s name unchanged as Nariman rather than change it to another that started with ‘F’ and when he called his son Ahmed.  

Mahmoudiya Canal
Mahmoudiya Canal

The Montazah Gardens won the admiration of Egyptian poet laureate Ahmed Shawki who dedicated an elaborate poem to them called “The Montazah of Abbas” in 1895 describing them as a piece of paradise. In the aftermath of the 1952 Revolution, the gardens were opened to the public. Faces changed, but the legacy of the Montazah Gardens and its palaces remained, and they are now a favourite outing for families and friends.

One successful renovation that took place at Montazah a few years ago was the renovation of the Royal Greenhouses. These were established by Farouk in 1934 on the eastern side of Montazah and contained species of rare plants and trees. Unfortunately, they later fell into disuse until the Montazah Tourism Company stepped in and renovated the glass roof and pillars, painted the buildings, fixed the surrounding pathways, and added seating areas in 2018. The place then opened to the public again, who could finally enjoy a pleasant walk among the plants and sit on the newly added benches.

Last year, the government also announced a plan for upgrading the Montazah Gardens and “to revamp the site as a whole and conserve its iconic park and architecture with a view to turning it into an international tourist hub”, according to “Recapturing Al-Montazah’s Splendour” published in the Weekly.

The Montazah Tourism Company announced the launch of an architectural competition for the entire area, but the plans have been halted until further notice because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The Royal Family in al-Montazah Gardens
The Royal Family in Montazah Gardens

NOZHA AND ANTONIADIS GARDENS: Older than the Montazah Gardens are the Antoniadis Gardens, the most ancient in Alexandria, that date back to the Ptolemaic era.

They are part of the Nozha Gardens, and in ancient times Nozha was a residential suburb inhabited by the likes of Callimachus, the head librarian of the ancient library of Alexandria. The gardens lie near the Mahmoudiya Canal at the southern entrance to the city. In the 19th century, the Antoniadis Gardens were owned by a rich Greek citizen and then by Mohamed Ali Pasha, Egypt’s ruler at the time. In 1860, the gardens changed hands, and John Antoniadis, another Greek, became the owner. After his death, the gardens passed to the Alexandria Town Council.

Each owner added to the unique palaces and villas in the gardens that witnessed significant historical events like the signing of the Evacuation Treaty between Egypt and England in 1936. Dignitaries stayed there as well, such as the king and queen of Albania who were fleeing World War II. Though their marriage was not a secretive one like that of Abbas Helmi and the Hungarian countess, Egyptian princess Fawziya and former Iranian shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi spent the first few months of their marriage in Antoniadis. Parties were often held in the gardens like the 1941 party commemorating king Farouk’s coronation.

Since 1952, the Antoniadis Gardens have welcomed the public, who have enjoyed the greenery, as well as the rare collection of marble statues, including of European explorers Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. The gardens have been a favourite spot for families, friends, and school trips. A few years ago, the Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Centre developed a renovation project to preserve the Antoniadis Palace and Gardens as a source of enrichment and pleasure to future generations. The aim was for the palace to host some of the events of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and serve as a centre for scholarship on Alexandria and a space for exchange and dialogue.

However, thus far no concrete steps have been taken, and the future of the plan is unclear.  

Antoniadis Gardens
Antoniadis Gardens

SHALLALAT GARDENS: The third largest park in Alexandria after Montazah and the Nozha gardens are the Shallalat Gardens that contain the remnants of old fortifications, city walls, and archaeological remains.

The park was constructed on a Roman archaeological site during the 19th century by the French engineer Monfront. In his design, he followed the concepts of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, and in recent years there have been plans for renovating and restoring the gardens. In 2018, Ahmed Shabouri, founder of the Torathna Company for Heritage Preservation and Development, gave a talk on the subject during the Garden of Memories Exhibition and provided a clear vision of renovations that would guarantee the sustainable development of the gardens while preserving their historical value.

Old photographs of the gardens show families and friends enjoying the well-maintained Shallalat Gardens with their unique points of interest and water spaces. In recent decades, the gardens have deteriorated, however, and they have been reduced from 68 to 34 feddans in area. They are in need of a proper maintenance programme to preserve and develop the remaining area, but families still frequent them and hold birthday parties there.

Shallalat Gardens
Shallalat Gardens

MAHMOUDIYA CANAL: Close to the Antoniadis and Nozha Gardens, the Mahmoudiya Canal was dug in 1807 during the rule of Mohamed Ali.

Many Egyptian workers died during the digging of the Canal that later became a place for commerce, elegant villas, and gardens. In his writings on Alexandria at the beginning of the 20th century, historian Youssef Fahmi Al-Gazayerli recounts that every 1 May, the Greek community residing in the area used to celebrate spring in the gardens with bunches of flowers. Around sunset, barbecues took place along with singing and dancing. Egyptians would participate in the dancing and songs, he said, and the Greek houses would have garlands on their doors.

The canal soon became the crossroads for merchants going into and out of Alexandria. Commerce boomed, and gardens and promenades flourished on both sides of the canal in the villas and palaces of the area. But unlike the Montazah, Antoniadis and Nozha Gardens, the Canal and adjacent promenades disappeared as a consequence of sprawling urbanisation. Last year, the government backfilled the canal and turned it into a road to help decrease congestion. Part of the road is finished, while the other is still under construction.

Yet, the words of the Italian writer Filippo Marinetti still capture the lingering memory of the place. “The Mahmoudiya Canal is full of liquid nostalgia-inducing moons, like the free verses — modern and at the same time ancient — of Cavafy, the Greek poet of Alexandria,” he wrote.

MOHAMED ALI SQUARE AND BOURSE: Equally important is the Mohamed Ali Square in the Manshiya district, formerly called Place des Consuls, and the French Gardens.

The square was called after Mohamed Ali when a statue of him was placed there in 1868. The square was then planted and a music kiosk and fountain added. In 1882, the square was bombarded by the British, and nothing remained except the Bourse and St Mark’s Cathedral.

The Bourse (stock exchange) appears in many old photographs as it was then one of the oldest stock markets worldwide. Built in 1866, it became one of the landmarks of the city depicted on postcards and stamps. It attracted brokers from all over the world, but in the 1970s it was burnt down and demolished.

The square witnessed the buzzing life of Alexandria in times of war and peace. From commerce and foreign companies to passing funerals, the bombardment of the city and memories of world wars I and II, postcards and photographs capture these alternating moments in history. The square and the gardens are still there, and they were renovated in the 1990s when Abdel-Salam Al-Mahgoub was city governor. Even though the gardens have since deteriorated, they are still enjoyed by the public.

KHARTOUM SQUARE: Perhaps less glamorous than Mohamed Ali Square is Said Square, which became Khartoum Square in 1898 after the retaking of Khartoum in Sudan from the Mahdi Movement.

Khartoum Square was decorated by a statue of Nubar Pasha, the first prime minister of Egypt, in 1878. On the base, there is the inscription saying that “justice is the essence of rule.” This statue is now in front of the Alexandria Opera House, known as the Sayed Darwish Theatre, on Fouad Street. On the base on which Nubar Pasha’s statue once stood, there is now Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar’s statue “The Secret Keeper”.

In addition to the statue at the heart of the garden, there is also a Ptolemaic column nearby that stands as tall as a palm tree reaching the skies. The column was unearthed nearby and has been standing in the garden ever since. The square and surrounding garden are still in good condition, and as they lie in a central area between the Faculty of Medicine and Sultan Hussein Street, many people, especially students, pass by them daily to cross from one side to the other.

On sunny days, you find people sitting there on the benches enjoying the warm weather. One recent remarkable change has been the colourful food truck stationed on one edge of the garden selling food to passersby.

POSTCARDS OF ALEXANDRIA: The multi-layered history of the gardens of Alexandria has made them a favourite theme of postcards.

These trace people’s lives, travel, and cultural exchange between Egypt and neighbouring countries. A postcard of one place is sometimes written in another and sent to a third, and the fascinating international network between countries and peoples was best displayed when collecting postcards was a favourite hobby. Worth noting are the stamps on postcards that sometimes tell of the presence of foreign communities and the cards’ ultimate destinations. Some of the places depicted look much the same, while others have significantly changed or totally disappeared like the promenade by the Mahmoudiya Canal.

Because of their different garb, Egyptian women were often depicted on postcards to Europe. In one, women are shown sitting at Bab Sidra, the southern city gate. In another, they are sitting under a tree at the Khedive’s Fountain.

There is much more to be said about Alexandria’s parks and gardens. Some of the other gardens with intriguing histories and monuments include the park that faces the magnificent Alexandria Stadium that hugs part of the old city walls within it. People taking a stroll there rarely notice the base of a historic fountain presented to the Alexandria Municipality in memory of Alexander Granville Pasha, director of health between 1912 and 1917, who devoted many years to Egypt. Photographs and postcards can be an important source for the fashions of the day, the lifestyles back then, and the relationships between places and people.

One thing remains for sure — which is that the joy these gardens have offered to many people in the past continues in the present. Alexandria has always been associated with the sea, but besides the sea there are also the Montazah Gardens, the Shallalat Gardens, and others.

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