Making new memories in Heliopolis: Chronicles of the Merryland Park

Nader Habib , Monday 6 Aug 2018

Merryland Park
The historic Merryland Park in Heliopolis

The historic Merryland Park in Heliopolis, which recently reopened after it underwent years in comprehensive renovation, has shaped the memories of experiencing joy for older generations.

The new, revamped version of the park could give newer generations a chance at making their own memories. 

Every corner of the Merryland Park in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis was once replete with family activities for all age brackets. 

There was the lake where couples and families with children would gather, waiting for their turn to hop on the pedaled water craft. During the wait they would feed crumbs of bread to the ducks.

There was the garden and a make-belief football pitch for boys that was big enough for games of hide-and-seek thanks to the trees that could have stood there for a hundred years at least. Many people used the park for their daily exercise, walking or jogging around it or enjoying the refreshing breeze coming through its greenery.

Merryland was the perfect afternoon retreat after a day at work, and it was the venue for many a lavish lunch. Overlooking the garden and shaded by tall trees, the main restaurant’s signature dish was the escalope panée.

Many people named Merryland the “Land of Happiness” because once they stepped inside it they forgot the outside world.

The name, however, was not always Merryland as the park was originally set up as the Horse Racing Club during the time of former king Farouk and the Belgian baron Édouard Empain who owned much of Heliopolis at the time.

Merryland Park
The founder of Heliopolis Baron Empain (R) and the old horse racing track at the Park

After the 23 July Revolution in 1952 and the remapping of Heliopolis in 1958, Merryland was given its current name. At the time it housed casinos and a roller-skating rink.

In 1980, an arboretum was established, and later the Alex Company built three cafeterias to serve visitors. A lake for ducks and a mini-zoo were also built. Operating hours were from 8am to 5pm because the park had no proper lighting system.

The Sinbad Tourist Company won the management and operating rights to Merryland in 1997 and turned the park into a leisure venue by building international restaurants, an amusement park, a pool for a show of dolphins and seals and vast gardens.

All the people Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to, especially those residing in Heliopolis, had unforgettable memories of Merryland. However, these came from before time took its toll on the park and buried it under a rubble of neglect.

Today, however, Merryland is coming back to life again, said Khaled Al-Marasi, a vice-president at the Heliopolis Company for Housing and Urban Development that is renovating the park.

Merryland Park
New entrance of Merryland Park

“The park was once a Cairo landmark and evidence of the capital’s grace,” Al-Marasi said.

“But from 2008 to 2016 Merryland suffered from neglect because investors used the central part where the lake is located to hold dolphin shows. The remaining area of 46 feddans was abandoned despite the fact that it contained trees and plants of high environmental and decorative value.”

There is now a three-phase roadmap in place for the restoration of the park, he said. “The first phase covers 16 feddans and includes redesigning the water, fire, electricity, sewage and irrigation systems

The second phase of seven feddans has been taken care of by the current investor, and the third is where the arboretum and theatre are located,” Al-Marasi added.

Mohamed Gad, the engineer in charge of the refurbishment, told the Weekly that the new irrigation system uses state-of the art techniques.

“It is in contact with a satellite that measures the weather, water levels and heat in order to give the plants the right amount of water,” Gad said.

He added that the new lighting system uses LED lamps and that new electricity cables have been installed from scratch and monitoring cameras put in “to provide maximum security for visitors”.

The park’s buildings, food stalls and rest rooms have been rebuilt, Al-Marasi said. The most important aspect of the park is its greenery, and this has also seen an extraordinary renewal.

“We are using a special kind of grass known for its greenness all the year round,” Gad said. “With the help of specialists, we have been able to maintain the botanical wealth of Merryland and have planted 1,600 trees and 80,000 flowering plants. New pergolas have been installed and promenades redesigned in granite,” he added.

Merryland Park
Merryland Park restoration

The first phase of the renovation has a separate entrance designed to accommodate people with special needs, Al-Marasi said. “The rest rooms cater to the needs of people with disabilities as well,” he added. A track for walking and jogging has been added to serve the residents of the area and visitors.

“There was a lot of controversy surrounding phase two of the renovation work,” Al-Marasi said.

“A committee representing high-level bodies such as the Administrative Control Authority, the Ministry of Defence, and the business sector was formed to solve disputes between the Heliopolis Company for Housing and Urban Development and investors. A new agreement was signed according to which investors committed to renovating the seven feddans of the second stage comprising the lake and main buildings in a fashion that suits Merryland,” he added.

Merryland Park
Merryland Park restoration

One of the private companies involved in phase two had earlier stated that it was “racing AGAINST time to reopen the park during the Eid Al-Adha holiday [in late August]. We are working hand-in-hand with the Heliopolis Company under the supervision of the Cairo governorate, the Ministry of the Environment and the National Authority for Urban Planning,” it said.

It added that “we are revamping 30,000 square metres of the park and adding a musical fountain and artificial waterfalls.

New restaurants, nine cinemas, and a garage are being built. In addition, an amusement area is in the pipeline.” The third phase of the renovation project comprising 22 feddans is scheduled to open in 2018-2019, Al-Marasi said.

 Merryland Park
Merryland Park restoration

Shared Responsibility

“As soon as we started renovating the park, we came under fire from the civil society and residents of the area. When we were building a water tank they thought we were demolishing the park to build skyscrapers. Rumours circulated that we had killed the park’s trees,” Al-Marasi said.

“However, when the media attended the inauguration of the first phase in March, the community admired the new park. We posted pictures on social networks, and the outcome was very impressive,” he added.

Civil society organisations have a full role to play in the renovation of the park, Al-Marasi said. “We have shared the responsibility for raising awareness on how to maintain the beauty of the park to maintain the quality of the services at Merryland. For our part, we have contracted a company that specialises in the management of cities and gardens to preserve the unique landscape.”

He added that bylaws would come into effect once the park was fully opened to the public. These aim to “guarantee the safety of visitors and preserve the park”, he said.

Merryland Park
Merryland Park restoration

Al-Marasi said that developing the park so that it could regain its status as an iconic Heliopolis family destination would not have been possible without the cooperation of the authorities.

“It’s team work at its best. Merryland’s attractiveness is now back thanks to the efforts of Ashraf Al-Sharkawi, the former minister of business, the Holding Company for Construction and its chair Mahmoud Hegazi, the Egyco Company for Civic and Mechanical Work, and the Ramsis Company for Landscaping and Agriculture,” he said.

“The Holding Company had a big role to play in removing stumbling blocks we could have encountered along the way. Cairo Governor Atef Abdel-Hamid and MP Medhat Al-Sherif followed up our work, and Ibrahim Saber, head of the Heliopolis district, was also very cooperative,” Al-Marasi added.

According to the feasibility study for the renovation, phase one cost LE45 million, which will be retrieved in 30 months of operation.

“But we have other plans to speed up the process of regaining the capital sum, and we aim to make a profit because in the end the park belongs to the public and the money will be used for the benefit of the country,” he said.

Merryland Park
General view of Merryland Park in Heliopolis

The new Merryland Park aims to serve everyone without distinction, he added. “We have set the initial entrance price at LE20 and are offering a number of services such as food and drink and accessories stalls. 

These are installed in the food court and now number 12, each measuring four by three metres,” he said.

They will help generate extra income for the park. “The next step is to contract a company that can market the park as a venue for events such as concerts and wedding celebrations.”

“The media has a vital role to play in helping the public to feel that the park is theirs and that preserving it is their responsibility,” Al-Marasi concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Chronicles of Merryland

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