INTERVIEW: Architect Mohamed Dessouki on the desperate need to save Alexandria’s parks

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 17 Sep 2017

The Mahmoudiya Canal (Photo: Courtesy of Dessouki’s archive)

It was back in 1922, upon writing his ‘Alexandria: a history and a guide,’ that E.M. Forster wrote that “if one would judge Alexandria by her gardens, one would have nothing but praise.”

Almost a century later, Mohamed Dessouki, a founding member of Save Alex, a pressure group dedicated to preserving the city’s heritage, fears that the country’s most prominent Mediterranean port city is facing a challenge in preserving its floral wealth as well as its architectural heritage.

“Public gardens have always been at the heart of city planning and life in general in Alexandria. Today, this concept is being seriously challenged, as we see a declining interest in preserving gardens, and certainly an attempt to attach parts of municipal gardens to clubs that only serve those affiliated to the power elite,” Dessouki, who is also the founder of the Walls of Alex blog, said in an interview with Ahram Online.

Dessouki says that many think of preserving Alexandria only in terms of a beautiful but highly eroded architectural history, but only a few give adequate attention to the botanical heritage of the city.

“This botanical history is by no means less significant than the architectural heritage of Alexandria. In Save Alex, as well as in the Walls of Alex, we voice concern about both issues among other things that relate to the beauty of this harbour city,” Dessouki said.

Most recently, Dessouki has been campaigning to fight the declining awareness of the city’s botanical wealth.

In a series of lectures and articles, this preservation activist has been sharing information and pictures of the long history of four main public parks and gardens in the city; the municipal gardens (better known as elshalalat, or the waterfalls), El-Nozha (which holds both the zoo and Alzohour flower garden), Antoniadis and El-Montazah.

These parks were planted and flourished mostly during the heyday of Alexandria in the second half of the 19th century.

Dessouki notes, however, that the beginning was actually during the reign of Mohamed Ali at the start of the 19th century, when the ambitious and visionary ruler of Egypt decided to dig the Mahmoudiya Canal, which brought the Nile water to Alexandria near the southern entrance to the city, which had been suffering growing neglect.

“It was this canal that helped give the city its many acres of exotic botanical wealth, and it has also held a special place in the hearts of those who lived in and loved the city,” Dessouki said.

The Mahmoudiya Canal (Photo: Courtesy of Dessouki’s archive)

Dessouki reminds us that across the Mahmoudiya Canal, there were once beautiful houses surrounded by some exotic gardens.
“Those, however, were so callously removed during the 1950s and 1960s upon the construction of the city’s industrial zone [under then-president Gamal Abdel-Nasser].”

“There is very little left of those once-beautiful gardens,” Dessouki added.

“An exceptionally rich garden that surrounded the mansion of Prince Omar Tousson, who was the chair of the agricultural association in the early 20th century, is all gone except for a single and sad Ficus Benghalensis,” he said.

Today, as Dessouki shows in a disheartening photo, this beautiful and old evergreen has been turned into a storage spot for a car workshop.

Ficus Benghalensis in Prince Omar Tousson’s garden (Photo: Courtesy of Dessouki’s archive)

“This is certainly a crime that should not have been allowed,” Dessouki said, adding that this would not have been the case if not for “hasty and poorly thought out development planning.”

Dessouki is now worried about a new development that could contribute to the erosion of the city’s “natural history”; the current plans to fill in the Mahmoudiya Canal as part of a large development scheme.

“Apart from the historic significance how the canal was dug -- as it was the fruit of long and hard labour by Egyptian workers, some of whom literally gave their lives in the process, as others did with the Suez Canal -- the Mahmoudiya Canal is part of the history of Alexandria,” Dessouki argued.

The Mahmoudiya Canal (Photo: Courtesy of Dessouki’s archive)

He suggested that the digging of this canal was the beginning of a new rise of the city that allowed for waves of migration that opened the door for the city’s boom in the early decades of the 20th century.

Dessouki believes that granting the gardens and public parks of Alexandria a new spirit is possible only with “consolidated effort from pressure groups. The municipality should not be left to its devices without pressure from civil society.”

Dessouki says that regaining public gardens and parks has great cultural and even political significance, because “ultimately, it is about the acquisition of the public space.”

In the fear that preservation efforts may be in vain, Dessouki is joining other keen activists in documenting with pictures and maps the gardens and parks of Alexandria.

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