Few of Cairo’s historical gardens remain today, but those that still exist offer a glimpse into a lush past where gardens were both a refuge from the city’s desert heat and a status symbol for its ambitious rulers.
In ancient Egypt private gardens were much cherished. Blending pleasure and utility, ancient Egyptians kept gardens for growing vegetables and foodstuffs but also flowers, ornamental trees, and shrubs. Many of these gardens were also cultivated with special medicinal plants, fragrant herbs, and plants regarded as sacred and used during rituals and offerings to the deities.
Despite centuries of invasions, wars, and conquests, the tradition was never broken, and Egyptians continued to nurture their love for private gardens and public parks. It is believed that in al-Fustat well-off people built houses with internal courtyards, gardens and even fountains, perpetrating the centuries-old tradition. Chronicles of that time mention the parks, gardens and promenades located outside the built-up area and specifically talk about the profusion of rose gardens as rose water was a popular medicinal potion at the time.
The trend to cultivate ornamental gardens continued with Ahmed ibn Tulun, the founder of the short-lived Tulunid dynasty (868–905 CE). Al-Qatai‘, the new city built by Ibn Tulun, was modelled on Samaria, the eastern city where he grew up, and it not only had magnificent buildings but also large parks and flower gardens. Encouraged by Ibn Tulun—a great patron of art and architecture—gardeners pruned trees in various shapes while landscapers introduced different ornamental accessories, the most innovative one being the first artificial fountain trees, which shot water up into the air to breath-taking effect. Today nothing remains of al-Qatai‘ or its gardens except the famous Ibn Tulun mosque, but successive Fatimid and Mamluk rulers continued to build magnificent palaces and gardens described with wonder in medieval travelogues and accounts.
The centuries-old love-affair between Egyptians and their gardens was revived with the advent of Khedive Ismail, a visionary city planner and a lover of beauty and splendour. The grandson of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, Ismail became viceroy in 1863 and launched vast modernization projects. During one of his many visits to France, he had fallen in love with French culture and was so impressed by the transformation of Paris by Baron Haussmann that he decided to remodel Cairo on the French capital. The task was Herculean and sparing neither effort nor monies to fulfill his ambition, Ismail hired French architects, engineers, urban planners and landscapers to build the khedivial Cairo of his dream under the supervision of his minister of public works, Ali Mubarak.
In less than fifteen years, large avenues were opened, magnificent palaces were built, and six major botanical gardens established: the Zohriyya, the Aquarium, the Azbakiyya, the Zoo, Orman, and Horriyya. These gardens were to be the khedive’s answer to the Bois de Boulogne and Les Buttes Chaumont, two magnificent Parisian botanical gardens. Ismail encouraged the introduction of numerous new plants, trees, and flowers from Europe and from the Americas, thus expanding Egyptian horticultural knowledge. These new arrivals were further enhanced by an influx of new plants and seeds from the Indian sub-continent and from the Far East after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Of all these gardens, Azbakiyya was undoubtedly the jewel. Dug in the 15th century by Emir Azbak, the Azbakiyya Lake had already been transformed into a park under Mohamed Ali. When Ismail returned from Paris in 1868, he commissioned French landscape gardener Barillet Dechamps to rebuild the Azbakiyya garden in the style of the Parisian parks that he admired so much. The 20-feddan (1 feddan = 1.038 acre) park became a botanical garden with collections of plants and trees from all over the world, an artificial grotto with water falls, a small mountain cultivated with cacti, and a marble fountain decorated with botanical motifs. It contained 27 families of trees, plants, and shrubs with over 13 species of palm trees as well as succulents, perennial herbs, and climbers, making the Azbakiyya the first ever botanical garden in Egypt. On its northern side, the garden was bordered by the newly redesigned Sharia al-Geneina, while on its southern wing stood a theatre. Almost in the middle of the garden water pumps were installed to irrigate the profusion of greenery.
Over the years, Azbakiyya has gone through many transformations, not all successful. Its manicured lawns, the original features and landmarks, and many species of rare trees have all but disappeared. The few remaining dilapidated buildings do nothing to betray its former splendour to today’s visitors.
The Gezira Gardens
The inauguration of the Suez Canal was to give Khedive Ismail more opportunities to fulfil his ambitious and extremely expensive aspirations. Eager to show the best of his capital to his imperial and royal guests, he instructed Gustave Delchevalerie, the Belgian landscape architect who had collaborated with Baron Haussmann in redesigning Paris, to develop the gardens around the Gezira Palace. Situated on the island of Zamalek and Ismail’s favoured palace, the Gezira Palace was composed of three sumptuous buildings: one especially built for receptions and big events, the magnificent salamlek, and tucked away from prying eyes, the haramlek to house the khedive’s harem. Today, only the central building remains from the palace where Empress Eugenie of France was once entertained in exquisite interiors full of priceless artefacts and sumptuous tapestries.
The gardens of the Gezira Palace were as magnificent as its interiors. Having at his disposal, 600 acres, a huge budget, and ideas as grandiose as those of his employer, Delchevalerie oversaw the planting of a million exotic plants including royal palm trees, Acacia lebbeck from Upper Egypt, vanilla trees from Madagascar, latania from Reunion Island, juniper, tamarind and rubber fig trees from India, white mulberry from Turkey, and the legendary sycamore, the tree of the ancient Egyptians. Flower beds of daisy-like orange gaillardia, snow-white sweet alyssum, dark purple pansies, red and white petunias, pink mirabilis and many other flowers rivalled the cacti, yuccas, and other succulents. In the middle of this vast profusion of trees, plants, shrubs, and flowers, Delchevalerie built a white marble fountain (which still exists on the grounds of the Zamalek Marriott hotel in what remains of the garden), a grotto with water cascades and an artificial lake. In the western part of the garden some forty greenhouses were built to grow orchids, pineapple, banana, and other tropical fruit and flowers. But this was still not enough, and more magic was needed to make the gardens the earthly paradise of Ismail’s dreams. Redirecting water from the artificial lake to the western parts of the garden, Delchevalerie built a pond, and hidden in the aquatic foliage, a small island to house rare black swans, African pelicans and wild geese, and ducks. In the southern part of the garden, he installed a zoological garden with lions, tigers, leopards, giraffes, gazelles, ostriches, and other wild and exotic animals.
Years later, after the demise of the khedive, the Gezira Garden was divided into different allotments. The area where the artificial lake and grotto stood was redesigned in 1871 by two Italian specialists: De Combaz and Dumilieu to become the Aquarium and later reconstructed by a certain Captain Stanley Flower, adding aquariums in the old grotto to house a ‘rare collection of African fishes and reptiles’. Today, Ismail’s Aquarium is our Hadiqat al-Asmak (the Fish Garden).
The southern parts of the 600-acre Gezira Gardens underwent various transformations to become the large al-Horriyya Gardens. A smaller area near the eastern banks of the river was transformed into the magnificent Hadiqat al-Andalus. At one point, al-Andalus was a skating rink for the younger members of the royal family, but since the mid-1940s, it has been a public park, with mosaics, artefacts and water fountains in the style of the gardens of Alhambra in Granada. Of all the splendours of Ismail’s Gezira Gardens, al-Zohriyya is the one that has suffered most. When the Cairo Tower was built, cut in half to allow entry to the tower. Most of the exotic trees from India and Africa have been neglected and al-Zohriyya, like an old lady, survives with few features of her beautiful past.
The Scent of Lemons
In Giza, on the other side of the island of Zamalek, stands Hadiqat al-Orman, another of the khedive’s botanical legacies. Part of the much larger gardens of the Giza Palace built by Said Pasha, al-Orman was known as Hadiqat al-Laymun (the Lemon Garden) because of the 10,000 citrus trees cultivated there. Spread over 90 acres, it supplied all the khedivial palaces with many kinds of vegetables and fruits. Over the years it was reduced to 50 acres, then to 25, giving up half its area to the neighbouring Giza Zoo. Today, it struggles to survive on a minuscule budget, but many of its former landmarks still survive: the rocky garden with its 200 species of cactus and succulents, the rose garden, the water pond, the magnificent forest of bamboos, and the alley of Royal Palm trees
Khedive Ismail may have inherited his love for innovation and his dreams of modernizing Egypt from his grandfather but while Ismail surpassed by far his grandfather’s ostentatious taste, it could not be said that Mohamed Ali’s love for gardens was less than that of his grandson. Among the many palaces built by Mohamed Ali for his personal usage the Shubra Palace was the one where the viceroy spent most of his time as he grew older. According to Gustave Delchevalerie, the Belgian landscaper who worked for his grandson Ismail, the gardens of Shubra Palace were the most ‘renowned in the Middle East’. Mosaic or pebble-paved alleys were bordered by hedges of myrtle, jasmine and narcissus and the fragrance of roses mingled with that of lemon and orange blossoms and the perfume of pomegranates with the sweet scent of plums. At sunset, Mohamed Ali loved to sit lazily on one of the hand-carved divans by the large bay windows of one of the two richly decorated pavilions and listen to the crystalline sound of water flowing through the marble fountains and echoing the twittering of birds in the trees. He may have walked to the baths through the colonnade of marble and white stone pillars and dipped his fingers in the rippling water of the large basin adorned with sculpted figures of crocodiles.
A Continuing Tradition
By reviving the old love affair between Egyptians and horticulture, the Ismail set a trend, and even after his forced abdication, gardens continued to flourish in Egypt. The Japanese Garden, which was established in 1917 by Zulfikar Pasha in Helwan, a southern suburb of Cairo, is landscaped in Japanese style and has a collection of Buddha statues overlooking a pond with a wooden bridge spanning its crystalline water. Here and there among the trees stand pagodas decorated with the mythical dragons. Although it was built as a present to Sultan Hussein Kamel, Ismail’s son, the garden has little to offer however in terms of botanical features.
Prince Mohamed-Ali Tewfiq, Ismail’s grandson, continued the tradition. But whereas Ismail had given carte-blanche to landscapers and gardeners and was mainly concerned with the overall ‘effect’ of his gardens, Prince Mohamed-Ali had a more deliberate approach and oversaw every single plant, tree or shrub that went into the gardens of his Manial Palace on the island of Rhoda. Ismail had been dazzled by the richness and splendours of European royal and imperial courts, but Prince Mohamed-Ali, a much travelled and highly educated man, was a sophisticated art connoisseur and a refined collector. He had an eye for what was not only beautiful but also unique. Taking with him his head gardener, he travelled to the four corners of the globe in search of rare saplings, unique floral species, luxuriant tropical and desert plants, and a matchless collection of several cacti. To those he added banyan trees, cedars, and royal palms, all remnants from the gardens of his predecessors.
With the fall of the Mohamed Ali dynasty, all the palaces and gardens became part of Egypt’s national heritage. Today, the grandiose al-Azhar Park built by the Aga Khan Foundation in 2005, is the largest and latest addition to gardens and parks built over 150 years ago by Khedive Ismail. From the first day of its inception, al-Azhar was designed as a public garden, yet it has kept with the long Egyptian tradition of horticulture and botany. With its eighty-nine varieties of trees, fifty-one of shrubs, five species of grass, climbers of all sorts, and twenty-six varieties of succulents, al-Azhar Park may be today’s answer to the khedive’s horticultural dreams.
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Eva Dadrian (1944-2018) an Emmy Award-winning British-Egyptian independent broadcaster and writer with extensive experience in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Dadrian worked as a political risk analyst for Arab Africa Affairs (London/ Cape Town). She also wrote for al-Ahram Weekly and al-Ahram Hebdo (Cairo) covering issues ranging from art and science to environment and religion for the BBC World Service.