Walks on the wild side

Even dedicated gardeners need to take a break occasionally. A day walking around the green spaces of Cairo- and even the not-so-green – can be a revelation, and a source of inspiration. Recently, two parks have provided me with food for thought, for very different reasons.

Among my grandmother’s prized books, and one of my favourites when I was a girl, was a collection of photographic views of the world put together by John L. Stoddard and published in Chicago around 1880. Possibly as famous in his day for entertaining armchair travellers as David Roberts had been for his paintings and engravings of similar “attractions”, Stoddard covered the world from France to India, Japan to the USA. Egypt is there – notably, I thought, Cairo’s Ezbekiyah Gardens: Elegant buildings with wooden screens (mashrabiyyat) line a street blessed with towering trees. All is quiet, just the odd horse, carriage and donkey for traffic.

More than a hundred years later, nothing could be further removed from this than the Ezbekiyah of today. Chaotic and lacking any sense of unity of design or purpose, the square seems to be adrift in the world, its sense of grandeur long since consumed by the needs of a modern metropolis. But here and there, you catch glimpses of the past in the garden, among the soaring eucalyptus and sycomore trees…

Then, moving to the east of Cairo, you come across a magnificent green space that illustrates the very different fortunes of a piece of land once consigned to the rubbish tip – literally. Al-Azhar Park, re-developed over more than a decade under the auspices of the Aga Khan Foundation and opened in 2005, is on the site of a former rubbish dump outside the medieval city walls. So extensive is it that it is easily visible from the air if you fly over Cairo on the approach to the airport. Immaculately landscaped, generously planted and generally well maintained, it provides an escape into nature for Cairenes of all walks of life. This is one of my favourite places in the city…

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