On a quiet Friday morning in Cairo (Friday being the official day of rest), I can think of few places I’d rather be than in Al-Azhar Park. Quite apart from the interest of the landscaping and the loveliness of the greenery and flowers, the park is a restful haven from the urban sprawl and pollution of an overcrowded megacity with all its attendant pressures.
Cairenes know this very well, and the park is appreciated. It’s the ideal place for family outings and picnics, where kids can play, lovers meet, and wannabe-cool guys promenade up and down to catch somebody’s attention. At the weekend, there are the meditators and Tai Chi practitioners early in the morning, the walkers and the let’s-sit-on-a-bench-and-read-the-paper brigade. Plantsmen and women among us go to admire the plants, read the labels and look for ideas – the minority, I rather think.
After a walk around the park, what better than to sit and bask in the sun on the verandah of the coffee shop? With its arabesque architecture, wooden decor and mix of modern and traditional furnishings, it’s the ideal place to wait for the azzehn, the call to prayer, to sound out over the rooftops from myriad mosques reaching from the old city walls to the historic foundations of Al-Azhar and Sultan Hassan, and beyond.
Visiting a few days ago, we found the park transformed from our last visit in the autumn. Waves of yellow and cream Marguerites, Chrysanthemum frutescens, planted to overlook the densely populated area known as Darb El-Ahmar, rippled in the breeze bringing an irresistibly cheerful note to the hillside.
Meanwhile, the soaring red silk cotton trees (Bombax malabaricum) had broken out in a riot of brilliantly coloured, waxy flowers. Though the form of this species is a little odd, its stark and angular shape barely softened by the presence of leaves at this season, it makes up for the deficit by a spectacular show of colour:
On our way to the coffee shop we took a detour down the hill to remind ourselves of the historic nature of the site, and of the extraordinary achievement of the Aga Khan Foundation, and a team of local engineers and craftsmen, in excavating and renovating the old city walls. Dating back to the late C12, the time of Salah El-Din (Saladin), and now extensively restored, they offer an interesting counterpoise to the greenery on the hill:
At the end of our visit, after walking along winding pathways among clouds of spring colour, we were reminded of the element of formal grandeur in Al-Azhar Park: the avenue of Royal palms (Roystonea regia) near the main entrance, planted as a complement to an extended water channel with fountains, brings a touch of Andalusia to modern-day Cairo.