Among the dense urban sprawl of Cairo there are pockets of greenery everywhere. Some are tiny, just a little patch of grass, an Indian laurel or two and some hollyhocks. Some are much bigger, such as the disorderly botanical garden at the foot of Cairo Tower on Gezirah island. They may be formal and lovingly cared for in memory of a poet or a singer; or they may appear to be entirely random, like the delightful nurseries along stretches of the river bank in the heart of the capital.
Among my favourite Cairo gardens is Al-Azhar Park. Created by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in cooperation with the Egyptian government some 20 years ago, it’s a green lung for the overcrowded eastern side of the city. Before planting could begin, a vast rubbish tip had to be removed, the land stabilised and water supplies provided. The design and planting are truly inspired. There’s a wide selection of trees, and extensive hedges of bougainvillea, hibiscus and lantana. The hillside garden, a tapestry of mixed perennials, combines a lively interplay of colours from foliage and flowers with succulents to add height. Cooling water runs and splashes in channels and fountains along the main avenue leading towards a lake set against the backdrop of the medieval city.
Second up is Manyal Palace on Rawdah, a small island in the Nile, near the Qasr El-Aini bridge. The palace was built in the early C20 for Prince Muhammad Ali, brother of King Fuad. It combines styles and influences from all over – chiefly Ottoman and Moroccan, but with flourishes of French and, for the park, English. Though the park is, sadly, mostly out of bounds to visitors – the management claim they don’t have the personnel to police the grounds – what you can glimpse is luxuriant, refreshing and lovely. Myriad trees from all over the world, including some spectacularly tall palms; succulents and cacti; shrubs; and attractive green lawns.
Third: The delightful El-Andalus Garden on the banks of the Nile opposite the famous Ritz-Carlton, formerly the Nile Hilton, Hotel. Created as a memorial to the poet Ahmed Shawqi, known as the “Prince of Poets” in the Arab world, this Andalusian-inspired garden commemorates his exile in Spain by the British authorities in the early C20. Beautifully designed and carefully laid-out, it combines terracing and colourful tiles with rows of clipped Indian laurels, and architectural features and sculptures with towering Royal palms. A second section of the garden is a little freer, and features a more pharaonic theme.