Azbakiya Garden in central Cairo is the city’s first modern-era public garden which first opened in 1837 and was later redesigned in the 1860s.
It is one of several parks, each with unique characteristics. Besides the recent Azhar Park, these earlier parks are: Andalus Garden (Zamalek), Aquarium Grotto Garden (Zamalek), Fustat Garden, Giza Zoo and Orman Gardens, Horeyya Gardens, International Park, Japanese Garden. Other parks are scattered around the city although there is no authority responsible for all these green spaces and which manages them all (A Cairo Parks Department is needed). Responsibility for these spaces is an ambiguous matter where the Governarate or Ministry of Environment or some committee for the “beautification” of Cairo may or may not be responsible.
Two days ago the newly appointed governor of Cairo in an effort to present himself as capable of dealing with the city’s problems, decided to allocate one meter by one meter plots within the remaining corner of Azbakiya Garden to street vendors who have clogged traffic in the area. The proposal is arbitrary and will not solve the problem but more importantly it shows a total disregard to the only remaining green space in central Cairo which has been heavily damaged for two decades due to the construction of the city’s metro system below. Regarding this issue there is a petition here calling the governor to find alternatives for solving the vendor issue and to reinstate the garden in its full capacity.
This is also as good a time as any to share a bit of a historical background on Cairo’s green space. Nasser Rabbat (MIT professor of Islamic Art and Architecture) wrote an article titled “A Brief History of Green Spaces in Cairo” which appeared in 2004 in Revitalising a Historic Metropolis edited by Stefano Bianca and Philip Jodidio. Here is an excerpt from the article and below is a link to download the pdf of the full text.
After the overwhelming first sight of the magnificent pyramids, the next impression a first time visitor to Cairo receives when coming in by plane is of an ochre sea spreading below him/her on both sides of the Nile, with very small dots of darker colours that do little to alleviate the dull monotony of the landscape. This is modern Cairo, sprawling across miles and miles of former agricultural and desert land and made up of densely laid out buff-coloured buildings with few green spaces between them. The only green is along the banks of the river and on the island of Gazira. These unalleviated expanses of tan are perplexing, to say the least, for a city lying at the apex of the bountiful Nile, one of the mightiest rivers in the world and the greening agent of its own valley. It is also misleading, insofar as it convinces urban and landscape students that Cairo has always been a toneless city with no gardens or parks, when historical records unmistakably suggest otherwise.
In fact, the city of al-Qahira (Cairo) was originally founded around a bustan, which, in modern terminology, is the equivalent of a park. When the Fatimid army arrived in 969, its general Jawhar al-Siqilli was charged by his master, Caliph al-Muizz li-Din Allah who remained back in Ifriqiyya, to establish a new royal city. The general chose an area almost two miles north of the then capital of al-Fustat around the Bustan al-Kafuri and laid out the royal enclave that came to be known as al-Qahira. The Bustan al-Kafuri was a sizeable jardin de plaisance planned by Kafur al-Ikhshidi, the slave ruler of Egypt between 949 and 968, immediately before the Fatimid invasion, who was unjustly defamed by al-Mutannabi, the most eloquent master of Arabic poetry. This original siting of al-Qahira is rarely remembered, especially since the overcrowded area of al-Muski at the heart of historic Cairo, where the bustan once stood, today betrays no hint of its verdant past (fig. I2). The Bustan al-Kafuri was soon incorporated into the Fatimid Western Palace, built by Caliph al-Aziz (975’-996), where it more or less maintained its function as a jardin de plaisance this time in a genuine royal context. After the fall of the Fatimids in II76, the palace enclosure was parcelled out and built over by the Ayyubids. In the next century and a half, at least four major charitable complexes (of the sultans al-Kamil, Qalawun, his son al-Nasir Muhammad, and Barquq) and two amirial palaces (those of Baysari and Salar), in addition to a number of hammams and khans (urban caravanserais), occupied the largest part of what used to be the Western Fatimid Palace and its gardens. The only vestiges that remained of the palace are found today in the ruined iwans (open-ended, vaulted spaces) and courtyard of the once prosperous Bimaristan of Qalawun, or hospital, built in I284, whose coffered wooden ceiling with painted animals and floral motifs, and marble shadirwan (wall fountain) still stand in what is believed to be original Fatimid iwans (fig. I3). Of the Bustan al-Kafuri nothing remains.
For the full article, download the pdf here.