Cairo's Green Spaces: The Aquarium Grotto Garden

Cairo's Green Spaces:
The Aquarium Grotto Garden

Khedive Ismail, Sone of Ibrahim Pasha

After the overwhelming first sight of the magnificent pyramids, a tour of Islamic and Coptic Cairo and other famous Egyptian sites, any visitor will surely be astonished by the lack of greenery in Cairo. Though what remains today of Cairos parks and gardens is a fraction of the original urban plans for the city, it is true that currently, green parks are scarce and are tucked away in different quarters and districts. However, more attention has lately been directed to the preservation of old gardens and the creation of newer ones; evidently Al-Azhar Park is one the biggest and most recent developments. However, the 70 Hectare park would have been by no means a novelty to Cairos green landscaped a century ago. Cairo is one of the cities that have a long history of parks and green spaces.

In fact, the city of al-Qahira was originally founded around a bustan, which means a park, a location chosen by the Fatimid army in 969. Further on in history, the architectural style of Islamic houses Manzil always included a courtyard, in which green spaces was an essential element. Nevertheless, these were usually enclosed areas due to conservative ideologies and the clear separation between public and private spaces. In the nineteenth century, under the reign of Muhammed Ali and his successors, open green spaces were further developed and given special attention as Cairo was being planned along the lines of European cities and models.

The entrance to the gardens

This was particularly true during the reign of Khedive Ismael who ruled from 1863 until he was removed in 1879 after which he lived in exile until his death in 1895. He saw in following the European models a way of transforming Cairo and attaining his aspired modern urban city.

A small lake in the gardens

Open green and public spaces were an important element of that modern look and hence, during his rule, many sophisticated and beautiful parks were developed. However, not many have survived the twentieth century due to modern developments and urban sprawl.

One of the first gardens created by Ismael Pasha was the Qanater Gardens in 1834. Though the original park was designed on 500 hectares, only 150 remain open to the public today. The Zoological Garden now the Giza Zoo- was also initiated by the Khedive Ismael in 1872. Originally, it was to be named the Giza Gardens, situated on a plot of 2,750 hectares, but it was finally inaugurated during the reign of his son, Khedive Tawfik in 1892 as a public Zoo.

An older map of the southern Island of Zamalek

Another famous green space that has survived is the Gardens of Gezira Palace. It is now better known as the Marriott Gardens, making up the grounds of the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek.

For many years throughout the history of Cairo, Zamalek or El-Gezira meaning the island was a green paradise you can spot from almost anywhere along either bank of the Nile.

The island's landscapes were designed by De la Chevalerie, who had once done the landscape designs for the City of Paris.

Some of the grounds in the gardens

The Gardens of Gezira were originally spread on 2,200 hectares; the Khedival -later to be the Gezira- Sporting Club in which were the race course and polo field that previously surrounded the royal residence, the Marriott Gardens and to the west of the estate lay the Fish Garden formerly named the Grotto Garden.

These were all parts which formed a huge park attached to the Gezira Estate. At first only a kiosk was built near its east shore, and after a few years it was turned into the baroque mansion or palace designed by Julius Franz Pasha, now the Marriott Hotel.

Hills, on a relatively flat island

Hills, on a relatively flat islan

The grounds of the garden

The grounds of the garden

The Palace and grounds were completed in 1869 in honor of Empress Eugenie who was invited by Ismael Pasha to attend the inauguration of the Suez Canal, the occasion for which Verdis Aida was commissioned.

The Main Grotto

Later on, the palace grounds were divided. The building of the Gezira Sporting Club took place in late 1882 and hence was no longer part of the palace gardens.

Ismaels Grotto Garden was completed in 1867 on nine and half acres of his private property. It was once one of Cairo's highlights as it was one of the few 19th century gardens open to the public. It was a garden of plants and home to the Khedive's exotic plants shipped from all over the world and it also housed his collection of fish and reptiles from the Nile and Africa.

The landscaping within the gardens

In the early 1900s, Captain Stanley Flower introduced the Fish Garden; as he added aquariums in the old grottos of the garden, it became home of a rare collection of African fish.

The Fish Garden was rehabilitated and reconstruction in 2000. The Garden also known as the Gabalayia Garden or the Aquarium Grotto Garden was completely restored; damaged parts were rebuilt while retaining all original features.

The project aimed at restoring and maintaining the elegant grounds of the garden that first opened to the public nearly a century ago, in 1902.

The rehabilitation project included plans to expand an existing lake within the garden. Now it is divided into two parts, one for ducks and geese and the other for swans. The park is in particular characteristic for the grottos and tunnels which house interesting fish aquarium. The aquarium settings are fairly original and the walk through the grottos is very pleasant. The garden is now illuminated with indirect lighting so that the scenery can also be enjoyed by night.

The garden is quite close to the downtown areas; however, the fascinating thing is that once there, one feels distant from the busy streets and crowds.

The Fish Garden is very popular for students who go enjoy the afternoon there after school and on holidays with the family. It is also a famous spot for young romantic couples given the nice scenery and quite surroundings. On the other hand, students from the faculty of Arts and amateurs painters are often found there painting different objects and landscapes of the garden.

Interior of the Grotto

Another view of the interior of the grotto.

View of the Grotto entrance

View of the Grotto entrance

Today, the southern part of Zamalek is mainly where the greenery is most preserved. This is that three sporting clubs found there; Gezira Sporting Club, Ahly Sporting Club and Cairo Sporting Club. That of course is in addition to the remains of the Gezira Gardens, the Marriott Gardens, the Aquarium Grotto Garden, and the remarkably beautiful Andalusia Garden, among others. On the other hand, the Opera house and the Cairo Tower also located on the Island encompass spacious green landscapes. Such beautiful green sites and landscapes of the Gezira Island offer special and unique aspects making it one of the most enjoyable quarters in Cairo.

Landscaping in the gardens

To get there:

The garden is located by the Nile in Zamalek or Gezira Island on Gabalayia Street.
Admission fee is symbolic, 50 piasters/ 25 piasters for Cameras.
The park is open daily from 8.30am till 4 pm.