Orman, the Mother of Gardens in Egypt, was wrecked at the hands of the Muslim Brothers
It would be hard to express the depth of my sadness as I write this article. I have been to the Orman Gardens in Giza many many times, not just as a journalist reporting on one of Egypt’s oldest and most famous attractions but also as one of the garden’s biggest fans.
My first visit was in 1983 during the first Spring Flower Fair; I was a Mass Communications student at Cairo University, and I went along with some of my student friends. The fair was then one week long but has since become an annual March event which, owing to its huge popularity, extends over more than four weeks. After I graduated and made my way as a journalist, the fair became one of my priorities at that time of year, and I wrote about it several times. In a few cases the fair moved about—one year it might be held in the Fish Garden, another in the garden of the Agricultural Museum—but it was at the Orman where it started and it was there where it was customarily held.
My most recent visit to Orman, however, left me near tears at the ruinous damage worked to the garden and its public and research facilities at the hands of the Muslim Brothers (MB). The thought I couldn’t help uttering was: “My God! They have uprooted the beauty and planted ruin. They replaced the flowers and greenery with debris!”
Burst of beauty
The Orman Garden was founded in 1873 by Khedive Ismail, who wished to emulate the great gardens of Europe so fashionable at the time. He aimed to cover the needs of all the royal palaces for fruit and flowers at the time, and brought in exotic species from all over the world, some of them quite rare. The gardens were laid out by French landscape designers under the supervision of De la Chevalerie. The Egyptian supervisor was the royal gardener Ibrahim Hamouda.
In 1917 the gardens were handed over to the Ministry of Agriculture. At that time they flanked the Zoological Gardens and covered an area of 58 feddans, but in 1939 this was reduced to 28 feddans (one feddan is approximately 4,200 sq. m) to make way for the new Sharae al-Gamaa (University Street). One of the garden walls borders Nahda Square.
The Orman Gardens are often denoted ‘the mother of gardens’. They contain at least a thousand plant species, including native aquatic plants such as the lotus and papyrus which are no longer grown in Egypt but which grow in an artificial lake in Orman.
The Spring Flower Fair every year was a time when the garden sparkled in a burst of glorious colour of flowering plants. More than 100 growers as well as garden and landscape designers would take part in the fair, and Orman would bask in a splendid scene of lush greenery, exotic blooms, mini waterfalls, rock gardens, majestic cacti, sensitive illumination; all the makings of a miniature paradise. The artificial pond would boast the pride of the fair: the blue lotus flowers floating in their green leaves along the water amid the papyrus; the birds and duck finding sweet refuge there and singing their voices out.
The MB break in
The ruin of Orman was the work of MB squatters who staged a sit-in in the Cairo squares of Rabaa, and Nahda where Orman is located, in the wake of the downfall of the Islamist president Muhammad Mursi in July 2013. Mursi’s downfall came on the heels of the massive public protest by some 33 million Egyptians on 30 June 2013, exactly one year after he had been sworn in as Egypt’s first Islamist president. The date is famously denoted by Egyptians as the 30 June Revolution. The squatters, who were heavily armed and far from peaceful, extended their sit-in over five weeks until the police had to disband them in an operation that was inevitably violent on 14 August 2013.
Sayed Hussein Ghanem, the manager of Orman Gardens and an assistant professor at the Plant Protection Research Institute (PPRI), started work at the gardens in June 2012 right before President Mursi took office. Mr Ghanem told Watani that back then a comprehensive development plan was in the books, but once Mursi was overthrown on 3 July 2013, “we found the MB suddenly gather in front of the garden, and they broke the chain on the gate facing Cairo University. That gate is open only during the Spring Flower Fair. They broke into the garden in large numbers through the gate and six openings they had made in the wall, each between two and three square metres wide. They camped in the garden, abused its facilities, and they built brick toilets near the children’s garden. They took the hoses we use to water the internal garden and used them as swings for their children, tying them to the branches of trees. They erected about 30 tents supported on bamboo poles from the garden; these tents housed some 3000 people.
“We called the police and military to drive the squatters out,” Mr Ghanem said, “but back then this was not possible since Egypt was being accused by the international community of exercising violence against the MB. On the ground here, however, the truth was was quite the contrary; it was the MB who were violently exploiting the situation in their favour. Regrettably the squatters remained camped in the gardens till 14 August 2013 when the police finally dispersed the sit-ins at Rabaa and Nahda. During the sit-in I would go to the garden together with some of the employees every day and the MB, who by then had everything in the garden under their thumb, would check and search us every time as we entered. We accepted this quietly so as not to provoke them into causing more damage to the garden. The area where they camped, about three feddans, was a total wreck. Garbage was strewn everywhere, as if they had planted it there. Some of the rare plants, especially cacti, were stolen, and the lotus leaves were used as hats to protect from the heat of the summer sun.
“When the army finally came in on 14 August they had to enter the garden with an armoured vehicle through the main gate. Although the gate was huge, part of it collapsed.
“On the same night the sit-ins were dispersed, the contents of the herbarium were destroyed or stolen. The herbarium was in a separate building, and it housed a treasure trove of plants and facts about them and their origin, as well as equipment, files and a cupboard called ‘the King Farouq Cupboard’ which held special divisions for the plant specimens. The herbarium was under the supervision of agriculturalist Teresa Labib, a consultant to the central gardening administration.”
To save the herbarium
On the following day the ministers of agriculture and housing visited the garden to estimate the losses. Tons of waste were removed from the garden; they filled some 160 trucks, while another 10 removed the debris.
Watani spoke to Ms Labib, who is still a consultant in the garden and the herbarium even though she is officially retired. Ms Labib battled in vain to keep the herbarium safe from the MB, describing it as an attractive and well-designed place in addition to its scientific value.
“It was robbed and destroyed,” Ms Labib told Watani. “They even broke the computers and the equipment. The contents of the King Farouq Cupboard were the most important items stolen. The cupboard consisted of longitudinal drawers with 500 tubes, each one containing part of a plant with medicinal value. There was a label for each tube stating the scientific name of the plant, its medical benefits and origin. The cupboard was like a small museum that included 3000 specimens of plants collected from Egyptian deserts.
“There were three other cupboards that contained some 2000 specimens which came from gardens all over Egypt: the Orman Gardens, the Zoological Gardens, the Fish Garden, the Quba Palace garden, the botanical island in Aswan, and the Antoniades and the faculty of sciences gardens in Alexandria,” Ms Labib said. “There were also 240 specimens with paintings by the artist Gamil Kamel attached that showed the details of each sample, the grain, root, stem, leaves, flower and fruit. I believe that the people who stole these cupboards know very well their scientific and historical values.”
Flowers bloom again
A large part of the garden has now been renovated by the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and the civil sector of the Armed Forces barely in time for the 2014 Spring Flower Fair, which was this year moved from its customary March date to 14 April. Fresh grass has been planted, a drip irrigation system installed, and channels built to carry the run-off. A new lighting system has been put in place.
The repair and renovation of the fence and gates—which are the original ones built by Khedive Ismail—were completed for the 2014 Spring Flower Fair. Despite the irreparable losses, the renovation would undoubtedly capture in part the beauty and splendour of Orman’s original glory. One may at least look forward to that.
27 April 2014