May 5, 2012

Cario and Egypt Tourism

A Changing City, 1970
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

Along the river the changes are even more dramatic. Standing on the steps of the Museum of Antiquities, it is difficult to imagine that the view across Liberation Square to the river did not exist twenty years ago, that this central section of modern Cairo was occupied by the British Army. By cutting a riverside highway through the old army compound and building beside the highway the pleasant tree-shaded esplanade of the Corniche, the president gave to his people the view and the freedom of the Nile banks, which had once been reserved for a few British officials and titled Egyptians.

Cairo
He extended Maidan Ismailia across the British parade grounds, planted trees and grass and flowers, erected mobile film screens, folk art museums. In a decade the focus of the modern city has shifted to this maidan, renamed Liberation Square; a cluster of new buildings has risen to encircle it. Beside the old Museum of Antiquities, long still pools reflect the blue and orange mosaic tiles flaring across the facade of the Nile Hilton; nearby stand the Arab League headquarters, the new Shepheard’s Hotel, the Cairo town hall, and the Egyptian radio and television studios.

He may not have realised it, but President Nasser was only carrying one step further the tradition of other leaders and conquerors throughout the history of the Near East, who in times of peace have used their power to create gardens, surroundings of beauty in which to enjoy their leisure. The Arabic word for paradise is El Genneh, literally, the garden, and what could be more heavenly than a lush garden in a region of the world where eighty percent of the land is dry, arid desert?

In the past, of course, the leaders pleasured only themselves. As early as the sixth century, in Fustat, the original army camp from which Cairo proper grew, Khumarawayh, son of Ibn Tulun, was busy silvering and gilding the trees in his palace grounds.

The Mameluke lord, Emir Ezbek, home from the wars in the fifteenth century, built a pleasure lake in Cairo, where “floated the flowers of the yellow water lily.” Later, beside this lake Napoleon set up his headquarters and here the first Shepheard’s Hotel of whodunit fame was eventually built.

It was the great Albanian Mohammed Ali who was responsible for the first “public” garden. He filled in the lake, landscaped it and opened it to the fashionable citizens of Victorian Cairo.

But the Ezbekiyah Gardens, commemorating the old emir who watched the yellow water lilies, charged an entrance fee, which effectively screened its clientele. President Nasser’s idea of free gardens for everyone’s enjoyment is relatively modern; we were glad that one such garden was so close to us.

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