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See the Heartbreaking Destruction of Cairo’s Iconic Gardens


Cairo, a city of 22 million, is one of the most densely populated metropolises on the planet. Stacked side-by-side and almost atop one another, buildings swallow the city’s skyline, which itself is shrouded with sand blown in from the surrounding deserts. Public gardens offer an oasis in this parched expanse — where young people can picnic, walk or enjoy respite from cramped home life. Lovers find refuge and privacy. For many people, old and young, the gardens are the only place to take in nature, relax, stretch and breathe deeply, away from the city’s lung-scratching pollution. The gardens are also places for conversation and debate in a country where such acts can be viewed as seditious.

Yet, the gardens of Cairo are disappearing. One after another, I have watched them transform from lush green spaces into construction sites, buried in concrete and steel. Along the street where I grew up, a 1-kilometer stretch of verdant Nile bank with 100-year-old trees has been razed to make way for a strip mall featuring some three-dozen American-style cafes. Across the river, gardens, where as a child I collected flowers to press, are now a string of multilevel retail complexes alongside a gas station with blinking neon lights.

Paving over public parks and gardens to make way for bridges, roads, cafes and gas stations has become de facto policy under the government of President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, who led the military overthrow of his predecessor in 2013. “Build it and the money will come is the mantra of his regime, which is often characterized as an army with a state attached to it. Once tasked with protecting the country’s borders, the armed forces now lay their heavy hand on every aspect of the country’s management, including its built and natural heritage. Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of kilometers of land have been transferred to the military, including historic sites, public gardens and parks, along with the Nile banks. The public rationale is “development” and the maximization of land use for economic gain. “Money, money, money,” Sisi has said. “It’s the most important thing in the world.”

Even as the government publicized a “green agenda” in the months ahead of the country’s hosting of the United Nations climate conference last year, it continued to rezone public parks and gardens for commercial development. In the northern Cairene district of Heliopolis, home to millions of Egyptians, friends describe their once tree-filled neighborhood as a concrete maze of flyovers and highways with chain coffee shops underneath. A local heritage protection association estimates that, from 2017 to 2020, approximately 272,000 square meters — almost 3 million square feet — of green space were lost in Heliopolis, and more have disappeared since then. “It feels like an assault on our right to breathe,” one longtime resident told me.

Heliopolis is not alone. Heritage buildings are being demolished, historic neighborhoods and ancient cemeteries — including the 1,400-year-old City of the Dead — are being leveled, displacing thousands of families who have lived there for generations. Landmark mausoleums are disappearing, too, and acres of gardens. The most charming flourishes in this ancient city are being replaced by bland markers of contemporary capitalism, including near the once untouched Giza Plateau — now being built out with retail and food outlets. Most of these projects are managed by the army, with lucrative contracts divvied among its patrons and friends. And though we have long known that this government privileges megaprojects over people, now our history is up for grabs, too.

It was in the 19th century, during the heyday of Khedive Isma’il Pasha’s rule, that Cairo was made greener — in one of many efforts to model the city after the great European capitals. Expansive gardens were planted around palaces and avenues were lined with trees. Among the most famed was the forest-like Orman Garden, furnished with a rose garden and a lotus pond. (French landscape designers modeled it on the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.) Nearby, the 52-acre Giza Zoo showcased plants imported from India, Africa and South America. Isma’il continued what his grandfather, Mohamed Ali Pasha, had started: planting the Nile banks with dense vegetation and trees, including the majestic eucalyptusCairo has become known for.

Since the 1970s, these gardens have been protected under heritage laws, but the current government has been systematically delisting them and placing them under army control. In many cases, they have been auctioned off for commercial development. In July, despite months of outcry from environmentalists, local politicians and urban activists, the Giza Zoo closed its doors for an overhaul, the stated purpose: to make the institution “world class.” The fate of the animals remains uncertain, and environmentalists anticipate that the zoo’s extensive repositories of rare and ancient botanical species will be destroyed. The Orman Garden is slated to follow. Meanwhile, most of the city’s roadside gardens and tree-lined avenues have been erased.

If Egypt’s 19th-century rulers were dreaming of the gardens of Paris, today’s leader covets the skyline of Dubai. Sisi’s centerpiece is a new capital in the middle of the desert. Built at an estimated cost of $59 billion so far, this satellite city is slated to boast the biggest and best of everything — the world’s tallest skyscraper, the biggest mosque pulpit, the largest chandelier and the longest monorail. Ironically, hundreds of acres of green space have been planted throughout, with plans for a French-inspired “great garden,” a “floating forest” and an artificial river. Urbanists suggest that the green spaces have been planted without taking into account Egypt’s harsh desert climate, and therefore require staggering amounts of water. A similar disregard for feasibility applies to retail spaces, which the government is having troubling filling. The question remains who all this is for — in a country where a quarter of the population lives in urban slums. “Affordable housing” in the new capital remains unaffordable except to a shrinking middle class.

Amid all the infrastructure spending, Egypt is facing the largest foreign debt crisis of its modern history. Food prices (and shortages) have soared this year as inflation hit 40 percent. The International Monetary Fund has repeatedly cautioned the government to curtail public spending. And yet, Sisi’s modernization campaign continues at breakneck speed. On national TV, the president has boasted that he has built close to 1,000 new bridges and 7,500 kilometers (nearly 4,700 miles) of roads since he took office. Yet, numbers don’t tell the whole story; one of those new billion-dollar highways along the country’s North Coast was so hastily designed with perilous elevated roundabouts, it caused a series of deadly accidents.

No one can deny that Egypt’s public infrastructure has been declining for decades. Those of us mobilizing to protect our country’s heritage are acutely aware of the poor roads that can no longer contain an exploding population. But it is well-known that widening roads doesn’t curb congestion. Nor will it bring in tourists when it is built at the expense of Egypt’s history.

I used to take regular walks to document the urban changes — the trees as they were being felled, the gardens razed, the historic sites bulldozed — but I can barely bring myself to look anymore. Tahrir Square, the iconic green roundabout and fountain where people used to picnic, is now defined by an obelisk patrolled by around-the-clock security. The enormous pink-flowering trees that shaded us during the 2011 revolution have not been spared: The last of these were chopped down earlier this year, leaving a single lonely trunk as a reminder of what once was.

Source: The Washington Post

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