Thursday, 10 March 2022

Egypt Trip - Winter 2022 - Cairo - Street Trees - Al Azhar Park

Following Christmas and New Year back in the UK with the family  I was supposed to be going to Italy, Sardegna for a consultancy and design site visit but, Covid things happened so we postponed. Egypt is a place I've never had a strong desire to travel to but it popped up first on a list of warm places to go in winter, so here I am. 

Two words that sprang to mind when I arrived in Cairo were chaos and contrast. After a few days, I began to see the order within the chaos but the contrast was even more striking. I don't see how you could describe Cairo as beautiful, pleasant, or charming but it is certainly very interesting. 

A word of warning for anyone that has never ventured from the comforts of the West, if you ever visit Cairo, be prepared for a culture shock Richter magnitude 9.

Cairo is a very busy city and you can move around hassle-free like every other city but get close to any popular tourist attraction and it's the real-life equivalent of browsing the net without AdBlock on and that's true of pretty much the entire Egyptian tourist trail. Fortunately, the Pyramids of Giza site (that sits west of the Nile on the edge of the city) is so vast it's easy to get away from the relentless sales pitch and enjoy the phenomenon.

I found it remarkable that across the whole area I did not find a single living plant. This could be due to grazing pressure from the 100's of camels and horses that carry the tourists around the site, could be just the wrong season or maybe there are just no plants around.  I did find a small patch of plant remnants that looked like last season's tissue from an annual plant (left image below)  

Just a few km east of the Pyramids, closer to the Nile (that runs through the center of the city) it's lush green with ornamental plantings, avenue trees, and parks.


Street Trees Of Cairo 

I have little experience with subtropical plants and for the first 5 days in Cairo, I did not recognize a single tree I came across apart from Ficus elastica - Rubber Fig the common house plant, only these  Rubber Figs were as tall as houses. 

I found an excellent resource on plants used for landscaping in Egypt (Introduction to Egyptian plants) that helped identify the majority of common street trees and I was surprised to see that many of the street trees are Figs (non-edible types), most of them are non-native and a high percentage of trees planted around the city are nitrogen-fixing, from Fabaceae. 

Probably the most common trees are Ficus microcarpa that you will often find lifted and tightly trimmed to shape. 

Roystonia regia -  Cuban royal palm is also a common species used around state buildings, parks and gardens of the downtown residencies. It is native to Mexico, parts of Central America.


Having never spent a winter away from a temperate climate, it felt a little odd walking the leafy downtown streets in mid-January. I would imagine during the high summer the trees provide essential shade but even in subtropical Egypt the winter is cool and, where the deciduous trees in a temperate climate would have lost their leaves, the subtropical evergreens create a moody shade.

Upon the layers and layers of history to wade through in Cairo, the relatively recent European colonial influence is very obvious in the architecture of Downtown Cairo including the mansions that flank the Nile. Quite a few of these buildings have been abandoned as the Egyptian elites have largely moved out of the old city into new estates guarded by tall walls and armed guards, referred to as "compounds". One such abandoned mansion in the Dokki neighborhood caught my eye. Crumbling apart, the garden plants were thriving. 

Probably one of the most impressive trees I came across in Cairo was a Banyan Tree - Ficus benghalensis. It's a famous tree in the city, known as the Cairo Tower tree, or Zamalek tree, and is more than 150 years old. What looks like the large tree in the middle of the road with a number of other large trees planted around it is, upon closer inspection,  one single tree.

Banyan trees begin life as an epiphyte (a plant that grows on another plant). Usually, the seed of an epiphyte will germinate in a crack or crevice of a host tree and when large enough will send down roots that anchor into the soil and eventually form a trunk. As the plant takes over the host with its own growth and forms a canopy the plant will send down further growth from its branches that will form new trunks. 

Cairo by night- taken from Cairo Tower looking South up the Nile

Al Azhar Park - Cairo

Al Azhar Park is a perfect way to escape the din of the city. The park is built on a 30-hectare site, surrounded by what looks like an apocalyptic-like landscape. The area used to be a dumping ground for rubble from earthquakes, wars, fires, and urban reconstruction and had reached a height of 45 meters tall. Aga Khan, a royal figure, had watched this pile of rubble grow over the decades from his palace terrace and one day in 1984 decided to clean it up and replace it with an Oasis. 

Mission accomplished!

Al-Hazar is an excellent garden that gets a lot of use from the public. It's composed of large grassed areas subdivided by low-growing hedging, intricately landscaped sections, water features, and forested areas. 

Roystonia regia -  Cuban royal palms are planted in rows alongside the central access of the garden 

The central access leads to a beautifully landscaped herb garden 

There are a number of elevated areas that provide excellent views, 4 or 5 restaurants and cafes, water features, ponds, and lots of brides and grooms posing for wedding photos. It's pretty magical at sunset.

A variety of drought-tolerant shrubs are densely planted and tightly trimmed serving as ground cover to the canopy trees.

That's all for this post, during the next post I'll be looking at horticulture along the Nile, Sugar Cane and a dive into some plants featured in Ancient Egyptian artifacts.  

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