During the golden days of Egyptian cinema, almost all films had one scene in common: where a couple on a romantic rendezvous are in a garden surrounded by beautiful roses with background sounds of birds and ducks. Now in a time when we desperately need more oxygen to fill the air, we can’t help but wonder: where did those perfect gardens go? Luckily, we came close to the answer in the Aquarium Grotto Garden.
Located on Gabalaya Street in Zamalek, the Aquarium Grotto Garden (Genenit El Asmak in Arabic) was once a private property of Khedive Ismail and a natural haven for lovers more than a century ago. Today, the garden has grown to be less popular than it once was, perhaps due to a severe degradation from its original state when it was first opened to the public in the 19th century.
For one thing, the garden doesn’t contain as many fish as one would expect from one of the few aquariums in Egypt. They aren’t easy to find, either; only one of the many passageways holds weary tanks that seem to have been neglected for a long while now. The general state of the garden also needs a lot of renovations. Several ceramic fountains that were once filled with water are now dry to the point of cracking. Even the cats and birds that occasionally roam around seem depressed.
That being said, the garden is blessed with a great construction design that has withstood both age and maltreatment. The basic planning of the garden was designed by an Italian engineer hired by the khedive to produce an Italian garden. The interlocked passages made from real lime make it fun to get lost in them while exploring the park.
The garden has a lot more to offer than at first glance. Though the number of sea creatures aren’t many, some are really worth seeing, including rare species varied in colours, shapes and features. You can spot a hundred-year-old sea turtle beside a special fish that can clean its own tank. In addition to viewing live fish, you can also find different kinds of mummified fish and sea snakes (some of which are several metres long), kept in labelled jars with information on their origins and life cycle.
The covered path that hosts all the fish tanks had another function during the khedive days. There is an empty space where singers and dancers once performed for the khedive, who watched from a seating area on a higher level. Now the space is still kept empty as it was; but now it features something that sticks to the visitor’s memory: very squeaky bats mounted on the ceiling!
The security guards are very helpful if you need directions or information. While leading us throughout the garden, one guard told us interesting facts about films and shows that have been filmed and exactly where they were shot. Apparently, Abdel Halim Hafez's apartment can be spotted from inside the garden where he used to come for walks or to film scenes.
One thing that adds to the garden’s attraction is how it’s a quiet, peaceful spot in the middle of the noise of Cairo. On normal days, fine arts students come to paint the scenery; the quietness emphasized by the low number of visitors makes this grotto a suitable place for peaceful walks in the early morning.
Though the garden has been portrayed in films as a romantic spot for couples; families also go for picnics, and kids can ride their bikes around the garden. There's a small seating area where you can have a refreshing drink near what may have once been a lake. The garden lacks seating, but it's easy to find a place under a tree and have a true, classical picnic experience.
The Aquarium Grotto Garden is a nice place to take a walk while pretending that you’re in a classic Egyptian film. With renovations supposedly happening soon, the garden will have its regular visitors back to enjoy the green scenery and marvel at the rare, colourful fish.