Aquarium Grotto Garden: The Only Fish Garden in Cairo
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
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.