A controversial decision by the Supreme Council of Antiquities to remove Cairo's Aquarium Grotto Garden from Egypt's list of antiquities has sparked uproar in Egypt. Preservationists and many citizens fear the move may pave the way for the destruction of the public park at the hands of developers.
The park, also known as the Fish Garden, is one of a handful of dwindling green spaces in a city crammed with concrete buildings and disorderly-built red-brick structures.
Defending the decision, Mustafa El Waziri, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Al Sharq Al Awsat,"There is no such thing as 'an archaeological park;' only buildings, monuments, and heritage sites may be registered as antiquities."
However, in an interview with TV talk show host Lamis El Hadidi on the privately-owned ON TV, El Waziri however contradicted himself, denying that the park would be written off the antiquities list.
"The park, affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture, was registered as an antiquity in 2010," noted El Waziri. He confirmed plans for a multi-story garage and a restaurant on a plot of land inside the Fish Garden. He insisted that no trees would be uprooted and that the development of the garden would in no way harm the registered antiquities.
The approximately 10-acre lush green area on Zamalek island is coveted by residents of the affluent central Cairo neighborhood many of whom perceive the park as "the green lung" that offers them and other city dwellers clean air and respite from the congestion of the crowded metropolis.
Dating back to 1867, the Fish Garden was established by Ottoman Khedive Ismail and got its name from the picturesque grottoes or caves that used to boast aquariums displaying an impressive collection of fish, turtles and even sharks as well as aquatic plants. Today, the garden's fountains have run dry and its caves have been reduced to empty, dark spaces, offering visitors respite from the scorching summer heat or couples a temporary hideout.
The leaked plan to remove the garden from the antiquities list and instead, register only its three historic kiosks and main grotto as relics worthy of preservation, evoked a public outcry from skeptics, wary of the government's motives for the move. The list documents heritage sites and monuments that the state considers worthy of preservation and protection.
In a rare rebuke of the government, Samira Al-Gazzar, a member of parliament, filed an urgent appeal to parliament Oct. 3. "I am addressing my questions to Dr. Khaled Al Anani, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, demanding that he explain clearly what is happening to our heritage, history, and archaeological parks following the public outrage over recent press statements concerning a review of the status of the Fish Garden."
Some social media users were more forthright in their criticism of the plan. "Is a ceramic-coating of the Pyramids next in line?" was a sarcastic question published by journalist Hania Moheeb on her Facebook page.
Seeking to quell the rising anger over the allegations, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities released a statement that the proposal is "the removal (from the antiquities list) of only a small part of the garden (not exceeding 0.5 acres) and which does not contain any buildings registered as antiquities."
The statement further affirmed that the proposal was presented to the Technical Committee and not to the administrative board of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the latter being the sole entity entrusted with decisions concerning the registration of antiquities. "The Council will not allow any action that would harm the antiquities in the garden or elsewhere in the country."
Minister of Agriculture El Sayed El Quseir paid a surprise visit to the garden Oct.4 and was quoted by the state-owned Akhbar El Yom news site as saying, "Our goal is to restore the garden's past glory." He insisted that "no development work will take place without prior approval from the Supreme Council of Antiquities."
But his comments failed to pacify preservationists. "Egypt has ratified the 1972 UNESCO Convention that entails that we protect our heritage with its historical landscape," reminded Monica Hanna, an Egyptologist who has fought tirelessly to expose the looting of Ancient Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic archaeological sites.
"The Ministry's plan contradicts this (the convention) and we should think of green solutions for transportation rather than creating more parking spaces," Hanna told Al-Monitor.
She continued, "Historic centers such as Florence, for example, have restricted traffic zones with special permits needed to access (by car) protected heritage sites. This encourages visitors to use public transportation and bicycles rather than cars in a bid to preserve the artifacts."
Many Egyptians are also skeptical about the government's plan to "develop the garden," having in recent years witnessed the razing of several historic monuments and the uprooting of hundreds of trees to make way for highways linking Cairo to a new administrative capital, currently under construction in the desert 35 km east of the city.
In July 2020, the walls of graves and mausoleums of politicians and famous writers in a 20th-century cemetery in historic Cairo's City of the Dead were bulldozed to make room for a new expressway, forcing families to relocate the bodies of loved ones to tombs elsewhere.
According to the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative, a preservationist group, some 400,000 square meters of green space (the size of more than 50 football fields) were razed in Heliopolis over a four-month period in the summer of 2020 to make space for highways cutting through the upmarket district. Some of the trees felled were of rare species dating back centuries.
In what many decried as "a tree massacre," scores of trees in the Merryland Park in Heliopolis were uprooted in March 2015 for an underground parking garage. A large area in the public park, owned by the public sector Heliopolis Housing and Development Company, was transformed into a barren wasteland. Then-Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmy insisted that the Ministry had not approved felling the trees. While the park has since undergone a facelift with the new-look Merryland Garden opening in March 2018, many Heliopolis residents protested plans to build an underground parking space and a theme park during the project's second phase, to no avail.
Earlier this year, however, plans to build yet another highway in Heliopolis stalled after an outcry from the district's residents. The flyover would have been constructed above the landmark Basilica Church in violation of a law prohibiting construction near or around heritage sites. The government was forced to backtrack, bowing under the immense pressure from a disgruntled public.
Preservationists like Hanna are hoping that the government will once again heed public calls and refrain from construction work in public parks. Usama Ghazali, an environmental researcher and former manager at Gebel Elba National Park, expressed doubt that the government will pay attention to citizens' protests.
"It will not surprise me if I see trees in the Fish Garden being destroyed to make room for a garage or some other service," Ghazali told Al-Monitor. "At a time when the rest of the world is seeking to protect and preserve national heritage at any cost, we in Egypt are replacing trees with concrete and in doing so, are not only destroying the environment but also obliterating parts of our history."