Hola egiptomaniacos, en Al-Ahram sale un reportaje sobre el zoo de El Cairo
Esta en inglés
A view from the top
Planners at the Giza Zoo are busy restoring the oldest zoo in the region to its former splendour, notably the caves in the newly renovated citadel hills, writes Dena Rashed
Click to view caption
Clockwise from above: Sedki with many plans ahead; the hall of the citadel hills; palms, lakes and corals all make the hills a unique refuge
The clamour of the streets surrounding the Giza Zoo in Cairo and the voices of the thousands of visitors who each day visit it disappear once one enters the historic citadel hills, also known as the royal hills, at the zoo's heart. These artificial hills, built in 1867, have now been renovated and reopened to the public, allowing a respite from the maddening noise outside. Their newly renovated condition is a sign of things to come and part of an ambitious scheme to restore the zoo's international standing after years of neglect.
The Giza Zoo, originally opened to the public in 1891, developed over the later decades of the 19th century from being the gardens of the Khedive Ismail to a major public park and attraction for Egyptians of all classes. The uniqueness of the zoo lay not only in its possession of rare animal species and plants, but also in its lay-out and design. Gustave Eiffel, the engineer behind the Eiffel Tower in Paris, built a metal suspension bridge in the grounds that allows visitors a view of the animals from the top of artificial hills. The old fences, pathways, lakes and many of the original animal houses also reflect the dedication put into the original design of the zoo.
Built of brick, the citadel hills, the most striking remaining feature of the khedive's original design, were cleverly covered with corals, petrified wood and stone from the Egyptian desert in order to create picturesque artificial hills like those pioneered in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris. The narrow entrance to the caves in the hills manages to hide their artificial design and setting, and a path decorated with coloured mosaics and surrounded with large palm trees and cactuses leads to a plateau near their top, from where paths twist upwards to allow a grand view from the top itself.
In the caves inside, water flows among the corals and leads to a small artificial waterfall. The place is decorated with statues of reptiles, birds and the extinct Egyptian Fayoum rhinoceros.
After years of closure, the citadel hills have now been reopened to the public, though at the comparatively high entrance fee of LE30. Before their renovation, "trees had grown to cover the hills, weeds had covered the rare plants, and even the pipes feeding the streams were old and leaking," Nabil Sedki, superintendent of the Cairo Zoological Gardens, a department of the Ministry of Agriculture, told the Weekly.
He also announced that the renovation of the hills had been financed from the limited resources of the zoo. "We depended on our own workers and gardeners to bring back this gem, and we succeeded in doing this in just four months," he says.
The reception given to the renovated hills has been just as enthusiastic from members of the public and from Cairo's civil society organisations. For Mahi Noureddin of the Egyptian Association for Serving Society and the Environment, for example, the reopening of the citadel hills reinforces the idea that the zoo is not just about animals. Instead, "it is also a cultural centre comprising some amazing gardens. It is a piece of our heritage that needs preservation."
For architect Salah Zaki of the Friends of Historical and Public Gardens Society, 90 per cent of the renovation work carried out on the hills has met the original standards. While white marble should not have been used in the renovation work, since it is not part of the original design, "most of the restoration has been carried out to a very high standard," he says.
Despite being a perfect place to share secrets, due to the surrounding quiet and the cool, airy design, the caves were also designed to magnify the voices of people inside, so on a recent visit it was not difficult to hear people sharing memories of visiting the caves years, or even decades, ago. Some felt that the place had revived their youth, while others remembered scenes from films that had used the caves and the hills above them as sets.
However, the new entrance fee probably will not allow many young people living on limited resources to live out the kind of moments that their parents or grandparents enjoyed.
The fee has been set comparatively high because the caves need to be protected from being swamped by visitors. Thousands of families visit the zoo every day, sometimes as many as 10,000 visitors per day, and as a result preserving the caves, the hills above them, and the many rare plants these host from too many tramping feet has become one of the zoo's priorities.
Schoolgirls interviewed by the Weekly on a recent visit were astonished to find that the zoo hosted the caves in the first place. This was their first visit to the zoo, and the group already had plans for further visits. "We would really like to know more about the heritage of the zoo," said Maha Sabri, 16, while her friend, Iman Allam, hoped that more information on the animals could be given. "A guide who could tour the zoo with us would also be great," she said.
The zoo is particularly popular among schoolchildren, who gather round the cages of the animals in excitement. Groups of boys walk around with stereos or drums, sometimes disturbing visitors and animals. Indeed, according to Mahi Noureddin raising visitors' awareness of the animals is essential if young people are to learn more about their heritage, and this means learning to respect the animals' needs.
Yet, there are also other problems that need to be solved if the zoo is to flourish, some of them raised last August in an interview with Nabil Sedki in the Weekly, during which he candidly discussed the zoo's problems. One of his main tasks, he explained, was to reactivate Egypt's membership of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) and of the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZAB), which had somehow been allowed to lapse.
WAZA aims to provide technical support for the world's zoos and aquariums as part of its mission to ensure animal welfare, while PAAZAB promotes similar values on the regional level. Reactivating Egyptian membership in both associations would mean that the Giza Zoo could connect more easily with other zoos all over the world, as well as in Africa.
Sedki told the Weekly that WAZA had inspected the Giza Zoo in 2003 and had drawn up a list of 14 main recommendations for improvements, bringing the zoo up to international standards. Declining standards at the zoo had meant that WAZA had been reluctant to endorse the facility, but another reason why the zoo had lost its membership was due to the fact that membership payments had not been made. As a result the Giza Zoo, once highly ranked internationally, had lost its connections with regional and international zoo bodies.
Sedki, accompanied by his team and by a number of Egyptian animal-rights groups, has dedicated efforts to restoring the zoo to its former standards, and thus to regaining its pre-eminent regional position. "They know that we are serious and that we are trying to develop the zoo, and we have received good responses from both associations," Sedki said.