We are all aware that Cairo is a bustling city packed with cars and crowds galore, which is to be expected given that it is Egypt’s capital city and home to the magical Great Pyramids. Many assume that the city that doesn’t sleep lacks a place of quiet and serenity and even…endless green. Surprisingly to many, this isn’t the case, for in the heart of City lies a park filled with green gardens, beautiful architecture and interesting people.
Writing needs a mood, an ambience even, I couldn’t sit in the office a second longer, I wanted green and calm. I decided to pack my things and go on an exploration of Al Azhar Park, the biggest park in Egypt. The story of the park begins around 70 years ago when Agha Khan IV, descendant of the Fatimid Dynasty and the 49th Imam of the Nizari Islamists, decided to donate $30 million to build Al Azhar Park in the heart of Old Islamic Cairo as a gift to the city that once belonged to his ancestors and was built by them. As a result, the ideal location was chosen between the Ayyubid city of the 12th century and the Mameluke City of the Dead in the 15th century. The Historic Cities Support Program, which is part of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, began working on the project in a 75-acre area near El Darrassa that had previously been filled with trash accumulated over 500 years.
On the other hand, my story is one that took place back when I missed the opportunity to take a friend of mine, who came to visit from the United States to Al Azhar Park, but one sentence he said stayed with me for a long time. He informed me he learned about the park from one of the taxi drivers with whom he had then went on to ask me, “is Al Azhar Park your own version of Central Park here?” Central Park an emblem for New York City, is a grand park also in the heart of the city and I thought to myself that the comparison was justified.
So here I am at the park, having paid my 25-pound admission fee, and ready to explore. Once within the park, the lush trees and scenery took on wonderful quality. Green trees and many varieties of flowers could be seen virtually everywhere you went. It’s the ideal spot to sit, relax, and think about nothing except the greenery around you, I thought. The public is invited to reconnect with nature at Al Azhar Park. While exploring the park, I met a lovely gentleman named, “Sobhy” who wanted to get away from Cairo’s noises and find peace. When I asked him about his first pick, he said that Al Azhar Park is his favorite spot to unwind and forget about his college exams and other duties, as well as hang out with his friends and enjoy a tranquil and calm atmosphere.
After some fresh air walking to cleanse my spirit from all the car exhaust I had inhaled on the way, I was fortunate enough to meet “Nader,” another gentleman who was amazed by the park for the first time in his life. Working as a private driver for a family, and the family wanting to have a picnic in the park with their friends, he decided to drop them off and hang out. Nader even called his wife and told her that it would be the ideal location for their next outing and for the kids to enjoy the outdoors. He was blown away by the open areas, tours, food, and playground built for kids to let off steam, especially as final exams are coming to an end and summer break is approaching.
Food: A taste of Middle Eastern cuisine
I was hungry after a few hours of strolling and looking through the park’s huge gardens, as well as learning more about diverse experiences from the people there, and it was time for a good meal. There are several restaurants in Egypt, but one stands out as a cornerstone with its cuisine, which we Egyptians love. This movie-themed eatery specializes in grilled dishes and has been dubbed “the apex of grilled food in Egypt” by many. Yes, we’re talking about Studio Masr, the one and only.
As soon as I walked into the restaurant, I was struck by the stunning Islamic architecture, which made the establishment stand out because it provided both indoor and outdoor dining areas. To learn more, I chatted with “Mahmoud,” an 8-year employee who stated that Studio Misr started in 2005 and has hosted a variety of crowds over the years.
According to Mahmoud, they hire out tables for children’s birthday parties, corporate outings, and even weddings. Mahmoud further stated that the number of tables has dropped since the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide sufficient social separation, but that this does not prevent people from visiting and enjoying various grilled dishes. “The restaurant was fully booked last week since families flocked on the first day of Eid, and then couples and friend groups came and filled the place,” says Mahmoud.
It was time to meet more people in the park after viewing Studio Misr and see what they were up to at such an hour, people watching being one of the many amusing things to do at the park. I met an elderly couple, Abdel-Latif and Marwa, who talked about how important the park is to them and how they used to spend their time there throughout the years, “we like to come here in the mornings, especially during the week since we have a lot of responsibilities, and we like to come early to avoid the enormous crowds that generally flood the park on weekends and nights.”
Additionally, I met a young couple who had just married four months ago, and they were not the only pair there. Ghada and Omar were their names, and they both decided to utilize the park as a safe haven to talk about their problems in a peaceful environment, making reasonable life decisions while being collected and visible. The park’s visual appeal actually fosters people’s souls and allows for good conversations and fascinating stories to take place there I thought.
Fortunately for me, Egyptians were not the only visitors to the park, as I met two lovely Yemeni gentlemen named Mohamed and Ibrahim. They both told me that it was their first visit to the park and that they were curious as to why such a lovely place like this was not adequately advertised in Egyptian media. They were thoroughly enjoying the many aspects of the park and stated that they will be returning for a second…and perhaps a third time!
With so much to do at the park and so little time in the day I found out about more activities I never knew were in the park, including a telescope for viewing the magnificent section of the city and tours provided by Al-Darb al-Ahmar Touristic Routes, which transport tourists and locals to numerous historical places where modernity and history harmoniously intertwine. The Abo Heriba mosque, the Amir al-Maridani Mosque, and the al-Salih Tala’i Mosque are among them.
So, if you’re looking for a place to unwind, relax, and forget about the outside world, Al Azhar Park is the place to go!