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Volume 21, Number 6November/December 1970

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The Zoo Story

Written by John Brinton
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

During half a century I have visited the Cairo Zoo countless times. My father took me there for the first time in 1922, My last visit was at Christmas time 1969, when my daughter and I spent an enchanting morning visiting old friends amid an aura of calm and contentment quite at odds with the troubled state of affairs in Egypt and the Arab world.

It was during this visit that I began to wonder how such a splendid zoo had come into existence in an area where animals are not overly popular. To find an answer I consulted a short history of zoology in Egypt by Dr. Lewis Keimer, a noted German Egyptologist, who had, conveniently, included a section on the Cairo Zoo.

According to Dr. Keimer animal collecting in Egypt dates back to the 5th Dynasty (2500 B.C.). Wild animals were captured, probably in connection with some religious cult, and kept in the sacred temple compounds. There is a bas-relief at Sakkara which shows two lions in strong wooden boxes, dragged by slaves. A third slave follows with two gazelles in a sling over his shoulder.

The Pharaoh Thutmose III (1504-1450 B.C.), was also interested in flora and fauna, and instructed his armies to bring local specimens back from Syria. These can be seen at Karnak in a series of bas-reliefs known as "the botanical garden of Karnak." Another pharaoh, Akhenaton (1372-1354 B.C.), had a large park of rare plants and animals at his new capital at Tel-el-Amarna and it also seems likely that Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt (332 B.C.-A.D. 30) had a zoological garden in Alexandria. It is certain that they assembled menageries and displayed them during victory processions.

Until the 4th century A.D., animals were also collected and kept by religious cults. Then, under the Roman Emperor Theodosius, a Christian, the cults were abolished, the temples destroyed, and the animals moved to special parks near Christian churches. They were seen and reported on by Christian pilgrims during the 5th century.

In the Middle Ages the new masters of Egypt continued to take a great interest in catching and taming wild animals, especially the cheetah, which was used for hunting. Maqrizi, the Arab historian, gives a detailed account of the palace gardens and the menagerie kept by the Tulinid Prince Khumarawayh (A.D. 883-895).

According to European travelers who came to Egypt during the Circassian Mamelukes' rule (1382-1517), and later during the Turkish rule (from 1517), lions, elephants and giraffes were caged in the menageries attached to the palaces. In 1436 Pero Tafur, a Spaniard, saw seven elephants and a "girafe." Some 20 years later Roberto da Sanseverino, a Milanese count, relates that he saw the "girafe" but that all the elephants were dead except for one which had been sent as a present to the Sultan of Turkey. Andre Thevet mentions that in 1556 the Pasha of Egypt kept a large variety of animals in a castle overlooking Cairo. One of the curiosities was a rhinoceros which he describes as being a large animal with four feet and a horn on his nose—a great enemy of the elephant.

During the Napoleonic occupation in 1798, a Frenchman made an attempt to gather together all the animals in the possession of the Mamelukes, and place them in a park. By the time Muhammad Ali (see page 18) emerged as the ruler of modern Egypt, the menagerie—one weary elephant, and a few threadbare lions chained to the entrance of the Citadel—was "pretty wretched," as one writer said. Over the years, more and more travelers mention seeing a wider selection of animals. During the last years of Muhammad Ali's reign an American traveler from Buffalo related that, "coming from a visit to the Citadel I was told that a fine lion from Dongala (Sudan) was to be seen, and I stopped to take a look at his majesty. It was an enormous red lion, a fine specimen."

About 1850, Maxime du Camp, the first photographer to come to Egypt, mentions that Abbas Pasha, son of Muhammad Ali, had transferred his father's collection from the Citadel to some wonderful new gardens at Shoubra and that the chief display was an enormous elephant, chained to a tree. Some years later, an Englishman, John Gadsfay, reported that this same elephant had been transported to Alexandria. That same year the sad news was reported by a German, A.E. Brehm, that the said elephant had been drowned in Lake Mariotis. How, we shall never know, but it is interesting that early travelers have enabled us in their reports to follow the life and death of an elephant!

During the reign of Sa'id Pasha (1854-1863) the first serious effort to establish public parks in Alexandria and Cairo began, but the project was completed by Ismail Pasha (1863-1879), the extravagant impres-sario responsible for the grand opening of the Suez Canal (Aramco World, September-October, 1969). It was on Gezira, a Nile island owned by Ismail, that Cairo's first public garden was planted. It included a small zoological garden and an aquarium built in the form of a grotto, and streams of running water pumped up from the Nile watered it all. The aquarium exists till this day.

Officially, however, the Cairo Zoo did not come into being until Wilfred E, Jennings-Bramly was offered the job of creating a new zoological garden at Giza. Major Jennings-Bramly, who had come out to Egypt to serve as private secretary to the Khedive Tewfik, told me shortly before his death what he remembered concerning his work in founding the Cairo Zoo.

The site chosen for the zoo was the garden of an old palace of Ismail Pasha's, and Jennings-Bramly immediately proposed to divide the gardens into two large enclosures, bordered by high railings, with a path down the center. In one enclosure carnivorous animals could roam at will, and in the other the herbivorous. Had the plan worked it would have anticipated London's Whipsnade Zoo plan by years, but it had to be shelved when furious Egyptians accused him of "caging" them, while allowing the animals to run free.

One of the first wild animals to arrive was a lion from the Sudan, in a wooden cage so small it gave him no room in which to turn around. He was eventually transferred to a large iron cage, the first of its kind in Egypt, and subsequently developed an affectionate regard for his keeper. Every time he saw him the lion would come to the bars to be petted and scratched and the young man obliged. The lion fully repaid these kindnesses when the keeper was called up for his military service. The lion refused to eat and the keeper was promptly exempted from service and returned to the zoo.

Another early favorite was a Russian wolf which seemed large and fierce, but was in actual fact quite tame. The wolf was very useful when Jennings-Bramly wished to clear the garden. He simply let the wolf out of his cage and let him run through the gardens. He "cleared the people out in no time," Major Jennings-Bramly chuckled.

Major Jennings-Bramly lived in an old 500-room, 20 million-franc palace built by Ismail to house his harem, and which was later used to house Egyptian antiquities before the present museum was built. Jennings-Bramly found it large and delightful, except for one problem: no Egyptian servant would remain there at night. They believed that at night "the ghosts of all Ismail's murdered wives went out of the palace and hurried to one of the huge, iron-gated entrances where carriages awaited them, and drove them off." For six months Jennings-Bramly lived alone in the palace at night, without harm, but still without servants. Then a friend came to visit and when no harm came to him either, it was gradually felt that the ghosts had been buried.

Animals—and visitors—soon began to arrive at the zoo in great numbers. And Major Jennings-Bramly, whose knowledge of zoology was limited, was only too happy to turn over the direction of the zoo to a professional, Major Stanley Flower. Flower was only 20 when he was appointed director of the Zoological Gardens of Giza, but it was he who deserves the credit for creating and organizing the scientific institution that still exists today. By carefully selecting and preserving a great variety of foreign animals, reptiles and birds, and by developing unique settings for their display, Major Flower made it one of world's most famous zoos. Flower also pioneered today's preservation movement by defending game in Egypt and Sudan. He also fought for and saved such valuable insect-eating birds as the lovely buff-backed herons, which had been reduced, at one time, to a few colonies. Today they can be seen by thousands all over Egypt.

As I was musing about all that during that Christmas vacation in 1969 my daughter had guided me through the old turnstile and down some steps into the gardens where gorgeous red, green and white parrots sat arrogantly on large, high perches amid a colorful array of flowers. Birds are everywhere in the Cairo Zoo and it is often difficult to tell the wild ones from the permanent, residents. Not far from the entrance is a huge wire cage where vultures, eagles and other birds of prey sit on tree trunks and branches erected inside the cage, monsters, evil-looking scavengers, with little to scavenge except the offal thrown to them by their keepers which they tear to bits with their great hooked talons.

Further on, there are more pleasant birds, storks and the dignified but comic secretary birds, buff-backed herons, a colony of flamingos in a shallow pond, ducks, geese, and swans.

Among the nicest aspects of the zoo are the superb trees from all over the world raising their branches toward the sky on all sides, a green paradise of leaves through which the sun shines in glittering blades of light onto the shadowed ground.

All around us was a great variety of people. Egyptians of all classes. Students in earnest groups led by their teachers, government officials and their families, workmen, soldiers, fellaheen, Bedouins, the bread seller with his basket of seed-encrusted rings balanced on his head.

The sidewalks in the zoo are laid out in intricate designs of red, white and black pebbles—like mosaics. This was originally the work of Italian artists imported by Khedive Ismail, but the tradition and work was maintained up to 1933, as one dated and inscribed design testified. Unfortunately, newer walks are made of cement.

Bordering the paths and scattered among the animal enclosures is a profusion of charming, sometimes grotesque pagodas, kiosks, gazebos and belvederes. Two hills near the hippopotamus lake are joined by a miniature suspension bridge under which flows an artificial river where enormous carp laze about between tall tufts of papyrus and giant water lilies. And nearby is a special pool enclosed by a high fence where the crocodiles, once the emblem of the Egyptian kingdom and even today a special creature, live on a small island. They lie so still we thought they were dead until a keeper threw them a bit of meat.

At the heart of any zoo, of course, are the animals, and the Cairo Zoo is splendidly endowed with animals. There are any number of fortunate gazelles, antelopes and zebras that, for a coin, the obliging keepers will let the children feed. And, of course, hippopotami, in a lake filled with water straight from the Nile. And lions and tigers and other big cats in a special building where keepers tempt them to spring against the bars and roar with anger, to the terrified delight of children clinging firmly to mama and papa's hands. People living in the neighborhood of the zoo hear them roaring sometimes during the night.

The most unlikely animals in semi-tropical Cairo are polar bears. They live in a large cage in a part of the zoo where the sun doesn't penetrate and where a shower runs permanently from the ceiling of the cage to keep them cool. On hot summer days they appear cooler than the spectators!

But the primates are always the main attraction, especially the colony of baboons in a sunken pit ringed with tables and chairs where visitors can sit, drink coffee, and observe the communal life at their feet. It's always interesting and amusing, and little goes on without the knowledge and approval of the chief baboon. He usually sits aloof, disdainfully watching his charges frolic about the pit, interfering only when there is misbehavior, and then with quick, severe punishment. For the Egyptians, young and old, who sit fascinated for hours, it's an action-packed show.

Next door is a tame elephant which the children can ride, an ostrich which pulls a little cart, and a huge tortoise which can carry a small child or two on its back. In former times it was a gay sight to see little Egyptian boys, their small red tarbooshes on the backs of their heads, riding the tortoises.

The reptile house is new and contains all that is mysterious, frightening and poisonous: Egyptian and Indian cobras, a sleepy boa constrictor digesting his once-a-month meal, non-reptiles such as scorpions and giant spiders. There is also the deadly Egyptian sand viper, its head scarcely visible against the sand it has burrowed into, as it coldly watches white mice scampering about the cage oblivious to the danger that awaits them.

We always finish our tour at a delightful "tea island," on an artificial lake connected to the mainland by a wooden bridge. Here you can sit beneath the trees at a table by the water's edge and watch ducks making perfect landings almost at your feet. Many of these ducks are wild visitors from abroad, as the bands on their legs testify. They mingle freely with the other ducks, swans and geese and show no fear, eating the crumbs we offer them out of our hands.

For me the visit brought back, as always, a sense of change. As I looked around at the thousands of Egyptians lying contentedly on the grass, sitting on benches, watching children play or listen to their transistors, I remembered when it was a quiet, very orderly place, greener, more tidy—and very dull. Today there is more disorder, more dust and untidiness, but more fun all around—a welcome legacy from Sa'id Pasha, and his British and Egyptian successors.

John Brinton, a frequent contributor, spent his childhood in Alexandria and spent many hours at the zoo which is the subject of this article.

This article appeared on pages 4-11 of the November/December 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1970 images.