You could say there are a few things to see in Egypt. I listened to the city wake up to the morning call to prayer under the shadow of the Great Pyramids. I lived on the banks of the Nile. I swam in the Red Sea. I stayed with Bedouins in the middle of the Black and White Desert and danced the night away, fueled by their hash tea. But forget about that stuff. If you want a place that is guaranteed to change your life, you’ll trash your guidebooks and head over to the Zamalek Fish Garden.
Otherwise known as the Aquarium Grotto Gardens, this century-old park was once a part of the royal gardens, and housed rare African fish and reptiles. In one quarter of the park lays a labyrinth of man made grottoes, constructed in the ugly, haphazard architectural vision of a deranged genius. Upon entering the grotto caves, I was immediately disoriented by the bizarre lighting – a mix of natural skylights, fluorescent, and incandescent spotlights that at random illuminate blank sections of walls, grotesque statues, or, mysteriously, nothing but the viewers themselves. When my eyes began to adjust, I became aware of eerie screeching sounds in the distance, and as I stepped into a main atrium deep inside the maze of caves, I realized that the fake caves are in fact inhabited by real bats, which explained the mild stench of guano.
There are four types of “aquariums” housed in the grotto labyrinth. The most common aquarium exhibits nothing at all; behind their filthy glass panes lay nothing but shadows, algae, broken light fixtures and remnants of aquatic seascapes. Next are the aquariums that do house live fish, though it’d be a stretch to really call them living. Random species are thrown together to aimlessly float in a murky slush under an eerie cast of green light. Many of the fish were dead, and it is obvious that the management plan is to replace the dead rather than take care of the living. The third type of tank contains rows of jars of formaldehyde crammed to the brim with dead fish. No identification tags are present, and there are often turtles curiously jammed in among the fish carcasses. The purpose of preservation is unclear, because the fish were initially put in the jars at various stages of decomposition. The last type of tank houses dioramas of aquatic scenes, exhibiting various types of taxidermied animals. Shells, and fragments of coral line the walls in a decorative style more akin to garish wallpaper than to nature. Chipped, splattered paint completes the backdrop. The taxidermy jobs are savage at best; huge stitches stretch across gaping gashes, skin is peeling and the eyes are at once empty and demonic. Some fish that were meant to be suspended from the air now lie scattered across the floor, with the nooses still tied around their necks. The most haunting specter is a taxidermied seal, which stares at the viewer in a grimace of death – its body stiff like a board, and patchy with decayed fur.
The entire experience is an aquatic nightmare, forcing one into frenzied meditation on the meaning of past in present. Nothing I have seen before quite captures the sense of stagnation that this place secretes. Upon leaving the grotto complex, I stumbled upon huge algae covered breeding pools that have been empty for many years, their canopy shelters ripped to shreds as if some mutant was born out of these tanks and went on a destructive rampage of the park. There are no attendants in the park, save for the sunglassed man who came upon me as I was exploring the restricted areas – he said nothing, but nodded and walked on, as if he had been observing my wandering all along.
I know that any future artistic visions I may hope to realize will not be free from the influence of this place. It caused me to look upon anything aesthetically pleasing with a sense of suspicion and distrust. The grottoes ripped apart the facade that disguises the ugly in the world and presented it as the thing of beauty which to admire. No art exhibit would be able to intentionally capture the sense of horrific immobility that this captures. It was a grotesque fantasy, a nightmarish spectacle, and in some cases, the one who experiences it feels on display, as if the stuffed seal suspended in a state of slowed decay is laughing at our reckless, naïve pursuit of true beauty. Maybe none of this makes sense to you. It still doesn’t make sense to me either. But I do know that if you wish to have any remnants of innocence or idealism destroyed, visit the Zamalek Fish Garden. Make sure you bring a friend.