About 45 minutes south of Downtown Cairo by Metro, Helwan is a small city that blends the hustle and bustle of Cairo proper with clean air and less traffic. Leaving the Metro station, a huge open-air market offers everything from bananas to tasers, all for a negotiated price.
Three minutes away, however, one can find the Japanese Gardens, a truly unique cultural landmark for the predominantly Muslim Middle East. That’s because, particularly in very religious Muslim societies, depictions of religious icons is a contentious issue. This is especially true of depictions of God and Mohammad, but extreme interpretations of this same rule have led to some notorious political incidents, such as when the Taliban blew up the gigantic Buddhas of Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan with dynamite in March 2001.
Yet, precisely because of this subtext, the Japanese Gardens – which feature several Buddha statues – provides a counterexample of how religious cultures can be incorporated in Muslim communities. Indeed, the gardens are cherished by the local community, perhaps because anyone can enjoy a quiet, peaceful, and relaxing day just sitting in the small meadows that are interspersed between the statues and pavilions. For an entry fee of 2 Egyptian pounds, the Japanese Gardens offer a cheap and easy excursion from the normal Cairo routine.
Photos: Helwan, Cairo – October 6, 2011. The Japanese Gardens in Helwan consist of a square mile of meadows, statues, and pavilions.