Al - Azhar Park

Al- Azhar Park

Watch / development
Egypt’s Newest Jewel
By: Jacky Tuinstra

The opening of the largest public park in the region has been delayed until fall, but residents of Cairo’s Darb Al-Ahmar district are already reaping the benefits

PICKING OUT A PRESENT for the city of Cairo is like shopping for that aunt who has absolutely everything: The nation’s capital is so jam-packed with things that what the Agha Khan, the spiritual figurehead of the Ismailis, thought it really needed was space.

The 30-hectare Al-Azhar Park (admittedly not the easiest thing to wrap) was conceived in the 1980s as the Agha Khan’s gift to the city founded by his Fatimid ancestors in 969. The Historic Cities Program, a branch of the Agha Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), selected the site on Al-Darassa to become the Middle East’s largest park — and one of Cairo’s most innovative urban development projects.

The Agha Khan has a sentimental link with Cairo because of the Fatimid dynasty,” says the Historic Cities Program’s Stefano Bianca. “Cairo is also perhaps the most prominent example of a historic city in the Islamic World.”

Originally set to open last October, then in March, the park’s inauguration has been again delayed until this fall as construction lags behind. Ground broke on the project in 1997, after planners figured out how to integrate enormous USAID-funded water tanks into the design.

Planning the park, which is bordered by Al-Azhar and Salah Salem streets, was a rare opportunity for Sites International, the project’s lead architects.

What we have tried to do with the park is to have a real relationship with its Islamic context, not just mimic it,” says Sites’ Maher Stino.

The park includes gardens, pedestrian paths, promenades and pavilions in classic Islamic style. Above the now-concealed water tanks is a children’s playground. Attractive but useful, a large man-made lake irrigates the park’s wide variety of plant life, grown both on site and off. Two-thirds of the park will be covered in vegetation.

Cairo’s elite will delight in a five-star restaurant and café. “The park is meant for local residents,” says the Agha Khan Foundation’s Mohammed Mikawi, “but it also has to sustain itself.” While upper-class cash will help sustain the park, Mikawi says, patrons from the adjoining neighborhood of Darb Al-Ahmar will benefit from lower admission fees and can have access to some areas for free.

Mikawi says the foundation is targeting 1-2 million visitors per year.

Darassa wasn’t much to look at before — a shelter for police horses, a storage site and an ancient garbage heap — but its proximity to Islamic Cairo’s hotspots gave it hidden potential. Excavators working on the park were surprised to uncover 1.3 kilometers of the 13th century Ayyubid Wall. For centuries, Cairenes had tossed their debris over the side of the wall, to the point that a mid-1600s French traveler wrote that the garbage hid the wall of the Old City completely. By the time the foundation came along, the structure wasn’t on any of the historical maps it consulted. Today, some 1.5 kilometers of the wall are visible after builders removed 1 million cubic meters of dirt, in which excavators found 12th century inscriptions, pottery and coins.

“The wall is one of the most important Islamic finds of the modern day,” says the AKTC’s Francesco Silva, who explains that it will be a focus of an interpretive visitor’s center, which will provide the kind of information about Islamic Cairo that tourists now lack.

Unsavory as it seems, the mighty trash heap provides the park with its most valuable asset: its elevation over Islamic Cairo. Visitors are guaranteed a view of the Citadel and can see as far as the Giza Pyramids on a clear day.

The minarets of Darb Al-Ahmar puncture the skyline to the west. Although Darb Al-Ahmar is probably best known as a den of drugs and crime, the AKTC and Agha Khan Cultural Service-Egypt (AKCS-E) wanted to focus on the neighborhood as a gateway to history. The neighborhood is home to 65 monuments registered by the Supreme Council of Antiquities, as well as to several unregistered but significant buildings.

In addition to restoring the wall, the AKTC enlisted New York’s World Monuments Fund to restore the 14th century Umm Sultan Shaaban Mosque, whose minaret was in distress after the 1992 earthquake. The 13th century Khayrbek Complex will be made functional again as a recreational and cultural center.

Likewise, the Darb Shoughlan School is undergoing a makeover and will be turned into a community center, while the Tablita Market, a pedestrian space the government had threatened to remove, will be renovated. Under the AKTC’s plan, vendors will be hawking their wares from a newer, enclosed market space.

At first, Darb Al-Ahmar’s residents didn’t welcome the Agha Khan’s projects with open arms, especially after the discovery of the buried wall.

“Local residents were initially afraid their houses would be demolished and they didn’t understand why we were really there,” says Seif El-Rashidi, an AKCS-E project manager, explaining that many feared a law that gives the state permission to demolish buildings that border historic sites.

“But the value of a historic area is not just in old buildings, but in the fact that it is a living area,” El-Rashidi continues. Rather than “doing some restoration and going away,” he says, the foundation set up a system under which old buildings are given new uses to keep the community connected to them.

“It was a revolutionary idea to use a landscaping project as an engine for a rehabilitation process. This changed the face and fate of the Old City,” Bianca claims.

In the end, the AKTC’s philosophy of conservation convinced residents to work with the organization.

“Modern conservation policies can only be done in the context of an existing city,” Bianca says. As opposed to old-school conservationists who want to isolate monuments from their contemporary context, Bianca and El-Rashidi say their approach is to consider the monuments as part of the evolving history of a neighborhood, preserving the modern urban space along with the antiquities.

“It wasn’t enough to have a park — we needed to address the society here,” El-Rashidi says. “More than restoration, we must address socioeconomic issues, because if you don’t improve, for example, garbage collection, then what is the point of restoring a few mosques? We want to link the improvement of buildings to the improvement of quality of life.”

Darb Al-Ahmar residents say their problems begin with high unemployment, poor planning, sanitation, sewage and garbage collection — and are ultimately personified in the crumbling, but potentially beautiful, old buildings. The foundation tapped into the neighborhood’s pool of skilled workers and its tightly knit sense of community.

“Compare Darb Al-Ahmar with Gamaleya in the Khan El-Khalili, and you’ll find it has a more stable community life, has more direct enterprise and is a true example of close, coherent residential community. It is more of a living community,” Bianca says.

Under a system of low-cost loans, individual residents can discuss with AKCS-E what needs to be renovated in their homes. AKCS-E arranges for the work to be carried out and then factors in a repayment scheme with the residents. Not purely aesthetic, the renovations have addressed much-needed structural changes.

“People didn’t believe our intentions, but now everyone wants their house renovated,” says El-Rashidi.

Building on Darb Al-Ahmar’s many small construction shops, AKCS-E established a training center for carpenters, helping them learn new production techniques and teaching them how to contribute to the Agha Khan projects.

Khaled Abdel Hafez Bayoumi, the project’s chief carpenter, has been working at the Agha Khan workshop for four years. A carpenter for 25 years, he has lived in Darb Al-Ahmar his entire life.

“The Agha Khan workshop pays good money, and also you have a teacher to teach us about the furniture,” he says. “I’ve learned many things from the teacher here, like how to sketch, how to design a good chair, how to calculate the cost of the furniture before I make it.”

Bayoumi says the project has created new job opportunities throughout the neighborhood.

“This makes a place for everyone in Darb Al-Ahmar,” he says. “Before, it was hard to get a good salary; now more people are working.”

AKTC wants to declare the neighborhood a special district, subject to different planning laws, which will lessen the burden of the issued-but-unimplemented demolition orders that plague the area. The formation of a locally based Community Development Corporation will help NGOs, the government and the private sector to encourage development after AKCS-E and its partners leave. (Darb Al-Ahmar’s urban renewal is being carried out in conjunction with the Ford Foundation, the Swiss Development Fund and the governorate of Cairo.)

With 320 vacant lots in the area, project managers say there is immense potential.

The Park that started it all is already causing a stir in the surrounding community. Normally confined to rooftops, neighborhood children have already been invited to fly kites in the park on a few occasions.

Erasing the area’s sullied reputation will take time, but Bayoumi is optimistic his neighbors will one day be proud to say they are from Darb Al-Ahmar.

“We’re already starting to repair some houses and make things better,” he says. “I would like Darb Al-Ahmar to be like a star in the world.” et