The Azhar Park In Cairo and the Conservation and Revitalisation of Darb Al-Ahmar

Since its foundation by my ancestors the Fatimids in 969 (358h.), Cairo has been a vigorous hub of Islamic culture and civilisation. In spite of tremendous urban change and growth, it is still the richest treasure house of Islamic monuments anywhere in the world – a testimony to the generosity and variety of its cultural and architectural achievements.
My attachment to Cairo is, however, not based purely on its history. As one of the largest and most complex metropolises in the world, it provides dramatic insights into the full array of contemporary development problems. It also raises the question as to how to creatively re-connect an age-old heritage with the opportunities and demands of rapidly changing modern life, an issue which has been very much on my mind since the creation of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture over 20 years ago. More specifically, an increase in and improvement of scarce green surface within the city, one of the world’s densest urban agglomerations, is an urgent priority. Often overlooked, public open spaces have a great role to play in historic cities. Their improvement and consistent use, besides enhancing the civic sense of the city’s inhabitants, can often act as a catalyst for collateral private investments in urban rehabilitation.
Pursuing active urban revitalisation has become the main theme of the Historic Cities Support Programme (HCSP), another branch of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), established in 1991. From the beginning, the guiding principle behind this programme was to improve the quality of life of local communities through investment in their cultural heritage and through the rehabilitation of architecturally significant structures. This has been a goal in all earlier projects, from Baltit Fort and the surrounding settlements in Northern Pakistan to Zanzibar and its seafront. The sites in Cairo, which are the subject of this major HCSP project, offer a unique opportunity to implement the same principle on a much larger scale. Here, the Trust and the other donors involved in the project have the possibility to achieve something truly outstanding and fully commensurate with the potential of the place.
The history of this multi-faceted project, reaching back over a decade, has been an exhilarating process of discovery and opportunity. While at the beginning the idea was to provide the metropolis with a much-needed green space at the heart of its historic agglomeration, the progressive uncovering of 1.3 kilometres of historic wall led to another major task – giving a new “face” to the historic city as seen from the Park. Eventually, the conservation project for the wall itself, being inseparable from the abutting historic city fabric, led AKTC to consider a third, equally important priority, i.e., launching a combined physical and social rehabilitation process in the neighbouring area of the Park, the Darbal-Ahmar district. In keeping with the general strategy for HCSP projects, it was clear that the Park construction, as well as the Historic Wall conservation, could and should also act as stimuli for the rehabilitation of Darb al-Ahmar. Accordingly, the Trust has initiated a range of community-based urban upgrading projects that contribute to the improvement of living conditions in the vicinity of the Park by providing cultural, social, economic and institutional support.
Through their interaction, these three projects, which will truly transform this significant area of Cairo, have called for a substantial increase in the human and financial resources invested by the Trust. For the work in Darb al-Ahmar, the Trust was fortunate to find committed partners such as the Ford Foundation and the Swiss-Egyptian Development Fund to support the ongoing rehabilitation process, which will have to be pursued on a long-term basis beyond the completion of the Park. Similarly, the comprehensive conservation of the Historic Wall is a five-to-eight year project. It has been established in cooperation with the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo and will be managed by the Trust with the participation of other organisations, such as the French Institute for Archaeology. Substantial parts of the wall conservation and Darb al-Ahmar rehabilitation projects should be visible when the Park opens.