Cairo to be Garden City once again-The building of a park reverses centuries of neglect and uncovers historic treasures - 2005-03-12
In the desert, an oasis is akin to paradise and in the sands of Egypt, many of history's greatest gardens flowered on the banks of the Nile.But in Cairo, a city of 16 million people that has ballooned on the ruins of many Islamic dynasties from the 8th century Abbasid Caliphs to 19th century Ottomans, there has been, for several generations, barely a footprint of unbuilt open space for each of the city's inhabitants. Cairo has been choking on natural dust storms, the grit of modernity and even the smoke of kebab grills that are set up along the river bank every evening - with nary a green spot to retreat to. Until now.
On March 25, a 74-acre park called Al-Azhar will be inaugurated under the philanthropic auspices of the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's 20 million Ismaili Muslims who are descended from the 12th century Fatimid rulers of Cairo. The Aga Khan has long advocated the improvement of Islamic architecture for the benefit of Muslim societies around the world. Now he has turned his attention toward a significant $30 million park for a city once filled with gardens.
On a site where garbage had been dumped for more than 500 years nearly 25 feet deep, three new sunken reservoirs provide invisible succor. A children's playground and other special features top them. The rest of Al-Azhar park includes a sequence of formal gardens filled with groves of fruit and flowering trees, fountains and an artificial lake studded with a modern lakeside café. A central allee of royal palms lines a path that has views of Islamic Cairo's minarets and domes.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture based in Geneva masterminded the programs that have made this enormous public works project possible. For nearly a decade, the Trust worked figuratively and literally alongside city officials, other donors and private citizens to move mountains of garbage. But the garbage included fascinating archeological treasures: The most important historic discovery after excavation work began in 1997 was the uncovering of the 12th century Ayyubid wall that once ringed the city to ward off Crusaders. It had been buried under the rubble of centuries and now marks the edge of the former dump site and Darb al-Ahmar, a slum that adjoins the park itself.
The Trust's Historic Cities Support Programme began a tandem retrieval of a mile-long section of the Ayyubid defensive wall, which has painstakingly been restored to its former glory. Apartments and streets in adjacent Darb al- Ahmar are being rebuilt, repainted and revived beyond many of the inhabitants' wildest dreams. Serendipitously, the restoration work has revived ancient tiling and metallurgy crafts, stone masonry and carpentry, all long dormant in Cairo's poorest section where historic mosques, a 13th century palace and an Ottoman house still stand. These changes underscore the Aga Khan's conviction that such rehabilitation projects improve lives.
Some of the slum area residents in the historically significant district have reportedly complained about the gentrification of their neighborhood but, from atop the elevated Al-Azhar park, supporters and detractors alike can now view history anew.
Al-Azhar is now Cairo's newest treasure and perhaps for its least privileged inhabitants, a step toward paradise.