AL-AHRAM , Cairo
11 - 17 November 2004
Issue No. 716

Monument to fancy

In the heart of Old Cairo, on the edge of a slum, a park is born. Yasmine El-Rashidi watches a phoenix emerge from the ashes

photos: Mohamed Wassim - The 74-acre park with its undulating landscape of lawns, streams and lush vegetation, was a garbage dump

Cairo is a city of streets, pavements and apartment blocks. A city committed to tarmac and concrete, with a very low tolerance for nature and open space. Not only does it have no equivalent of London's Hyde Park or New York's Central Park, but even a truncated version of those urban gardens has always seemed an unlikely eventuality.

But we should remember that the city's relentlessly urban texture is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Cairo that was rebuilt by the Fatimids (969-974) and named Al-Qahira ("the victorious") consisted of 20 per cent open space (30 hectares) -- and this balance was preserved by both the Ayubids and the Mamelukes after them.

Over the past 50 years, however, the city has progressively suffocated its streets, stamping violently in recent years on any last remnants of open space and living foliage. Indeed, green space per Cairene inhabitant has long stood at the equivalent of just a footprint -- one of the lowest proportions in the world.

In such a smothered urban reality, it required an inspired visionary to dare imagine the creation of a park called "radiant" ( azhar ) -- a park which might rank with the great urban parks of the world. Conceptualised in 1984 by His Highness the Aga Khan (spiritual leader of the Ismaili Shia) as a means of coping with the city's urban growth, the Al-Azhar Park has been a long-time in the making -- work on it began as long ago as 1997. Even once the ground work had been laid, it was hard to imagine that the park would actually evolve into what it has become today -- a 74-acre scenic expanse to rival the most splendid garden of any of the other great metropolises. Foreseeing this was made even more difficult by the fact that the land on which it stands was once a garbage dump -- the main dumping ground, in fact, for the area of Darb Al-Ahmar, which is one of Cairo's poorer districts, yet also one of the richest neighbourhoods in the world in terms of Islamic art and architecture.

The park was planned as a means of offering open space for the inhabitants of the city, and at the same time reconciling the needs of conservation and development. The cause was certainly noble, and the end result is worthy of the inspiration, for the prospect of the park is utterly breathtaking. By day the vast grounds of lush, perfectly-combed vegetation form a striking contrast with the sepia-toned Old Cairo neighbourhood beside them and its modern city skyline. By night, the scene is even more spectacular: the undulating landscape of lawns and palms is speckled with gazebos and pseudo-Moorish limestone structures that house the coffee shop and seating areas. On one of the higher points, reached by a broad staircase carved into the hillside whose scale is accentuated by the stream that flows down its centre, stands a structure which has been likened by many to the Taj Mahal -- looming majestically to strike awe into the visitor. As the sun sets on the Al-Azhar Park, the spotlights in the grass cast a subtle play of light and shadows, creating an aura of ancient grandeur and mystery. Nearby, the minarets of Old Cairo and the Citadel light up, offering those who dawdle by the artificial lake a view not unlike that of Istanbul by the Bospherous. The area's historic richness provides a magnificent frame for the park, making even locals stop and stare with wonder.

The location was the fruit of necessity: the only space that lent itself to the Aga Khan's multi-tiered concept, which took rehabilitation at its basis, was the derelict Darassa site. At that time, the land was occupied by a 500-year-old, 74-acre mound of rubble, lying between the eastern edge of the 12th century Ayubid city and the 15th century Mameluke "City of the Dead". It was, as the Aga Khan described it, a potential "lung" at the centre of this historic agglomeration.

The park, a gift from the Aga Khan to the "people of Egypt" through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, posed a mammoth challenge. How could this vast dump not only be transformed into the city's only "real" park (all our other green spaces being hardly bigger than handkerchiefs, scattered in the most unlikely places, such as the centre of highways), but also serve to revitalise the heritage of this historic area in ways that would change traditional notions about cultural monuments. The challenge was to show that the past need not be perceived as a drain on resources, but could also function as a stimulus for social and economic development.

Initially the project met a great deal of scepticism, and understandably so. But once the site was approved, and delays caused by the integration into the park of three freshwater reserves each 80 metres wide and 14 metres deep were overcome, work commenced in 1990 and soon took on an ambitious momentum.

Old Cairo is listed by UNESCO as the "world heritage" site with the highest concentration of Islamic monuments in the world. The Al-Azhar Park project was intended to act as a pilot project and case study -- Darb Al-Ahmar was not the sole historic area in the Islamic world which was suffering the adverse effects of rising population, worsening economic conditions, and declining living conditions, which combined to produce an overall progression towards an urban slum. The Trust's goal was to prove through the park and its partner project to conserve and revitalise Darb Al-Ahmar, that those conditions could in fact be reversed, and that positive change could be sustained. In 1992 the Aga Khan Trust for Culture established its Historic Cities Support Programme to implement urban rehabilitation projects in different parts of the Islamic world. Cairo fast became its biggest challenge.

This goal means the project is much more than what meets the eye. The construction of the park aside, work has also included the restoration of the 1.5-kilometre section of the Ayubid wall [in collaboration with the Supreme Council for Antiquities] discovered by the removal of the accumulated rubble. It also included the socio-economic rehabilitation of the neighbouring historic city -- a task that involved the launching of numerous restoration works and community-initiated development projects. The larger scale "development" served as a testing ground, not only for the technical demands of physical restoration, but also for equally thorny issues of socio-economic development.

On the technical level, the 500-year-old heap of debris proved quite a challenge, requiring excavation of a total of 1.5 million cubic metres of rubble and soil -- the equivalent of 80,000 truck loads. The process of correcting the high saline levels in the soil also took some time, and many plants died in the initial testing stages. The realities of seasonal high temperature, low humidity, scant rainfall and desert winds proved punishing, too. Special nurseries were created to help identify the best trees and plants for both the soil and the climate. At present, those nurseries hold over two million plants and trees, which will serve both to replenish the park's vegetation, and to decorate the surrounding city. The park itself boasts 89 varieties of trees, 51 shrubs, five types of grass, 14 climbers, 50 ground cover plants, and 26 varieties of succulents. Over 655,000 young plants from cuttings and seed were planted, and the lawn areas required four metric tonnes of grass seed.

The landscaping of the park is an absolute delight. Most of its features have been designed in line with the traditional use of space in Islamic contexts. Different styles from various periods and regions can be seen in the bustan -like orchard spaces, the shaded sitting areas ( takhtaboush ), and the Fatimid archways used in the park's buildings. Persian and Timurid elements are also reflected in the water channels and fountains -- which are fed directly by Nile water from a nearby municipal pipeline. The space embraces a meticulously conceptualised hilltop lookout kiosk, a children's play area, an amphitheatre and stage, playing fields, a lookout plaza, and a historical wall promenade and amphitheatre.

But the project goes far beyond the manicured lawns and beautifully restored wall, extending into the heart of Darb Al- Ahmar itself. Much has been done there, in one of the poorest and most heavily populated neighbourhoods in Cairo -- indeed, community involvement was integral to the Trust's vision from the start. The project for socio-economic development was based on the idea that the removal of the former dumping ground, and its metamorphosis into a park, would have a catalytic effect on the district as a whole. To ensure that this vision would translate into a practical reality, the project's scope had to encompass not only the cultural monuments in the neighbourhood, but the people of the area as well.

Through to the end of last year, LE20 million has been spent on the socio-economic rehabilitation project in Darb Al- Ahmar. The foundation's development network has opened a community centre, where programmes have included training in building skills, implemented in conjunction with restoration and rehabilitation work on both the wall and surrounding monuments. Apprenticeships with local businesses have been arranged, and lost skills such as the restoration of mashrabeya windows have been revived to help with the park's construction. In addition, the need to match original floor tiles in the course of the restoration of Darb Shoughlan School, an early 20th century building which had been reduced virtually to a shell, led to the rediscovery of the forgotten opus sectile technique.

Over the past four years, the group has also been renovating houses, tackling a whole range of health, sanitation, and education issues, and providing micro-credit loans to Darb Al- Ahmar residents in an attempt to revitalise the community. The foundation has restored 20 houses and handed out nearly LE1 million in low-interest loans to-date. The second phase of the project, which will begin this year, aims to restore an additional 150 homes and nearly quadruple the number of loans. The foundation is also working to restore a series of 14th and 15th century mosques, as well as some Ottoman-era houses -- the three main target areas being the conservation of the Umm Sultan Shaban Mosque, the restoration of the Khayrbek complex, and the rehabilitation and conversion for new uses of the former Darb Shoughlan School.

Taken altogether, the project has meant daily jobs for hundreds of workers from the Islamic Cairo area. But at an initial cost of LE100 million, the park will take time to pay back its investment. Still, with revenue coming in from entrance fees, special events, the sale of plants, and perhaps most importantly the "upscale" restaurant and café, it is anticipated that the deficit will be covered within three years.

The park is astounding in both its reach and vision. It has blossomed in an area that has long been a forgotten world to all but its residents and a small group of architectural historians -- a mass of grey and crumbling buildings, remembered only by chance and rarely talked about. The result is an almost fantastical creation, which seems certain to dazzle the majority of Cairenes who have little knowledge of the area.

What was previously an unlikely place to come across Cairo's wealthier urbanites is now very much "in". In the weeks since its unofficial opening, this reformed garbage dump has attracted many thousands of visitors from all walks of life. But if there are any criticisms of the project to be made, it is perhaps precisely in its approach to social inclusion. For the park has two entrances -- one on the Salah Salem highway, and the other from Darb Al- Ahmar. One of these doors is clearly meant for the rich, as can be judged by the ticket prices, while the other is for the poor.

Where the two groups meet, perhaps, will be on the promenades and pathways -- for while the wealthier will head to the top-notch restaurant and coffee shop to rest their weary legs, the others will be unable to afford this luxury. Instead, those coming from the less privileged areas of Islamic Cairo and beyond, will have to do with a picnic on the still immaculate lawns. And in the summer months, when private country clubs and beach resorts cater for the better off, the residents of Islamic Cairo will have their own neighbourhood spa -- the Al-Azhar lake with its mile upon mile of sparkling stream.

Of course, it is only right that those without such means should nevertheless have some access to the pleasures that the rest of us have come to expect by right. But the contrasting extremes reflected in the park provide much matter for debate. Around the city, around the country, segregation has now become the norm. And the wealthier urbanites only skim across the surface of the lives of those less privileged as they drive along Cairo's highways and cast a casual glance at a city which for them is effectively off bounds.

At the Al-Azhar Park, these two worlds will be asked to unite harmoniously, to respect each other's space and needs. Just as the Trust has been successful in creating what can only be described as a monument to fancy out of a rubbish heap, it is to be hoped that this meeting of the "peoples of Egypt" will prove to have equally unexpected, and creative, results.

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