Travel Video
January 4, 2005

Aga Khan revives city of the dead in Egypt

Blocks from the sprawling, majestic Mohamed Ali’s Citadel at the heart of Cairo lies one yet-unknown tourist complex sprawling at record pace in the midst of an impoverished town - you would have not known it had ever existed unless you stumble upon it on an unintended detour from the Citadel. Either that or you have serious interest in the Aga Khan.

Amidst the decrepit villages of the Egyptian capital unfamiliar to visitors, one extremely ambitious project has recently been undertaken with the creation of a vast, green open space in a once run-down area of Cairo.

Interestingly since the project was started, another dimension has been added –a rehabilitation of the surrounding residential district called Darb Al Ahmar, so impoverished it needed the Aga Khan to give it a facelift.

For years, tourists have long been kept off the area by the virtually unofficial wasteland or rubbish dump lying alongside the derelict eastern rim of old Cairo’s medieval city walls. From its early beginnings as the massive wastebasket to a gigantic mountain pile of dirt, it ended up obscuring residents' views of the fortress wall and pretty minarets nearby through the years. It has become, in a sense, irreverent that it lies beside the walled old cemetery known as the City of the Dead, where scores of homeless Cairenes have found shelter in tombs housing urns of the more-privileged.

Then in 2004, on the metropolis shared by the living and the dead, where dust, debris and garbage have collected through the millennium, arose a $45 million project the Aga Khan Development Network designed to complete in 7 years to uplift the destitute.

Four years after unexplained shoveling, digging and earth-moving the contractors were doing much to the perplexity of locals, the project finally took shape. Out of the barren 30-hectare Darassa Hills came a lush, green park overlooking Cairo’s Islamic city. It would bring hundreds of jobs, a place for the busy Cairenes to de-stress, open views of the Citadel never there before; notwithstanding, give people hope in a hometown that had never produced them profits.

Opened to the public end of August on a trial basis, it welcomed the first guests. Once the city built in ancient times by the Fatimids and named Al Quahire or the victorious, the previous 20 percent devoted to open space now had tourists flocking to it. From Easter 2004 till end of September, for about five and a half weeks, the park construction concentrated on the finer details.

Mahmoud El Milkawi, project manager for the Aga Khan Centre in Egypt mobilized his men to carry on the greening of the landscape, while they built on top of a hill a restaurant with capacity of 350; and second outlet, the lakeside cafe sitting 300. Facilities for child’s play, a playground, a theatre for kids and live performances, a small museum, an art gallery and a centre for educational displays were later added.

Said Melkawi, “In 1984, Karim Aga Khan attended a Cairo conference in which discussed were Cairo’s lack of open space and greeneries. In a bid to recycle one remaining open space, he was shown around the Darassa hills site. Not only did he groom 30 hectares but provided work and leisure opportunities for the locals while initiating affordable entertainment in the Darb El Ahmar. The area is so historic in Cairo. The less fortunate neighborhood nestled on a garbage dump or landfill was given a chance to transform into a magnificent touristic park.”

Such facelift required 3 years of removing 1.2 million cubic meters of debris from the outskirts of Cairo. Dirt consisted of pure debris piled up for years. It had very little organic matter, and thus had no environmental impact.

According to Melkawi, the Darb El Ahmar has 200,000 inhabitants, on the adjoining 3 square-kilometer space. The first phase had already been completed; the second phase entails finding jobs, micro-credit, help with further restoration, infrastructure development, improving the living conditions of the poor, restoring homes as well as organizing for paying back loans and putting signs up.

Surrounding homes can also get a facelift. “At the least, only 15-20 percent of the total cost is what residents would have to contribute if their area is to be restored. Some 30 percent contribution to the cost by the few ‘bolder’ ones who have seen the project and believe in its viability will be required, if they want their homes torn down and rebuilt.

“The area where we work, next to the historic wall is being remodeled too. It could be the poorest but its monument antiquities are worth preserving. Hence, we would like to create a buffer on the adjoining zone. No permits for dismantling the antiquities will be given out that may alter the feature of the territory. Then after, we start our housing program.”

The AKDN advised the residents to surrender their keys for them to enter the homes for restoration. However, growing suspicious when the residents resisted the directive, the Aga Khan group found something that would confirm their doubts.

“Indeed, we found a lot of gold coins, ancient ceramics and other treasures residents failed to hand over to the antiquities authorities,” explained Melkawi.

The park project works like a catalyst for beautifying the old Fatimid’s zone with the Aga Khan trust for culture helping restore historic sites.

About US$25 million has already been spent for the initial stage; another US$15-20 million will be spread over an 8-10 year period to complete it, according to the Aga Khan Center head whose developer partner is Sami Saad, dealer of Mercedes Benz.

By Hazel Heyer, eTurboNews