CAIRO'S historic Islamic quarter, a maze of congested, rubble-strewn streets smelling of car fumes and uncollected trash, is being made over with the opening last fall of a 74-acre park and continuing efforts to restore some of the area's many monuments and noteworthy buildings.
The $30 million project, which began about 10 years ago, has been undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a Geneva-based organization focusing on the revitalization of cities in the Muslim world. The hope is that it will act as a catalyst for tourism and urban renewal in a neglected area more than 1,000 years old that boasts a rich concentration of Islamic architecture.
Central to the rehabilitation is Al-Azhar Park, built on a 500-year-old rubble mound and ancient city dump. You wouldn't know it though, for the site has been transformed into an oasis of more than 655,000 citrus, palms, hibiscus, sycamores, acacia and other trees, with lakes, lookouts, waterfalls, formal gardens and restaurants.
The park - designed by Sites International, an Egyptian firm - mixes various elements of Islamic garden and urban design, with marble and limestone pavements linking orchard spaces, shaded sitting areas, water channels and fountains. Archways from the Fatimid period of the 10th to 12th centuries have been used in the park buildings, giving them an Oriental flavor.
The gardens still need a few more years to grow, but the relative scarcity of people (gardeners in pale orange jumpsuits often outnumber visitors) and the abundance of trees and running water amid this chaotic, polluted and overpopulated city of close to 17 million is refreshing.
A highlight for tourists is the panorama, best appreciated in style with a cup of mint tea at Le Notre, a cafe on a cushioned, canopied veranda on the top floor of the north restaurant building, a bleached, faux Mameluk mansion at one end of the park. From here you look down over the Citadel, the City of the Dead cemetery, the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University and the Mohammed Ali Mosque.
It's a wonderful place to watch the sun sink over Cairo. Alain Le Notre serves basic sandwiches, wraps, salads and pasta, along with a variety of desserts. More hearty fare is served downstairs at the Hilltop Restaurant, which offers a daily buffet lunch and tables set on a tiled, sun-drenched terrace. A third restaurant at the south end of the park serves mostly Lebanese food.
Below the cafe and restaurant, excavation and restoration is well under way on a mile stretch of the 12th-century city wall, built for defense against the Crusaders. Having been buried under rubble for 500 years, several towers and battlements are almost intact. A pedestrian route goes past the wall and through the archaeological site.
Beyond the old city wall is Darb al-Ahmar, one of the poorest, most populous neighborhoods in Cairo. Here the Aga Khan Trust (with the Ford Foundation, World Monuments Fund and other groups) is sponsoring an extensive redevelopment program, including housing rehabilitation and improved health and sanitation services. Residents have also been hired to work on the park and the restoration of monuments. It's safe to walk around here during the day, although appropriate dress (legs and shoulders covered) is recommended.
Darb al-Ahmar is also a treasure house of medieval Islamic monuments and buildings. The Supreme Council of Antiquities has registered 65 historic monuments here, and there are reputedly several hundred architecturally important buildings.
Among the landmark structures earmarked for immediate restoration are the 14th-century Umm Sultan Shaban Mosque and a group of buildings known as the Khayrbek Complex - a 13th-century palace, a mosque and an Ottoman house.
Al-Azhar Park is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The entrance is on Salah Salem Street, near Al-Azhar Street heading to the Citadel. Entry is about $1.65, at 6 Egyptian pounds to the U.S. dollar. Close to most downtown hotels, it can be reached by taxi for about $2 or on foot following a visit to the Citadel or the Khan al-Khalili Bazaar.