In a city where air pollution is 10-100 times the acceptable world limit (depending on the area), it is blatantly obvious through just a brief tour that Cairo could do with more parks, gardens or any sort of green enclosures in its central areas.
So it was with great deal of pleasant surprise to hear of the opening of the Azhar Park, smack right in the middle of the city. What sort of free space available in downtown Cairo is inevitably turned into yet another set of apartment blocks, for maximum profit of course, so a park covering 71 feddans situated behind the Khan El-Khalili area was naturally met with some bewilderment.
The Aga Khan is the Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, the incumbent being the Imam Shah Karim Eddin Aga Khan IV. The Aga Khan Foundation, which is often involved in the restoration of historic sites in the Middle East, funded the creation of the Azhar Park. What was once a garbage site has been reinvented as communal mainstay.
Not only is it a welcome mass of greenery amidst the chaos of Old Cairo, the park is designed in a way along its frontiers one is privy to a panoramic view of the Old City. Fountains, hills and an artificial lake greet visitors. Mainly designed with an Islamic theme, the park also boasts traces of Andalusian, Mongolian and Ottoman designs. At both ends of the Park there are touristic cafes and restaurants. Sitting on the lakeside café you are inundated with a breathtaking view of the Muhammed Ali Mosque as if arising from the lake itself. This scene at sunset is a real treat.
And the entrance fee is affordable for the majority of Cairenes. Amr Al-Nady from the Park's Guest Relations with the Aga Khan Foundation says that when the park opened on the 29th of August of last year there was no entrance fee so as to attract people to examine the place. An entrance fee of L.E. 5 was levied the following month and the revenue is used for the maintenance of the Park. The cafes and restaurants are more expensive but many Cairene families are content to sit on the numerous benches while their children frolic in the winding pathways and gardens. The park will be under the jurisdiction of the Aga Khan foundation for three years, before control is ceded to the Ministry of Culture.
El-Nady says "It was a wasteland, we (the foundation) thought it would be a great idea to create a green zone for the people of the surrounding community". Not only was it a wasteland, but it also was a major source of pollution for the surrounding area and the city as a whole.
Dr. Khaled Azab, who is presently the Managing Director for Media Affairs at the Bibliotheque Alexandrina was involved in the Azhar Park project since its inception in 1996 and a concurrent project of restoration of the Salah Eddin wall in Old Cairo until 2001. Azab told al-Hayat "It was an environmental hazard, which had a detrimental effect on the antiquities in the neighboring area. The park originated from the Aga Khan social development programs, which were aimed at the surrounding areas of Al-Batniya and Darb El-Ahmar.
In conjunction with the building of the park, there were programs to teach members of the local community traditional craftsmanship common to the area in the past." The park employees are from the local community and there is a correlation between the decrease in the crime rate of the area and the inception of the project. Azab adds "It is the first experimental project based on international standards to try and promote environmental and social development".
So it's good for the environment, socially beneficial for the local community and a joy to visit in the process. Already, the Azhar Park has become a popular destination for tourists as well as locals, and recently numerous concerts have been held on the lakeside area. Hopefully, it will continue to be impeccably maintained and remain a common destination for the citizens and visitors of Cairo.