Historic Cities Programme
When the city of Cairo was built by the Fatimids, His Highness the Aga Khan’s ancestors, 20 percent of it was devoted to open space, including a royal park and garden. But by the second half of the 20th century, as more and more people from rural areas moved into the city and new high-rise housing was built to accommodate them, it became one of the densest metropolises in the world.
Please also see: Architecture and the Territory: Cairo’s informal settlements and community networks, with Diane Singerman, an Aga Khan lecture at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design
In 1984, His Highness the Aga Khan announced his decision to finance the creation of a park for the citizens of the Egyptian capital. The only central location which was of suitable scale was the derelict Darassa site, a 30-hectare (74-acre) mound of rubble adjacent to the Historic City.
The site posed several technical challenges. It had been a debris dump for over 500 years. Construction required excavation, grading and replacement with appropriate fill. A total of 1.5 million cubic metres of rubble and soil, a figure which represents over 80,000 truckloads, was moved. In addition, three 80-meter freshwater tanks for the city of Cairo had to be incorporated into the Park design.
Specialised plant nurseries had to be created to identify the best plants and trees for the soil, terrain and climate. Over 655,000 young plants from cuttings and seeds were planted in the Park. Today, the US$ 30 million project has evolved well beyond the Park to include the restoration of 1.5 kilometres of the 12th century Ayyubid wall and socio economic initiatives in the neighbouring Darb al-Ahmar district. These include housing rehabilitation, microfinance, apprenticeships and healthcare. The Park itself attracts over one million people per year.
In the low-income neighbourhood of Darb al-Ahmar, which is adjacent to the park, job training and employment opportunities are being offered in different sectors such as shoemaking, furniture manufacturing and tourist goods production. Apprenticeships are available for automobile electronics, mobile telephones, computers, masonry, carpentry and office skills. Micro-credit loans have enabled residents to open small businesses such as carpentry shops and a drycleaner. Hundreds of young men and women in Darb Al Ahmar have found work in the park, in horticulture and on project teams restoring the Ayyubid wall.
Three landmark buildings, the 14th Century Umm Sultan Shaban Mosque, the Khayrbek complex (encompassing a 13th century palace, a mosque and an Ottoman house), and the Darb Shoughlan School have been restored. Others, including Aslam Mosque and the square in front of it, are under restoration.
Local housing has been renovated and returned to their owners. A housing credit scheme is aiding private individuals in the rehabilitation of their own houses.
The project was intended to test the premise that there is an alternative to traditional remedies to the decline of historic neighbourhoods. These usually involved isolating monuments by the forced removal of people in surrounding neighbourhoods or accepting a laissez-faire approach that allowed commercial developers to set the priorities of a neighbourhood. In either case, residents were displaced.
The approach of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, on the contrary, has been to stimulate rehabilitation without displacing residents, largely by ensuring that they have a stake in the future of their community - by helping create viable businesses through the provision of micro-credit and assisting owners restore crumbling houses, for example.
As with all its undertakings, the Trust’s approach has been to work with local residents to identify priorities and then take practical steps to address these needs. Community priorities, including restoration of houses, health, education, solid waste disposal, job training and jobs, are now being addressed.
The construction of the park and the restoration of cultural monuments are meant to be catalysts for social and economic development and the overall improvement of the quality of life in the district. At the same time, the park offers a new vantage point with spectacular views of Historic Cairo’s countless architectural treasures, which will no doubt draw foreign tourists and the inhabitants of greater Cairo alike to the once-neglected area.
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