Cairo’s five centuries of rubbish now a park, thanks to the Aga Khan

This vast landscaping and urban renewal project has also uncovered Saladin’s walls



An enormous rubbish heap in the centre of Cairo, has been turned into a park thanks to the Aga Khan, Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim, and it is to be inaugurated this month.

He is well known for his interest in the architecture of Islam, and this is an exceptionally ambitious project by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) that has involved also restoring parts of the ancient city walls, the Darb al-Ahmar area in a socially responsible way.

Al-Azhar Park is an entirely new, 30-hectare green space created in the heart of the medieval city on what has been the rubbish heap of Cairo since late Mamluk times: 500 years of rubble, 45-metres deep or more, the layered sediment of Cairo’s life and past. From the rolling green hills of this location today, one monument stands out against the skyline, framed in the windows of Al-Azhar Park’s new restaurants, aligned with the main axis of the Park: the Citadel. Between 1176 and 1183, Salah al-Din (Saladin, 1171-93), the founder of the Sunni Ayyubid dynasty, fortified the area to protect it against attacks by the Crusaders, and since then, it has never been without a military garrison.

Al-Azhar Park offers a view of Cairo almost as dominant as that of the Citadel itself and from its high points one has to look almost directly down to see partially unearthed remnants of the Ayyubid city wall, restored by the AKTC. This wall was in part the work of Salah al-Din and it marked the eastern limit of the city. From these hills too, the visitor can clearly see the mosque and madrasa (koranic school) built for Sultan Hassan bin Mohammad bin Qala’oun in 1356. Closer by still, north of the Citadel and near the Bab Zuwayla stands the Aqsunqur or Blue Mosque, built by one of al-Nasir Muhammad’s Emirs, Shams ad-Din Aqsunqur, in 1346. Close to the limits of the park a minaret recently restored by the AKTC marks the site of an unusual complex, erected first as a mausoleum by the Mamluk prince Khayrbek in 1502. Left standing empty for decades before the recent restoration work, the Khayrbek mosque is considered an important example of the Mamluk-Ottoman transition.

Despite this location close to the wellsprings of the history of Cairo, it was a daring gesture to decide to build on top of more than five centuries of rubbish. The very nature of this accumulation was a challenge to any construction or to the growth of plants. And yet, almost more than any monument, the debris of the great city is the proof of its life—not a burial ground but the natural accretion of human activity. As circumstances would have it, though, the south-eastern edge of the Azhar Park coincides with the Bab al-Wazir cemetery. So, built on the refuse of centuries, neighbour to the final resting place of countless Cairenes, almost literally encircled by traces of each major phase of the history of the great metropolis, Al-Azhar Park is an affirmation of life and respect for the past.

The efforts of the Aga Khan in the area of Cairo have not been limited to Al-Azhar Park. Apart from the restoration of a large section of the Ayyubid Wall, the AKTC has also undertaken extensive renovation and social work in neighbouring Darb al-Ahmar, a poor neighbourhood in the medieval city. This bold experiment in what has been called an “area development project” is typical of the work of AKTC and of the larger Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) that oversees all aspects of such schemes.

Turning the dusty, uninhabited sediment of Cairo into a living park has been a huge task. The Aga Khan’s Historic Cities Support Programme has led the way, but the architects and landscape designers have truly left their mark on Al-Azhar Park. Though others went before them, Maher Stino and Leila el-Masry of the Egyptian firm Sites International assumed the task of the landscape design: “Cairo has 16 million people,” says Stino, “and we have almost no open space. We want to help the public understand what a park is and how to appreciate plants and nature. We also want something unique to Cairo; we don’t want a copy of London’s Regents Park”.

Two restaurants are the main architectural features of Al-Azhar Park. Designed by the Egyptian architects Rami el-Dahan with Soheir Farid and by the Frenchman Serge Santelli respectively, they are quite different in concept and aesthetic assumptions. Dahan, a disciple of Hassan Fathy, says that the so-called “5-Star Restaurant” he designed for a hilltop in Al-Azhar Park alludes to the architecture of Fatimid mosques, but he stresses that even with its load-bearing stonework, the heart of the structure is a functional, modern core.

The architecture of Rami el-Dahan is one solution to the question of what to build today in Cairo in a modern environment surrounded by history. Another is offered by Serge Santelli in his Lakeside Café. Though not located as high above the city as the 5-Star restaurant, the Lakeside facility has an even more spectacular view toward the Citadel, the Mosque of Sultan Hassan and the other great monuments. Seemingly afloat on an artificial lake that is used as a reservoir for park irrigation, Santelli’s structure is essentially modern in appearance with some reference to the principles of Arab design.

By daring to undertake the “impossible,” creating a modern park where before there was only dust and rubbish, and delving deep into the real problems of Darb al-Ahmar, affirming its life and character, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has opened a path between past and future that avoids robbing the people of their heritage in favour of some kind of sterile consumerism, or forcing them into exile in the desert of the new Cairo that is rising on the outskirts of the great metropolis.

Cairo: revitalising a historic metropolis eds Stefano Bianca and Philip Jodidio is published by Umberto Allemandi & C. for The Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

ISBN 88-422-1235-0