There is an often quoted ayat [of the Qur’an] which says that you should leave the world in a better environment than you found it. You have a responsibility of legacy of God’s creation of the world, to improve that legacy from generation to generation. So there’s an ethical premise to it.

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Interviewer: Unknown in al-Azhar Park, Cairo?

[Maria Golia, Author, Cairo: City of Sand:] “Islam actually, embodies probably, the most advanced environmental ethic of the major religions. So there is a really wonderful school of thought within Islam that very much appreciates the environment and is almost diametrically opposed to the Christian idea that we must dominate the environment.”

[Maher Stino & Laila El-Mastry Sino, Landscape Architects, Sites International:] “[Prophet] Muhammad says that even if its the Day of Judgement and you have a small tree you have to plant it so we have to take the time to plant it. It’s so important….”

Surrounded by the shifting sands of Egypt’s deserts, 17 million people live and work in Cairo. Parched, crowded, and struggling with environmental degradation. The city also embodies the unique cultural heritage of centuries. To become sustainable, Cario will have to somehow plant the trees Muhammad requested without uprooting the people and high-rises already in place….

We had, as a community of people, an extraordinary cultural heritage which many of us felt was not receiving the care that it should have received. And when we looked at public space, Cairo was one of the cities which had the highest density of people and the lowest square metres of public space. So then the notion of creating a park in Cairo then took off….

And most people can afford the small fee that supports the park’s management and upkeep. But there are those who believe that the park benefits the rich while neglecting the poorest residents of Cairo, many of whom live in the shadow of the Ayyubid wall.

I think these big projects — which I would call social development projects — they don’t have to be profit making, but they have to be self-sustaining otherwise they become increasing liabilities on society or on government or on both. And what this park has done, is [that] we were able to set the rates at a level where just about everybody could deal with the rates. I mean last year there were over a million visitors. You don’t get a million visitors anywhere if they feel abused by the rates or that sort of thing….

I think there is this fear that the park could be taken over by the wealthy as opposed to really being something for the poor, but I think at the end of the day, there is no class association with just being in a green space.

We started with a notion simply of a park, but then we found that the Ayyubid wall, which was the western frontier of the park, was an amazing archaeological asset. So then we looked at rehabilitating the architectural [sic] asset. When we did an economic survey, we found an extraordinary thing: the wall was the acute poverty line and as you moved away from the wall people were wealthier and wealthier and wealthier. So we knew that there was a possibility to change economic life of the people who lived in that catchment area….

Al Azhar park was once the dead heart of Cairo’s poorest district. It has since become the living centre of an extensive renovation effort as the Aga Khan Trust rebuilt homes, apartment buildings, shops and landmark monuments. Just like the trees and grass in the park, the project [inaudible] in Darb al-Ahmar and the communities around it.

We looked at Darb al-Ahmar and we found that their health services were weak, we found that their educational services were weak, we found that there was no micro-credit programme of any sort operating in that area. So we tried to build a support net by bringing in the physical and the developmental into one context….

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[Luis Monreal, General Manager, Aga Khan Trust for Culture:] “For His Highness the Aga Khan, Cairo is historically and sentimentally speaking, a very important city because it was founded by one of his ancestors so there are historic roots of the Aga Khan are in this Fatimid dynasty that founded Cairo and was replaced by the Ayybid of Salahuddin, the great enemy of our Crusaders that built these walls that we can see down in the distance bordering the Al Azhar Park.”

Well I inherited my grandfather’s responsibilities as the Imam of the Ismaili community and I think it is important to perhaps differentiate between the role of an Imam in Islam and the role of other faith leaders in other faiths. Islam doesn’t make a difference between faith and life. The two have to go together. Therefore an Imam is responsible for the security of the people who look to him for leadership, for the quality of their life, and this is what has caused me to look at the quality of life not only of the Ismaili community but of the people amongst whom we live….

[Sherine Zaghow, Social Coordinator for Darb Al-Ahmar, Aga Khan Trust for Culture:] “I would say the Aga Khan, he is very visionary, he knows, he does have a vision. He knows what he wants. He believes very much in development, that people need to be active participants in the change. I think from the Muslim religion, it is one of the few, I would say, very active organisations that look at development and so on.”

There is an often quoted ayat [of the Qur’an] which says that you should leave the world in a better environment than you found it. You have a responsibility of legacy of God’s creation of the world, to improve that legacy from generation to generation. So there’s an ethical premise to it.

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