We stand today confronted with starkly different visions of the future of historic cities. At a time when our heritage, the anchor of our identity and source of inspiration, is being threatened with destruction, by war and environmental degradation, by the inexorable demographic and economic pressures of exploding urban growth, or by simple neglect, there can be no doubt that it is time to act. Will we allow the wealth that is the past to be swept away, or will we assume our responsibility to defend what remains of the irreplaceable fabric of history? My answer is clear. One of our most urgent priorities must be to value, and protect, what is greatest in our common heritage. Breathing new life into the legacy of the past demands tolerance, and understanding and creativity beyond the ordinary.

We stand today confronted with starkly different visions of the future of historic cities. At a time when our heritage, the anchor of our identity and source of inspiration, is being threatened with destruction, by war and environmental degradation, by the inexorable demographic and economic pressures of exploding urban growth, or by simple neglect, there can be no doubt that it is time to act. Will we allow the wealth that is the past to be swept away, or will we assume our responsibility to defend what remains of the irreplaceable fabric of history? My answer is clear. One of our most urgent priorities must be to value, and protect, what is greatest in our common heritage. Breathing new life into the legacy of the past demands tolerance, and understanding and creativity beyond the ordinary.

The Islamic world boasts roughly a third of the historic cities in the UNESCO World Heritage List…. A large proportion of the population of these cities typically lives in poverty, creating social problems that must be addressed, but also aggravating factors related to the preservation of their historic heritage.

The Islamic world boasts roughly a third of the historic cities in the UNESCO World Heritage List. It appeared that this remarkable concentration of cultural history was not receiving the sort of economic, social and academic support that it deserved. A large proportion of the population of these cities typically lives in poverty, creating social problems that must be addressed, but also aggravating factors related to the preservation of their historic heritage. It was clear that it was necessary for the Islamic world to try to harness new resources to protect these historic cities, and to bring relief to their marginalised populations. When the Aga Khan Trust for Culture started its Historic Cities Support Programme, there was no agency that was committed to these goals. Academic know-ledge about how to restore and revive historic cities in the Islamic world and bring support to their populations was lacking, because this work had not been done earlier and was unknown to development agencies, teaching centres, and universities.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has accordingly sought to identify three “themes of concern” that correspond to the challenges we face. First, there must be an effort to protect, restore and skilfully reuse the heritage of the past. Second, we must address the pressing needs for social development and community buildings in a Muslim world all too beset by poverty. Third, it is essential to identify contemporary architectural expressions of quality, the best efforts at capturing the opportunities of the present and defining our dreams for tomorrow.

Since it was founded by my ancestors the Fatimids in 969 (AH 359), Cairo has been one of the great centres of Islamic culture and civilisation. Despite its rapid growth in modern times, it still boasts an unrivalled group of monuments and historic areas. These buildings and neighbourhoods stand as a nearly indelible testimony to Cairo’s past, but I believe that they are also the key to its future. Today, with its sixteen million inhabitants, the contemporary metropolis clearly poses the full array of development problems. It raises in the most acute terms the question of how to create links between this rich heritage and the demands of today’s world.

The exceptional density of the city of Cairo makes it obvious that there is an urgent need for new green spaces. Often overlooked, public open spaces have a great role to play in historic cities.

The exceptional density of the city of Cairo makes it obvious that there is an urgent need for new green spaces. Often overlooked, public open spaces have a great role to play in historic cities. Besides offering inhabitants relief from the pollution and pace of their everyday lives, a park can enhance a sense of civic responsibility and conceivably act as a catalyst for private initiatives in urban rehabilitation. Since I first evoked the idea of creating a new park in Cairo, almost twenty years ago, the needs of the city in this area have become even more pressing.

Close to the Citadel, near to the eastern limits of medieval Cairo, an opportunity did arise to act on all three “themes of concern’ of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. At the outset the proposal was indeed to provide a much-needed green space, but on the site chosen, the progressive uncovering of more than a kilometre of the long-buried Ayyubid wall led to a major task of conservation. It soon became obvious that the wall was inseparable from the historic fabric of the Darb al-Ahmar neighbourhood. A combined rehabilitation process was elaborated, leading to the creation of a range of community-based improvement projects providing cultural, social, economic and institutional support. Though immediate improvements in living conditions in the vicinity of the park were surely a goal, the scope and breadth of this project implies an ongoing commitment to the monuments, of course, but above all to the people of the Darb al-Ahmar district.

It is within the confines of the new Azhar Park that the third theme of concern of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has been acted upon. This thirty-one hectare expanse of trees, fountains and buildings was little more than dust just a few years ago. Calling on the talents of both Egyptian and foreign architects and landscape designers, Azhar Park combines a respect for Islamic tradition with a much needed breath of fresh air. From the hills and walkways of the park, not only the Ayyubid wall is visible, but also the Citadel, the Sultan Hasan Mosque and much more of Cairo’s new and old skyline as well. Indeed, it is in order to reestablish the skyline as much as possible to its original appearance, and to retain restored mosques to the local population, that the Trust has restored the minarets of the Umm al-Sultan Shaaban and the Khayrbek complexes.

How can this project serve a wider purpose? Because of its scale, and its multiple ramifications, Azhar Park represents a case study situation that should be used for the broadest possible pedagogical purposes. The information thus gathered will be consolidated with the lessons that the AKTC is drawing from other similar projects such as that being undertaken in Zanzibar.

How can this project serve a wider purpose? Because of its scale, and its multiple ramifications, Azhar Park represents a case study situation that should be used for the broadest possible pedagogical purposes. The information thus gathered will be consolidated with the lessons that the AKTC is drawing from other similar projects such as that being undertaken in Zanzibar. Some of the information that will come out of this analytical process will be formatted and targeted to other countries and cities, such as those already on the UNESCO World Heritage List, so that decision makers such as government or local officials in these environments can learn from the experience we have had in Cairo, Zanzibar and elsewhere. The same thinking could be applied to civil society entities that are involved in the restoration of historic cities elsewhere, including local non-governmental organisations, micro-credit organisations, or service providers in health and education. The total package of information we will make available to the multiple stakeholders in the rehabilitation of historic cities should thus help to create a broad framework within which to advance.

Azhar Park, like the ongoing conservation of the Ayyubid wall or the rehabilitation of al-Darb al-Ahmar are not finished simply because the park has been inaugurated. The park requires maintenance, the wall requires continuous care by the skilled hands of masons and archaeologists, and the living community needs the full range of presence and assistance that we have begun to provide. For the work in al-Darb al-Ahmar, the Trust was fortunate to find committed partners such as the Ford Foundation and the Swiss Egyptian Development Fund to support the ongoing work. Similarly, the comprehensive conservation of the historic wall is going forward in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo and will be managed by the Trust with the participation of other organisations, such as the French Institute for Archaeology.

The implementation of this complex undertaking would not have been possible without the active participation and support of the Egyptian authorities, under the leadership of Their Excellencies, President Hosni Mubarak and First Lady Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, who kindly agreed to lay the foundation stone of the park. My thanks go to them and to His Excellency the Minister of Culture, Mr. Farouk Hosni, to the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawas and to his predecessor Dr. Gaballa Al i Gaballa, and particularly to His Excellency the Governor of Cairo, Dr. Abdel Rahim Shehata, as well as to his predecessor, His Excellency Mr. Omar Abdel Akher, whose constant support and personal commitment have been essential to the work of the technical team in charge of carrying out the project.

Never more than now has it been so important to renew with vigour our creative engagement in revitalising our shared heritage.

Never more than now has it been so important to renew with vigour our creative engagement in revitalising our shared heritage. It is my hope that Azhar Park, set amidst the great monuments of Islamic Cairo, will become a symbol for visitors and residents alike, opening new vistas onto this unique city. The Ayyubid wall and al-Darb al-Ahmar are the living fabric of the historic city. Those who live here and those who pass through may now be more aware of the wealth that is within their grasp. It is our task, but theirs as well, to sustain and develop that wealth into the future.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

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