October 19, 2004
In a Decaying Cairo Quarter, a Vision of Green and Renewal

CAIRO - Can thoughtful urban planning heal deep cultural wounds? That is
the question raised by the new 74-acre Azhar Park, whose luxurious
hilltop gardens are meant to spawn a revival of this city's old decaying
Islamic quarter.

Conceived 20 years ago by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a font of
revitalization projects in the Muslim world, the project's aims could
not be more noble. The park is the largest green space created in Cairo
in over a century, reversing a trend in which unchecked development has
virtually eradicated the city's once-famous parks. Built over a mountain
of debris that had served as the city's garbage dump for centuries, it
also replaces one of Cairo's most trenchant symbols of poverty and decay.

But it is the trust's willingness to engage the harsher realities of the
park's surroundings that makes this project unusual. The trust is
completing a painstaking restoration of a mile-long segment of the
12th-century Ayyubid wall, which forms the park's western edge. Just
beyond it, in the old Islamic quarter known as Darb al-Ahmar, it is
working to restore a series of mosques built during the 14th and 15th
centuries as well as some Ottoman-era houses. Its development network
has also opened a community center whose programs range from
reproductive health services to training programs for local craftsmen,
many of whom worked on the park's construction.

The result is an urban vision that is startling in its scope. And it
reaffirms that the Aga Khan Trust has become one of the most important
institutional advocates for architecture in the world. Unlike the Hyatt
Foundation's more famous Pritzker Prize, which is essentially a beauty
contest, the trust's vast network of programs has long acknowledged that
architecture, urban planning, preservation and social and political
issues are forever entwined. In so doing, it embraces a more enlightened
view of Islamic urban culture.

It is only in its few experiments with contemporary architecture that
the project falls short. Cairo has, over the centuries, absorbed a
stunning range of cultural influences, from the ancient city in the east
to the Europeanized city in the west. The park's architecture could have
been an opportunity to bridge that divide. Instead, it expresses a
disillusionment with - even an outright distrust of - Western modernity
in the Islamic world.

The site, at the city's eastern edge in one of its poorest areas,
reflects the planners' social ambitions. For several hundred years, the
city's most destitute carted garbage here and then sifted through it for
anything of value. The dump gradually grew into a range of hills that
extended nearly a mile, burying the old historic wall underneath it. The
decaying medieval fabric of the Darb al-Ahmar district is just beyond.
To the west of the park is the City of the Dead, a sprawling quarter of
ancient tombs and mausoleums that for centuries have been inhabited by
the city's poor.

The park, which opened to the public recently, rises out of this context
like a virtual Eden. A massive restaurant decorated in a mix of Islamic
styles anchors the park's northern end. From here, a series of terraces
and gardens - some a mix of flowering trees and bushes, others covered
in rolling lawns and date palms - extend to the south, where they
culminate in a more modern lakeside restaurant. A long pedestrian spine
connects the two ends. Framed by rows of royal palms, it offers a
stunning view of the city's ancient Citadel.

In architectural terms, the park's design echoes the ersatz historical
fantasies common to our global culture. The hilltop restaurant is
designed around a courtyard with a small traditional fountain at its
center. From there, a series of outdoor terraces extend down toward a
formal garden. The marble columns are real; much of the stonework was
done by hand. Yet the design is an interpretation of Arabic themes: the
arched arcades are a mix of Fatimid and Mamluk period styles that would
fit comfortably in one of the more luxurious Las Vegas resorts. At the
Bellagio, for example, the van Goghs are also real. (The architects,
Rami el-Dahan and Soheir Farid, are known for designing resort towns on
the Red Sea.)

There is a whiff of artificiality in the lakeside restaurant as well,
with its traditional decorative wooden screens and surrounding citrus
groves. At times, it even extends into the park itself, where the
soporific sounds of piped-in music, from traditional songs to soft rock,
mingle with the scents of the aromatic gardens and spectacular displays
of floral color. The formula is rooted more in tourism than in local

But from here, the message becomes more nuanced. A clearing at the top
of the park offers a sweeping view of the city below, from the Islamic
quarter's minarets to the modern hotels that trace the edge of the Nile
River. From there, you slowly descend down a series of paths to the base
of the stone Ayyubid wall snaking along the edge of the Islamic quarter.

The area's decrepit housing and labyrinthine streets, once known as a
haven for drug dealers, press up against the Ayyubid wall; at various
points, their upper stories even rest directly on top of it. Until the
project got under way a few years ago, houses tended to collapse under
the weight of additional floors and debris - a particularly terrifying
outcome of the quarter's remarkable density.

Rather than bulldoze these structures, the trust sought to identify
specific points of intervention. One of the wall's ancient gates, for
example, leads to a small public square. Framed by the battered facade
of the Aslam mosque and littered with carts and furniture, the square
will eventually be restored to provide a more welcoming entry to the
park. A few blocks away, an Ottoman house has already been transformed
into a community center whose upper floor opens directly onto the
walkway atop the crenellated wall. Further south, workers can be seen
restoring the exterior of the magnificent Khayrbek mosque. To the north,
another gate in the wall will soon be transformed into an archaeological
visitors' center that will be framed on its park side by an outdoor

The idea is to preserve the ancient neighborhood's character, yet not
just in terms of aesthetics: the trust's aim to pinpoint spaces where
the community could rebuild itself, and begin to foster a deeper sense
of shared identity. In workshops scattered throughout the neighborhood,
the trust has trained dozens of local masons, stonecutters and
carpenters, many of whom are working on the restoration of the wall.

This strategy is a response, in part, to the tabula rasa form of urban
planning so beloved of late Modernists, which sought to solve urban
blight by simply bulldozing swaths of old buildings. And it is not
particular to the Middle East. A half-century ago, much of the
developing world could still embrace Modernist architecture and urban
planning as a symbol of progress and prosperity. Today, such schemes are
more apt to conjure the West's disregard for local ways of life, and the
failures of modernity to deliver on its promise of a more prosperous,
humane society.

The trust's approach is to attack urban blight with a kind of surgical
precision rather than the brutality of the bulldozer. Its unspoken
mission, in essence, is to stem the relentless flow of Western modernity.

But this view of history is narrow. The vibrancy of cities like Cairo or
Casablanca, Beirut or Baghdad, sprang from their rich absorption of
influences: these are places where cultural frictions between East and
West, modernity and tradition, spawned outbursts of remarkable creativity.

Cairo is a particularly cosmopolitan example. Its ancient city is a mix
of Coptic churches and Arabic mosques. To the east spreads Ismail
Pasha's Europeanized late-19th-century city, whose straight boulevards
and English-style gardens - inspired by Haussmann's Paris and now almost
all gone - were built to impress foreign dignitaries arriving for the
inauguration of the Suez Canal. Nearby are the neo-Classical houses and
lush overgrown yards of the Garden City district, an early-20th-century
interpretation of Ebenezer Howard's suburban vision for London's outskirts.

These conflicting visions and historical ghosts are what gives the city
its magical, dreamlike aura and its humanity.

By presenting an edited version of the past, the Azhar Park project
never comes to terms with the tensions - between modernity and
tradition, cosmopolitanism and fundamentalism - that simmer beneath the
surface of contemporary Islamic culture. And it misses an opportunity to
channel them into something more transcendent.