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Al-Azhar Park and the Revitalization of Darb al-Ahmar

Cairo, Egypt

1997 - 2009
Cultural HeritageGreen SpacesHistoric CityPublic Spaces

Project Description

Approach Words: Heritage Preservation, Participatory Approach, Sustainability

Public Policy Instruments: Communicative, Financial Mechanism, Physical Intervention, Planning

The Al-Azhar Park is a landmark public park and urban revitalization project in the historical city of Cairo1. The project’s vision is to create a “green lung in the heart of Cairo”2. Additionally, it aims at fostering community development, local economic revitalization, and the preservation of cultural heritage in one of the poorest, most populous and historically rich parts of the city3. The project aligns with the objectives laid out in the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP)i and responds to the lack of sufficient open green spaces in Cairo4.

Title: Masterplan of the Al-Azhar Park and Darb Al-Ahmar revitalization project.

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Title: Aerial photograph of the Al-Azhar Park.

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Title: The central spine of the Al-Azhar Park after implementation. In the distance the Cairo Citadel is visible.

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Title: Houses in Dar al-Ahmar before and after the intervention.

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The idea of the project dates to 1984, with the Aga Khan’s decision “to donate a park to the citizens of Cairo”5. To implement this vision, a 0.30 km2 derelict dump site in the center of Cairo, located between the eastern edge of the Ayyubid City (12th c.) and the Mamluk “City of the Dead” (15th c.), was chosen for its potential as an open space at the heart of the city’s historic agglomeration6.

The master plan for the site features a park with a major pedestrian spine that extends north south, linking the diverse proposed landscape elements designed with a notable Islamic style. Specifically, the Park includes intersecting water channels, fountains, sunken gardens, and plazas with Islamic geometric designs, along with custom-designed furniture and lighting fixtures implemented by local artisans from a nearby neighborhoods7. The park also includes conference facilities, children areas, cafes, and a restaurant over an artificial lake. The core spine of the master plan accommodates spaces for social gatherings and activities, accessible to locals and visitors alike8.

The project was implemented by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) based on a protocol with the Cairo Governorate in 1990, and AKTC took over the site from the Cairo Governorate in 1996 9. The AKTC developed a master plan for the site with Sites International company as the principal consultant10 ii. By then, the project, originally limited to the park, had developed “a more comprehensive approach to urban rehabilitation” and extended to include “a rehabilitation of the fringe of the adjacent Darb al-Ahmar district and the restoration of a number of key monuments defining the skyline of the historic city as seen from the Park site” according to the AKTC11. The plan was implemented by the Aga Khan Cultural services- Egypt (AKCS-E), an agency of the AKTC, with an overall estimated project construction cost is US$ 30 million12. The implementation had three main phases:

  • First Phase [1990-1999; Ayyubid wall restoration: 1999-2007]: Planning, early siteworks and Ayyubid wall discovery. During the grading works of the mound, the major portion of an Ayyubid Wall emerged from centuries of debris. This significant historical discovery was followed by conservation and restoration efforts, leveraging local craftsmanship and offering vocational training13. The restoration was implemented under the direction of the Egyptian Council of Antiquities14.
  • Second Phase [2000-2005]: Development and implementation of the Al-Azhar Park. The park was opened in 2005, and it now attracts more than 1.2 million visitors annually15.
  • Third Phase [2000-2009]: Urban renewal and social projects in Darb al-Ahmar. In conjunction with the park’s creation, AKTC initiated a series of social projects aimed at improving the quality of life for residents in the adjacent Darb al-Ahmar district. This included vocational training, housing rehabilitation, street and open space improvements, micro-credit programs, healthcare facilities, and the establishment of a touristic route through restored monuments16.

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