Islamic Cairo’s eastern horizon changed substantially when Al-Azhar Park opened in 2005. It’s hard to convey just how dramatically different the park is from any other public space in Cairo: a profusion of gardens, emerald grass, even a lake (part of a larger public water-supply system) cover the grounds, while ambient Arabic music drifts softly from speakers and fountains bubble in front of sleek modern Islamic architecture.
Among several honors, Azhar Park is listed as one of the world's sixty great public spaces by the Project for Public Spaces. The park was created by the Historic Cities Support Programme of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an entity of the Aga Khan Development Network. The park, developed at a cost was a gift to Cairo from Aga Khan IV: a descendant of the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs who founded the city of Cairo in the year 969.
The Al-Azhar Park is important for tourists to Egypt because this hilly site is surrounded by the most significant historic districts of Islamic Cairo. This is one of the primary destinations for many visitors to the city, and this new park located in its heart provides many advantages, including a wonderful view of the surrounding area.
The park functions as a green lung because of its enormous potential, being located at the center of a historic location. It was clear that Cairo needed more green space. One study found that the amount of green space per inhabitant was roughly equivalent to the size of a footprint, one of the lowest proportions in the world. 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.
Located on the western side of the park are the old Fatimid city and its extension Darb Al Ahmar, with their wealth of mosques, madrasas and mausolea, signaled by a long line of minarets. To the south are the Sultan Hassan Mosque and its surroundings, as well as the Ayyubid Citadel. On the eastern side is the City of the Dead with its many social welfare complexes sponsored by the Mamluk Sultans and dignitaries, which became an area that developed into a dense neighborhood of its own.
This area was indeed in great need of an open green space. The hilly topography of the site, formed by debris accumulated over centuries, now provides elevated view points dominating the city and offers a spectacular 360 panorama over the townscape of historic Cairo.
The multidisciplinary project presented a range of complex technical issues, including highly saline soils which first required the creation of specialist nurseries to identify and grow the best plants and trees for the soil, terrain and climate.
Over two million plants and trees were propagated, of which over 655,000 have now been planted in the park. This also required the incorporation within the park of three large fresh water reservoirs for the city of Cairo, each 80 meters in diameter and 14 meters deep.
The construction of the park and the restoration of cultural monuments are meant to be catalysts for social and economic development and the overall improvement of the quality of life in the district. At the same time, the park offers a new vantage point with spectacular views of Historic Cairo's countless architectural treasures, which will no doubt draw foreign tourists and the inhabitants of greater Cairo alike to the once-neglected area.
It is my wish that the new Azhar Park with its central location will become a major new resource for visitors and residents of Cairo, opening up new views onto the surrounding historic monuments of a unique area of a unique city, said the Aga Khan.