In old Cairo, I am winding my way through a labyrinth of narrow streets. All is a confusion of human and vehicular traffic, the buzz of conversation and the din of animal noises -- goats and chickens are common here, as many of their owners have left villages to seek urban fortunes.
Scenes from history are almost lost in the chaos: the Fatimid Bab Zuwayla gate (where public hangings once took place and the spirit of a Muslim saint, Mitwalli al-Qutb, is said to reside), the Ottoman mosque of Marzuk al-ahmadi, the Mamluk-era wikala (warehouse) of Qaytbay. Yet there is something deliciously gritty, unscripted and real about these back streets of old Islamic Cairo that are mere metres from the Disneyfied tourist zone of Khan Khalili market.
Suddenly, a shock of green breaks the palette of older stone and newer concrete. My eye comes to rest on a slope of grass and trees that mark the periphery of a radical new addition to the neighbourhood: 30 hectares of urban green space known as the al-Azhar Park.
An initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the park's name is both descriptive and auspicious. For just as the Fatamid mosque of the same name offers refuge from the street and sweet spatial relief as it opens up into a huge, white marble courtyard, so the al-Azhar Park offers welcome respite from a cityscape otherwise devoid of green.
The park is a bold new experiment: a "people's park," built next to Darb al-Ahmar, an area that had been an important commercial and political centre for more than 700 years, but had recently become a de facto ghetto. "The park itself was a pretext -- a leitmotiv -- to insert in medieval Cairo something that would stimulate socio-economic growth in the neighbourhood of Darb al-Ahmar for its 200,000 people, who are among the poorest in Cairo and in Egypt," explains Luis Monreal, general manager for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
The luxury of space afforded to the al-Azhar Mosque was a function of the times; in 10th-century Cairo there was still room to build with such dimensions, unlike later mosque construction when space was at a premium. As the 20th century saw Cairo ravaged by a massive population boom that stretched its urban limits and polluted its air with millions of fume-spewing vehicles, green space (a more prevalent feature historically) all but disappeared. The exceptions were private clubs or private gardens, but the working classes had few options, apart from the city zoo and a handful of more limited green spaces.
The story of how the park came to be is an interesting one, as layered as the history of Cairo and as full of as many unscripted and chaotic twists and turns. For the park, like the old city, is an ecosystem and neither exists in isolation.
More than a decade in the making, (it opened last fall and will be officially inaugurated on March 25), the park has changed the physical environment -- herons and hawks and other wildfowl absent for half a century now nest there and the relatively clean air is fragrant with flowering plants -- and its creation has affected the whole neighbourhood. Darb al-Ahmar, once a drug-dealing no-go zone, is slowly becoming a cultural tourism destination.
The site itself -- an old rubble dump -- offered some exciting surprises. During initial excavations, part of the old city's 12th-century Ayyubid wall was uncovered; it had been buried for more than 400 years. It soon became clear that architectural restoration was to be part of the overall project plan.
This led to an interest in improving some of the residential architecture as well. By extension, this led to health, education and welfare programs, as well as micro-credit projects (all initiatives of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture) that encourage many of the resident artisans to practise their craft. Traditional arts such as lantern-making and delicate lattice work are now enjoying a mild renaissance as tourists and wealthy Caireans come to buy their wares.
The park itself, designed by Egyptian architect Maher Stino (whose credits include the acclaimed Nubian Museum in Aswan, 900 kilometres south of Cairo), is the perfect vista from which to consider the neighbourhood and surrounding area. To the west lies the Fatamid city, with its wealth of historic architecture; to the south is the Sultan Hasan Mosque and the Ayyubid Citadel; and to the east is the Mamluk City of the Dead: a former necropolis and now a densely populated area of more than 200,000 inhabitants. Built on a kind of axis extending down a southward slope to meet the Citadel, the park features a walkway that extends down from a hilltop restaurant past gardens and fountains and toward the artificial lake and lakeside café at the end of the slope.
But the park's apparent symmetry belies its mysterious nature. Each visit offers a new revelation -- a winding path here, a special view from a certain angle there. Much like the concept of "the framed view" inherent to Japanese gardens, the park offers unique vistas -- a minaret framed by a palm tree, a dome flanked by flowers -- that give the viewer a sense of the beauty of the old city and by extension its potential for renewal.
After taking in some hyper-touristy Pharonic sites in Cairo and surrounding area, such as the kitschy but amusingly camp sound-and-light show in front of the great pyramid of Khufu in Giza, I made a beeline back to the park. There, among the traditional Islamic-inspired water elements and the shade of the trees, I stayed all afternoon, free from the impositions of the Egyptian tourist machine.
I took in the views of the old city yet again, this time recognizing some of the monuments I had walked by a few days earlier, such as the 14th-century Umm Sultan Shaban Mosque, whose graceful minaret is being repaired by the Trust for Culture. In the distance, I could even see the Ibn Tulun Mosque, inspired by the ziggurat-like great mosque of Samarra. From the vistas viewed from the park, the city slowly started to make sense.
I turned my gaze to the interior of the park. Despite the dire pronouncement of an Egyptian friend that the place would soon become irrevocably defined by class -- either a gathering place for the rich or the poor but never for both -- al Azhar Park seemed to be working; the mix was right. I watched a grandfather in-line skating with his granddaughter. I had tea at the lakeside café and saw German tourists laughing and smoking a narghile (water pipe). I saw shy young lovers -- boys and girls in hijab from the neighbourhood walk hand in hand around the gardens. Some looked as though they had walked into their own Egyptian movie, almost not believing that such a place was possible so close to home.
I left the lovers to their cinematic courtship and caught another special view. A few metres in front of me, a hawk floated on the wind, coasting on the current, Islamic Cairo spread out behind his wings.
Pack your bags
There are tram lines and bus lines that let you off near the park, but the best way for foreign travellers to get there is by taxi. Tell the driver Al-Azhar Park in Salah Salem Street at the end of Al Azhar Street.
WHEN TO GO
Late fall and early spring are always good bets.
WHERE TO STAY
El Hussein Hotel: Hussein Square; 20 (2) 591 8664. This two-star hotel is the nearest to the park. Notably lacking in luxury amenities, it is appreciated by those who enjoy old Cairo's ambiance. It is beside the Fishawi café, famed hangout of Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel Prize winner widely considered the foremost writer in modern Arabic literature.
Nile Hilton: 1113 Corniche El Nil; 20 (2) 578-0444/578-0666; http://www.hilton.com; next door to the Egyptian Museum and a good bet for something more luxurious but still undeniably Egyptian.
The American University in Cairo offers walking tours of Islamic Cairo. For information, visit http://www.aucegypt.edu/walking_tours.
One can inquire at the park about the locations of the old city lantern-making workshop where lovely souvenirs can be purchased and a traditional craft supported at the same time. The more touristy Khan Khalili bazaar can be fun if it's not too crowded.
Recommended reading: Historic Cairo: a Walk Through the Islamic City, by Jim Antoniou.