Breathing new life into the legacy of past civilisations calls for a creativity, imagination, tolerance, understanding, and wisdom well beyond the ordinary. The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP), established in 1992, implements conservation, urban revitalization and area development projects in historically significant sites of the Islamic world undertaking the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures and public spaces in ways that spur social, economic and cultural development. Its projects seek to mobilize local potential and resources in order to ensure their eventual self-sustainability through operational income, human resource development and institutional management capabilities. Through this integrated approach, the Programme seeks to demonstrate that strengthening cultural identity can go hand in hand with socio-economic progress.
Going beyond mere restoration of monuments, the Programme engages in activities related to adaptive re-use, contextual urban planning and the improvement of housing, infrastructure and public spaces. It carries out related socio-economic development initiatives directed at upgrading local living conditions and improving quality of life.
Investments in single project locations or regions are coordinated with other Aga Khan Development Network programmes so that they reinforce each other as they grow together into a critical mass for positive change. In all project locations, community participation and training of local professionals are essential components.
The Ayyubid fortifications were begun in 1176 by Salah al-Din, a Kurd of the Ayyubid clan who came to Cairo from Syria and overthrew the Fatimid caliphate in 1171. They were built to contain the former Fatimid palace-city and its suburbs, the pre-Fatimid city of Fustat and the pre-existing fortifications within a single system. Unlike the first Fatimid wall, the Ayyubid fortifications were built entirely of stone and made use of new defensive devices brought from Syria, such as bent gate entrances and arrow slits reaching the floor.
In the following centuries, Cairo's rapid urban expansion went well beyond Salah al-Din's boundaries, rendering the old walls virtually obsolete. Unlike the other parts of the walled city, however, the eastern section is the only area where urban expansion beyond the walls did not take place. This was due to the enormous mounds of debris deposited just outside the wall, an accumulation that probably began in the fifteenth century, during the Mamluk period, when the eastern part of the city had declined in importance.
Today, after the grading works for the Azhar Park, the major portion of the remaining Ayyubid wall is once again emerging over a length of approximately 1,500 metres from Bab al-Wazir to al-Azhar Street, forming the boundary between the Darb al-Ahmar district and the Park. The outer face of the wall is now exposed to view and to natural elements, while on the city side, private development pressures and institutional demands may raise complex urban development issues. Future intervention will have to consider not only the preservation of the wall, but also how to intervene in the surrounding context. Comprehensive planning and design policies had to be developed both for the residential fabric abutting the wall and regarding the points of access and the pedestrian promenade along the western edge of Azhar Park.
This shift in attitude, from a perception of the Historic Wall as an abstract, isolated monument to its re-invention as a part of a larger urban programme, together with the gradual implementation of the plans and activities described above can turn this obsolete structure, buried for centuries and removed from the city's mainstream development, into a cultural asset and living component of the future revitalisation of Islamic Cairo. The challenge ahead lies in safeguarding the remains and true significance of the Historic Wall, while shaping its new role for the years to come.