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.
Jodidio Philip, editor. The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme. In Under the Eaves of Architecture: The Aga Khan Builder and Patron. Munich: Prestel, 2008.
The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme, from the book Under the Eaves of Architecture: The Aga Khan Builder and Patron.
The Aga Khan has launched numerous initiatives that aim in one way or another to improve the built environment of the Muslim world. For the first time, this book reveals the reasoning behind these efforts and their very substantial scale and ambition. It can safely be said that through the agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network and such prestigious institutions as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Aga Khan has become the leading private patron of architecture in the world. Interviews with more than fifty people closely associated with these efforts, and with the Aga Khan himself, allow this book to give the first overview of programmes and ideas that have benefited thousands of people across the world in the past fifty years.