In spite of its inscription as a World Heritage Site in 1979, Historic Cairo was not given enough attention and individual buildings were suffering neglect, serious deteriorations and lack of maintenance. During the early phases of the design of Azhar Park, new light was projected on the adjacent neighbourhood of Darb al-Ahmar, as the Park hills provide views of a number of magnificent heritage edifices. With its medieval structures, with the domes and minarets amid the dense urban fabric, the Darb al-Ahmar district invites visitors of the Park to come and explore the jewels of Islamic art and architecture.
The conservation projects of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in Darb al-Ahmar started with two minarets in the vicinity of Azhar Park, that of Umm al-Sultan Shaaban Mosque (1368–69) and that of Khayrbek Mosque (1502–20). Both minarets had lost their upper parts as a result of the devastating 1884 earthquake. Collapses and reconstructions of minarets were not unknown to the history of Cairo. Despite attempts to reconstruct them in 1941, the minarets of Umm al-Sultan Shaaban and of Khayrbek mosques waited until 2003 to recover their integrity, when AKTC, on the basis of historic documentation, started with the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt not only to restore them to their original shape but also to restore and revive the skills and the craftsmanship of artisans whose crafts were, and still are, in danger of being lost.
The successful reconstruction of the minarets signalled the potential for social change brought by conservation and was followed by the complete conservation of the Umm al-Sultan Shaaban Madrasa and Mosque while the Khayrbek complex was restored and conserved. After restoration was completed in 2006, Umm al-Sultan Shaaban Mosque was returned to its original function and is currently being used as a mosque for the community. The madrasa spaces, neglected and empty before the conservation project, also provided an excellent reuse option for community-based activities. Agreements between AKTC and the Supreme Council of Antiquities were signed in order to reuse these edifices and hence bring life to them and revive their functional integrity, paving the way for many other organizations to follow this example. The reuse integrates the ‘monuments’ into their context and offers a variety of possible functions in the building that encourages local groups to use them and also to take care of their maintenance. As restoration work could not be complete without looking after the environmental needs of residents, conservation of individual monuments was closely followed by infrastructure and urban upgrading of its context.
Jodido, Philip, ed. 2011. "Case Studies: Egypt" In The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme: Strategies for Urban Regeneration. Munich: Prestel, 72-109.
The notion of culture as an asset rather than as a drain on resources is still a new concept in many parts of the world. Culture is considered a luxury in an era of unmet social and economic needs. The sad result is that both tangible and intangible cultures are succumbing to decay or decline. The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme has shown how culture can be a catalyst for development in even the poorest and most remote areas of the globe. From Afghanistan to Zanzibar, from India to Mali, the Programme’s support to communities demonstrates how conservation of cultural heritage, coupled with urban regeneration efforts, can provide a springboard for social and economic development. This publication highlights, through case studies, drawings and images, the work of the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme over the past 20 years.