Cairo's Darb Al-Ahmar District

Preserving a Historical Heritage

Cairo's Darb Al-Ahmar district contains some of the finest extant examples of Islamic medieval architecture. Regional, national and international resources are being mobilised to halt the crumbling decay and restore the area to pristine splendour. Nelly Youssef took a walk to see how things are coming along

Street of the Darb al-Ahmar (photo: Nelly Youssef)
International aid for a national treasure – Cairo's Darb Al-Ahmar (the "Red Street")

​​In Darb Al-Ahmar (the red alley), in the heart of Islamic Cairo, the positive effects of an ambitious project are becoming clearly visible. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has joined forces with the Egyptian-Swiss Development Fund (ESDF), the Ford Foundation, the KfW development bank (representing Germany), and the Cairo district authorities with the aim of bringing about the regeneration of a district that is among the poorest and most overcrowded in the Egyptian capital.

There are two ways of reaching the project offices of the Darb Al-Ahmar Conservation and Revitalisation project. One way leads through Al-Azhar Park, the other through the Darb Al-Ahmar district's maze of narrow Aybak alleyways. I plump for the Al-Azhar Park route, having heard so much about how beautiful it is, and having wanted to see it ever since its 2005 opening. I'm not disappointed. Everywhere there are families with children out enjoying themselves, lovers strolling, the girls savouring the brief moment of freedom the haven of the park offers, a temporary respite from the strict control of their families and a conservative society.

The nearer to my destination I come, the more I am struck by the starkness of the contrast in the urban landscape, by the mix of run down, dilapidated buildings and neat, well-maintained modern flats. The Darb Al-Ahmar district is well known as an enclave of low income and high unemployment, its buildings dilapidated, its infrastructure poor. Yet this is one of the oldest areas of Cairo, boasting no fewer than 65 of Islamic Cairo's most important historical landmarks, including the Citadel of Salah Ad-Din (Saladin), founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar and the Al-Azhar University.

The interior of the building in which the project work takes place reminds me of the American University: everything well maintained, beautiful paintings adorning the walls, and there are beautifully carved tables and chairs, which provide a coordinated and harmonious sense of unity that is easy on the eye. Each employee is equipped with a desk, a computer and, in most cases, an admirable command of English.

On a magnet board the project's working plan for the year is displayed. It's all rather reminiscent of what one would expect of an office in the West; hardly surprising really, since that's where the funding comes from and where the policy decisions are made.

From rubbish tip to park

The carvings, project leader Ali Abdel-Aal assures me, are all the work of local people from Darb Al-Ahmar, and done in workshops reserved exclusively for the project. The Darb Al-Ahmar development itself, however, was not part of the original plan. Back in 1984, it was the Aga Khan himself, convinced that the provision of a green lung was an urgent priority for a city with an escalating population and constantly rising levels of air pollution, who conceived the idea for the construction of a park.

So the search for a suitable location for a park was begun, with the Aga Khan Trust working in collaboration with the Egyptian government and the Cairo district authorities. In 1996 a decision was reached: Cairo's largest open space, a 30 hectare site which had been used as a rubbish tip for five hundred years was to provide the city with a new park.

But during that project the Trust soon became aware of other problems that were coming to light, problems affecting the people of the Darb Al-Ahmar district adjoining the new park – poverty and pollution. In the year 2000, therefore, the Aga Khan Trust commissioned a study to examine the living conditions of the resident population.

The study looked into the social, health, economic and infrastructure needs of the district. The Trust then made 30 million dollars available for the subsequent development project, with additional funding being provided by other organisations. The objective was not simply to help bring about an improvement of living conditions for the inhabitants of Darb Al-Ahmar, but also to set a benchmark of excellence that would give a lead to other organisations involved in the preservation of historical cultural assets.

Loans for small businesses

The awarding of loans to smaller craft-oriented or shoemakers' businesses, which might be able to provide employment opportunities for the young people of the district, provided development incentives. A health centre was constructed and restoration work got underway on the district's historical buildings and monuments such as the Umm Sultan Shaban Mosque or the ancient city wall, the latter, built during the Ayyubid dynasty, and long since submerged beneath piles of rubbish.

Man at work with hammer chisle (photo: Nelly Youssef)
Side effects – reconstruction work creates jobs for the district's residents

​​Ali Abdel-Aal also believes that the work being carried out by his colleagues and himself has an important part to play in influencing priorities for the other Egyptian state organisations involved in the rebuilding and restoration of historical architecture. Historical monuments and sites directly related to Egyptian society are what they should be concentrating on, rather than just tourist attractions.

Renovation and recycling

The project has undertaken to support 200 people from the Darb Al-Ahmar district in the renovation and repair of their homes, with the project providing 70% of the cost, while the rest is to be met by the residents themselves. A credit programme is available for those unable to pay, with the borrowed sum having to be paid back within four years.

Some of the local people were opposed to the renovation. However, it was pointed out to them by the project management that their housing had become structurally unsafe and that renovation through the project was the only viable alternative to the eventual prospect of demolition.

Nevertheless, with much of the housing around the park still in a state of dilapidation, negotiations with residents are ongoing. The main job of the project team, according to Abdel-Aal, is to raise levels of consciousness with regard to the problems as well as to facilitate the coming together of people with the relevant organisations. A current example of this being the work that is currently being done to improve the collaboration between the Darb Al-Ahmar refuse disposal service, the environmental protection group and the German Association for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), which looks after various recycling projects.

Getting women involved

Getting through to the women and girls in order to get them involved is another project priority. They are given library jobs and integrated into the educational activities, for example. They help out by becoming involved in literacy programmes or in discussion groups where experts are invited to give talks on subjects such as the problems of puberty, female genital mutilation, or the institution of marriage.

The initial reluctance of the women to get involved with the project doesn't surprise Abdel-Aal. It wouldn't work at all if pushed too hard, it has to be gradual, a process.

"We begin by inviting mothers and daughters to come along to project events where general health advice is being offered, only later do we move on to the wider social problems. It wouldn't do to entitle one of our talks 'The Dangers of Female Genital Mutilation', it's just too delicate an issue; besides you are dealing with deeply rooted, sensitive social values and traditions, one just does not talk openly about such things. But there are some signs that things are beginning to change."

And that is exactly where the project sees its role: in encouraging a fundamental change in thinking. The unquestioned, ingrained attitudes, after all, are just as influential on the way people relate to their architectural heritage as they are on the way people relate to one another. For the members of the Darb Al-Ahmar project, the challenge has to do with revitalisation of mindset as well as of architectural fabric.

The biggest hurdle to be overcome is to get people to talk about topics that to them may at first seem rather too strange and groundbreaking. In this respect it is not only the people of Darb Al-Ahmar who have their problems, for the Egyptian authorities, too, there is still some way to go.

Nelly Youssef

© 2007

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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