Question: What award-winning garden was literally a pile of garbage until the Aga Khan noticed it?
Answer: Al-Azhar Park, Cairo, Egypt
The fourth Agha Khan (see below) stood on the balcony of his Cairo hotel room in 1984 and surveyed the view of Al-Darassa hill. It was ghastly: acre upon acre of trash that had accumulated over five centuries. He found the scene distressing and also unnecessary: how could so much land in the heart of the city be wasted? He determined to fund and launch a restoration project with a price tag of 30 million dollars.
The plan was ambitious and it took until 1992 to begin the actual work. In addition to clearing away 500 years’ worth of detritus, 80,000 truckloads of poor-quality soil had to be replaced with better soil. The terrain itself was regraded, yielding two hills and a flat plain, and water features installed, including three integrated cisterns and ponds fed by the Nile. Ancient Islamic and Persian design elements were incorporated, including orchards, Fatimid-style archways, terraced gardens, fountains, and seating areas. An unexpected result of the restoration was the discovery of the historic Ayyubid Wall, built by the interloping ruler Saladin in the 12th century, along with two city gates. Aga Khan IV ordered that the wall and gates be restored as part of the project.
As the park came into better shape over 13 years of work, it stood in sharp contrast to the poor Darb al-Ahmar neighborhood it bordered. Lacking sanitation services and with many of its residents unable to find work, Darb al-Ahmar was as destitute as the park itself had once been. The Agha Khan IV drew in investors to help fund recovery efforts for the neighborhood, encompassing building preservation, skills training, and the hiring of locals to work for the park in restoration, upkeep, administrative roles, marketing, and tourism. 400 microloans were offered to support local businesses so that they, like the park, could thrive.
When Al-Azhar opened to visitors in 2005, it was the city’s largest public park, sprawling some 80 acres. It was a hit not only with Egyptians but with design and garden critics around the world. Among the awards bestowed on the park is its inclusion in the Project for Public Spaces list of the World’s 60 Great Places, which described the park as Cairo’s “green lung.” It’s a far cry from the rubble that greeted the Aga Khan so many years before and a testimony to the power of reinvention.Who Exactly is the Aga Khan? 16 Fascinating Facts
- Akin to the Pope or the Dalai Lama, the Aga Khan is a global spiritual leader, in this case for the world’s 15 million Nizari Ismaili Muslims; the role is passed down only through direct descendants of Muhammed.
- The current Aga Khan, Shah Karim al-Husayni, is the 49th in his line, and the fourth to be called Aga Khan, his grandfather being the third.
- Born in Switzerland, he was raised in Nairobi, receiving private tutoring at the order of the Aga Khan III, before going to the world’s most expensive boarding school, Institut Le Rosey, where his grades were only fair.
- His grandfather insisted he go to Harvard for history (instead of MIT for science, his first choice) and he did, but he spent much of his time on leisure activities, flying off to ski resorts on weekends.
- At 20, upon the 1957 death of his grandfather, he became the Aga Khan IV, and said, “Overnight, my whole life changed completely. I woke up with serious responsibilities toward millions of other human beings.”
- The title was willed to him—over his father and uncle—because his grandfather wanted a young man with a modern sensibility to take the role; he felt that the boy growing up in the atomic era gave him a unique perspective.
- In the 1960s, the Aga Khan IV promoted relations between people of different ethnicities and races, an important message not only within Islam but the world at large.
- When Nizaris were displaced from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Burma, the Aga Khan intervened to help resettle them, but in turn, he pushed them to contribute to the development and growth of their new communities.
- With a net worth of more than $15 billion, he was described by Forbes as one of the world’s ten richest royals, though he does not actually preside over a specific geographic realm
- He is known for using his wealth for good, with initiatives to fight global poverty, to improve the status of women, and to foster religious pluralism through the Aga Khan Development Network (one of the world’s largest private charities).
- For the 25th anniversary of his ascension, he opened a medical school and teaching hospital in Karachi, as well as schools for girls and rural health clinics across Asia.
- For his 50th anniversary, he visited the four continents with Nizari communities and met with state leaders around the world.
- The Queen of England hosted the Aga Khan at Windsor Castle to kick off his 60th anniversary jubilee, celebrations which ended in Lisbon with parades, concerts, an arts festival, and the official declaration of the Mendonca Palace as the Diwan (seat of power) for his people.
- He still makes time for play: his passion is horseracing (with France’s largest stables), but he also owns his own yacht club, flies two personal jets, and has his own private island in the Bahamas.
- Today, the Aga Khan oversees not only his development network (with a staff of 80,000) but an emergency response and relief organization, a center for religious pluralism, and a network of schools, to the tune of a billion dollars a year combined.
- He describes his contributions not as philanthropy but as a spiritual duty, fulfilling the requirement of his faith to improve the conditions of the world.
Explore Cairo’s beautiful new park and more during your Ancient Egypt & the Nile River adventure.