Article: Earthly Cairo – Work of Aga Khan in Cairo

Earthly Cairo

By Benny Ziffer

Muezzins and bells

CAIRO – I read in Al-Ahram Hebdo, the French-language Cairo weekly, about the opening of a Christmas festival at the Jesuit Holy Family School at 151 Ramses Street. And there was something sweetly intriguing about it that made me wonder how various different Christian enclaves could exist so naturally amid a sea of Islam which, as everyone nowadays agrees (including Pope Benedict XVI), is a murderous and intolerant religion. So I went to the school. Specifically, I took the metro from the Ataba station, switched trains at the Sadat station and got off at the Orabi station; I should have stayed on until the next stop, Mubarak station, but how was I to know? And to go back down the steps to the metro just to go one more stop wasn’t worth it. And anyhow, it was a nice day, the sky was blue and it wouldn’t hurt me to walk a little.


Here and there – though not in these poor neighborhoods – Cairo is undergoing a little bit of a face-lift. I was told that in the Darb al-Ahmar area, on the avenue that leads from the ancient fortress of Bab Zwaila, they’ve begun some serious restoration work on the historic buildings that date from the Middle Ages and on the city’s Ayyubid-period wall. The person heading the project is the mogul Aga Khan.


Another day I happened to stray into another alley, where I did see restoration work on the historic buildings. At the insistence of the Aga Khan, neighborhood residents are the ones doing the restoration work, men and women in equal number. An old madrasa was renovated and now houses a mother-and-baby clinic. But the newly shiny buildings aren’t stopping the neighborhood from carrying on as before, from tossing trash in the street. The cats are still rummaging everywhere, the chickens are pecking and the sheesha (water pipe) smokers are still sitting in the doorways. And nearby a woman is sitting on the ground and selling lemons and chatting with another woman beside her who’s selling salad greens.


Cairo’s Hiriya dump

I’d also been told to go see the wondrous new Al-Azhar Park. This park was also built with funds from the Aga Khan on what used to be Cairo’s Hiriya, main waste dump – or to be more accurate, just one of its Hiriyas. The mountain of garbage has been transformed into a blooming garden. At the entrance, a nice English-speaking guide named Hassan Mahran was waiting for me. He led me around the park. Everything in it has some sort of symbolism.

The restaurant on the north side, built in the Fatimid style, symbolizes the Shi’ite stream of Islam. But when you look due south from it, you see the Saladin fortress, which symbolizes the Sunni stream. And the fountains and elongated pools imitate the style of the Islamic gardens of Spain. An artificial lake supplies water to all the pools and fountains. On an island in the center of the lake is a lovely cafe. Hassan adamantly refused to accept a tip at the end of the tour. He said that tips encourage greed and that greed is never satisfied. I apologized. I understood that his words implied a reproach – that it’s people like me, who think that people can be bought with money, who are responsible for the undermining of virtue in Egypt.


Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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