Inauguration of Al-Azhar Park

Mawlana Hazar Imam speaking at the opening ceremony of Al-Azhar Park. Gary Otte

Bi-'smi Llahi 'r-Rahmani 'r-Rahim

Madame Mubarak, Excellencies, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Twenty-one years ago we had a vision that launched us on a journey of inquiry, exploration and discovery that took us through some 1,000 years of history of this extraordinary city.

It was a journey in which we engaged with historians, archeologists, architects and horticulturalists. We worked with engineers, statisticians, sociologists and urban planners. We met with neighbourhood residents and businessmen, artisans and entrepreneurs, young people and old.

Like some of the great Muslim explorers such as Al-Idrisi, Al-Baruni or Ibn Batuta, our journey of discovery was an act of faith. We did not know what lay ahead, other than excitement and unpredictability. And we knew that it could be enthralling but would require patience, determination and tenacity.

The path we followed has led us finally to this evening, at the inauguration of this magnificent park with so many who have contributed to this historic achievement. Thank you all so much for being here. And thank you for your support.

There are too many people to thank individually. Let me start by expressing my warmest appreciation to President and Mrs. Mubarak. Without your support and commitment, our journey would not have gone beyond the first step.

Let me also thank the Minister of Culture, Farouk Hoshni, and his ministry; the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the present Secretary-General Dr. Zahi Hawass and his predecessor, Dr. Gaballah; the Governorate of Cairo, the current Governor Dr. Abdel Azim Wazier and his predecessors, Dr. Abdel Rahim Shehata and Omar Abdel Akher. I also want to acknowledge the Egyptian Ambassadors to France who were so helpful in the early stages of the project.

Her Excellency Madame Suzanne Mubarak understood from the very beginning we were creating not just a park - as great an achievement as that would be. The First Lady recognised we were giving birth to a catalyst for social, economic and cultural renewal and improvement that would grow for many years to come. She knew it would have far-reaching consequences for the urban fabric of one of the city's most historic, yet poorest neighbourhoods, touching some 200,000 individuals. The agencies of the Egyptian government were quick to see that as well, and they helped to create the enabling environment that made the project achievable.

Our experience in creating Al-Azhar Park has taught us important new lessons that will contribute to the international body of knowledge about preservation and development in world heritage cities, a substantial portion of them in the Muslim world.

We already have similar, if somewhat smaller-scale initiatives underway in the Stone Town in Zanzibar, at Bagh-e-Babur in Kabul, Afghanistan, and we will soon launch projects in Djenne and Mopti in Mali.

A fundamental lesson, which reinforced our experience in other countries, is that public-private partnerships can be effective mechanisms for enhancing the value of underused, unappreciated or even unknown social, cultural and economic assets.

The private, not-for-profit entities of The Aga Khan Development Network, led by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, have been able to forge effective partnerships with government agencies at all levels here in Egypt and with a range of international, national and local NGOs and institutions. Without them, this project would not have been successful.

I would include here, the Swiss Egyptian Development Fund, the Ford Foundation, the World Monuments Fund, the French Institute of Archaeology, the city of Stuttgart and the newest donor, the Social Fund for Development.

A second fundamental lesson is that when embarking on a project of this complexity we must be prepared for the unpredictability of discovery. There will be delays and added costs, but there will also be new and interesting opportunities. And each opportunity must be assessed to ensure it brings additional value at acceptable cost.

This, after all, is a project that cost several times the original budget and took more than 20 years from vision to realisation.

This is because what started as one project actually turned into three: the design and construction of a park, the restoration of the Ayyubid Wall, and the community redevelopment of the historically-important Darb al-Ahmar neighbourhood. All are tightly interconnected and have added to the body of knowledge we can share with others.

Here in the park for example, we faced major engineering challenges in adapting the site. Then we had to select plants that would thrive in arid local conditions. The American University of Cairo established an off-site nursery for propagation and testing and as a result, the number of species planted is a new benchmark for park spaces in the region.

The Ayyubid Wall presented another particular challenge because so much of it had been covered by centuries of debris. We did not know how long it was, or how deep. We did not understand the complexity of the structure, or what archeological treasures it contained.

Portions of the wall had been buried for 500 years or more since the time of the Mamluks. We also found sections where buildings had seriously encroached on the wall.

These discoveries required detailed pilot investigations, in partnership with the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The result was unique policies aimed at avoiding harm to archeological sites, respecting cultural heritage and safeguarding authenticity.

That in turn helped us develop appropriate training for local craftsmen and artisans to shape their skills and to apply them to this project.

The lessons from Darb al-Ahmar are a compelling case study of the complex interactions that result from restoration in a densely-populated and historically-sensitive urban area. It is a story that continues to unfold and will do so for many years to come.

We found Darb al-Ahmar to be a resilient community with a large pool of skilled workers and small entrepreneurs. We were able to engage them in the restoration of houses and schools and the rebuilding of minarets that had long ago disappeared from the Cairo skyline.

Another lesson here was the important role that microfinance could play in helping residents of this community lift themselves beyond subsistence, enabling them to grow businesses and upgrade the quality of their living conditions.

Ladies and gentlemen, it has indeed been a long and interesting journey of discovery that has brought us to this evening. Many projects continue and there are, no doubt, many surprises to come and many more lessons to be learned.

I look forward to that because this process has been particularly satisfying for me from a very personal perspective.

In our excavations and our historical investigations, I constantly have been reminded that we were touching the very foundations of my ancestors, the Fatimids, and the pluralistic history and intellectual profile of this city and this country to which they contributed so profoundly.

I am very humbled by the opportunity to return to Cairo, founded over a thousand years ago by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muiz, to build on that history.

Thirty-five generations later, through the work done here by my institutions, it is my prayer that this park will be a continuing contribution to the people of this great city."

Thank you.