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Crowded Cairo Gets its Own Version of Central Park

On Friday March 25, Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a private agency which seeks to revitalize Muslim communities, will inaugurate the largest public park built in Cairo in over a century. The Aga Khan, who heads the trust, is the the leader of 15 million Ismailis, a Muslim sect. He built the 70-hectare Al Azhar park on an ancient garbage dump in the heart of Islamic Cairo.

Cairo's 16 million inhabitants live in a city with very few green spaces. Urban expansion has led to the disappearance of many of the city's public parks. The remaining ones are overcrowded and poorly maintained. Cairo's elite no longer set foot in them, preferring to socialize in private clubs.

But this could change with the opening of Al Azhar Park. Its designers hope the park's fountains, green lawns and stunning views of ancient landmarks will attract visitors from throughout the city.

The park includes a formal restaurant, a café, an artificial lake, a palm-lined promenade, and a children's playground.

Saif Al Rashidi is an urban planner who has worked on the park since 1997. "The idea of the park was in the first instance to provide a facility that the city lacked. And choosing to provide the facility here in a historic area, which had been decaying, was a conscious decision that this would help the area improve."

The building of the park has also led to some surprising discoveries, such as the unearthing of a wall that dates back to the 12th century. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has now excavated and renovated 140 meters of this wall.

The park has already had an effect on a nearby neighborhood. Called Darb Al Ahmar, the area boasts one of the highest concentrations of Islamic landmarks in the world, but many of the landmarks are decaying and the area has for years been a haven for drug traffickers. But now the Aga Khan Trust is renovating homes and funding initiatives in Darb Al Ahmar.

But some people are wondering how many visitors the lavish new park will attract. Vincent Battesti is a French anthropologist who does research on Cairo gardens. Sitting in a busy downtown coffee shop, Mr. Battesti says the Al Azhar Park is clearly not designed with low-income Cairenes in mind.

He says there is currently no entrance to the park from the surrounding neighborhoods. As of now, the main entrance to the park is designed for visitors arriving by car. Park planners say they will open four pedestrian gates in the future.

Others complain that the park is too expensive. It costs about a dollar a person to enter. This will place the park beyond the reach many people in Cairo who earn only about $40 to $60 a month. In fact, the entrance fee is given as the main reason the park, which has been open unofficially since September, is not so crowded. In contrast, a ticket to the Cairo zoo, which is always crowded, costs less than a nickel.

But the park's general manager, Mohamed Al Mikawi, says the entrance fee is necessary. He says the city government will assume responsibility for Al Azhar Park in two years, and it needs to be self-sustaining because no money is available from the city.

"Due to the lack of resources with the government of Cairo, it was felt that the park should not be a burden, the park should be able to create enough revenue to make the park sustainable," he said.

It's too soon to tell whether the park will live up to expectations. But for now, Egyptians from the neighborhood and beyond are enjoying this rare breath of fresh air.