Approaching Al Darb Al Ahmar

In Cairo, we were concerned with the neighbourhood and area Al Darb Al Ahmar, located in the midst of historic Cairo. The district is well known for its medieval Islamic monuments and mosques; its urban fabric a pattern of crooked narrow streets and alleys aligned with the stone-built houses of classic Islamic architecture. Al Darb Al Ahmar is surrounded by the Ayyubid Wall to the east, borders with the Salah-Al-Din Citadel to the South (part of the World Monuments Fund) and the famous Al-Azhar Park to the west. Its distinctiveness originates historically from being near to the Citadel, the political, economic and cultural centre of power at the time of the Ayyubids around 1860 when the first large expansions of the city were undertaken (Sims 2003).
In contrast to this rich Islamic heritage, the present urban condition is considered critical due to a number of problems ranging from high levels of poverty, poor infrastructure, deteriorating housing conditions and social inequality. By some seen as an informal area, it has been included in the category of the deteriorating historic cores (Sims 2003: 6). Having attracted a number of strategies and community development and NGO programmes over the past few years, the district’s present state is quite different in comparison to its past. One of the most notable interventions was led by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in partnership with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and the World Monument Fund. AKTC restored the monumental structures in the area, in particular the Um al-Sultan Shaaban Mosque and the Khayrbek Complex, but its most significant undertaking was the Al-Azhar Park, for which a 500 year old landfill site was transformed into a recreational space and a ‘green lung’ for Cairo.
The original aim of the AKTC developmental programme as stated in 1984 was to provide Cairo’s residents with green public space, while restoring monuments and revitalising cultural heritage. The trust subscribes to a participative strategy and thus included the restoration of selected housing estates and socio-economic programmes. The intervention was targeted at the community, rather than the park or monuments alone and accompanied by a host of health, cultural and educational activities. The outcomes of the AKTC programmes, however, weren’t only satisfying. Although the AKTC succeeded in restoring several monuments and regenerating a number of historic houses, the community didn’t appreciate that revalorisation was given priority. The overall management was seen as top down, thus countering the participative approach. It was questioned, for instance, how effective the social development programme was in the light of the mainly superficial reconstruction of the historic fabric.
Especially after the Arab Spring of 2011, a new understanding of participation and the reclamation of rights characterises the population of Cairo and beyond. This impacts on how people in Al Darb Al Ahmar perceive their abilities to determine future developments of an area considered informal and historically significant at the same time, an area in transition and a neighbourhood of ambivalences and contradictions.

Map of Al Darb Al Ahmar

»At first incomprehensible to someone from a European background with its strict regulations on public space, traffic and commerce, the physical shape a well as the usage of street spaces is subject to constant change and negotiation in Cairo’s historical quarter Al Darb Al Ahmar.« Felix Blass

»Just like a large house with different floors and public areas in between, we entered Al Darb Al Ahmar through its short cuts, passages and small streets where kids were playing, a funeral ceremony took place and workers such as carpenters and others were working. It seemed that nearly everything takes place on the street.« Adrian Judt

»Streets are not just streets. They are used for storage, manufacturing, cooking, eating, playing and for chatting. These daily practices make the district look like a mosaic with thousands of tiny different patterns and details, but simultaneously one larger image.« Katalin Gennburg

»Cars, bicycles, trucks and mule carts carrying people and goods, tea glasses and meals being delivered from one shop to the other, the occasional news wandering from door to door with an incense bearer – the streets of Al Darb Al Ahmar are its veins.« Mohamad Abotera