The cultural and historical heritage of Egypt centres around Cairo, because of the incomparable accumulation of Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic treasures located there.
Following the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine city in 641 AD, and the establishment of the military encampment Al-Fustat, the governmental seat of the province of Egypt, Cairo, as a critical part of the rapidly expanding Islamic Empire, was enlarged by a succession of powerful ruling dynasties. After the Mongol conquest of Baghdad it became the largest medieval Muslim city.
In 969 the Fatimids, moving eastward along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, established a city which they named al-Qahira, 'the Victorious', which then became the nucleus of the medieval quarter. Under the Fatimids, al-Qahira became the seat of power, a ceremonial residential centre where the Caliph dwelt with his court and army.
The princely enclave which the Fatimids established was used as a base to challenge the authority of the Abbasids in Baghdad. The Fatimid legacy, although much is no longer extant, is most evident today in the al-Azhar Mosque and University, and al-Aqmar Mosque. Defensive city walls built by the Fatimids have played an important part in protecting the historic core from encroachment by the sprawling metropolis that continues to grow up around it. These walls were subsequently expanded by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah al-Din.
The population of the city, which grew because of refugees fleeing from uncertain conditions in the east, as well as by Salah al-Din's decree that the princely enclave should be opened to all, and not reserved for the ruling class alone, forced changes in the linear, orthogonal structure, creating the twisting organic streets we see today.
Under the Mamluks, who ruled in various forms from 1250 to 1517, this central core reached its height as a metropolis. After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1261, the seat of the caliphate was transferred to Cairo, making it the political center of Islam. Its wealth, due to its new status and the monopoly it was able to establish over Red Sea trade, was directed into the construction of many large complexes, such as the extraordinary Madrasa Mausoleum and Maristan of Sultan Qalawun, built between 1284 and 1285, which rivals the highest architectural achievements realized in Europe at this time.
Although the city never reclaimed its once exalted position after the Ottoman Conquest in 1517, the momentum that had been established continued in the form of a conscious attitude toward the enhancement of an important legacy, and many fine architectural examples date from this period.
A brief renewal of prosperity and power was achieved under the Ottoman Governor Muhammed Ali following the Napoleonic occupation of Cairo in 1798. Under the Ottomans, the decision to emulate French city planning techniques, and open up vast new boulevards that moved outward to the north and west, reconfigured the city plan and remains predominant in Cairo's downtown core until today. (Visit the collection Art Deco Architecture in Cairo) to see some of the structures from this period. In addition to neighborhoods like Zamalek, Dokki, and Muhandiseen, present day Cairo encompasses the historically distinct zones of Babylon and Fustat, as well as the nineteenth century suburb Heliopolis (Misr al-Jadida), and its contemporary counterpart, Maadi.
In spite of its inscription as a World Heritage Site in 1979, Historic Cairo was not given enough attention and individual buildings were suffering neglect, serious deteriorations and lack of maintenance. During the early phases of the design of Azhar Park, new light was projected on the adjacent neighbourhood of Darb al-Ahmar, as the Park hills provide views of a number of magnificent heritage edifices. With its medieval structures, with the domes and minarets amid the dense urban fabric, the Darb al-Ahmar district invites visitors of the Park to come and explore the jewels of Islamic art and architecture.
The conservation projects of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in Darb al-Ahmar started with two minarets in the vicinity of Azhar Park, that of Umm al-Sultan Shaaban Mosque (1368–69) and that of Khayrbek Mosque (1502–20). Both minarets had lost their upper parts as a result of the devastating 1884 earthquake. Collapses and reconstructions of minarets were not unknown to the history of Cairo. Despite attempts to reconstruct them in 1941, the minarets of Umm al-Sultan Shaaban and of Khayrbek mosques waited until 2003 to recover their integrity, when AKTC, on the basis of historic documentation, started with the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt not only to restore them to their original shape but also to restore and revive the skills and the craftsmanship of artisans whose crafts were, and still are, in danger of being lost.
The restoration of the Khayrbek complex comprises the Mamluk palace of Alin Aq, the mosque, the mausoleum and sabil-kuttab of Khayrbek and two Ottoman houses, covering a total area of approximately 8,000 square metres. Amir Khayer Bek, a former governor of Aleppo under the last Mamluk sultan al-Ghuri, was appointed as the first Ottoman governor of Cairo following the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. Khayrbek complex was built between 1502 and 1520 adjacent to Khayer Bek’s residence, the Alin Aq Palace (13th–14th century). The sabil (public water source) of Janim al-Hamzawy (1532) was erected nearby, as were two Ottoman houses (17th century). In 1884, an earthquake caused serious damage to the top of the Khayrbek Mosque minaret, leading to the collapse of its pavilion. In 2002, in coordination with the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), AKTC started reconstruction of the upper part of the minaret and a conservation project involving the entire complex and adjacent structures.