His Highness the Aga Khan’s 2015 Speeches in the UK and USA Tell Marvellous Stories About the Al-Azhar Park and Convey a Profound Message of Our Common Humanity

Prepared and compiled by Abdulmalik Merchant
(Publisher-Editor, http://www.simergphotos.com and http://www.simerg.com)

Please click on the following NASA earth night time image for enlargement

city_lights_africa_720_PhotosOn either side of His Highness the Aga Khan’s thumbnail images, NASA night time photos of the earth. Photos from top to down sequentially correspond to the numbers mentioned in the countries His Highness visited . (1) East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya); (2) Egypt; (3) India; (4) Portugal; (5) Greece; (6) England; (7) Canada; and (8) USA. Note: visits not necessarily listed in chronological sequence.

In this third installment in a multi-part series related to His Highness Aga Khan’s travels and accomplishments during 2015, we are pleased to present highlights of his visits to the United Kingdom in October and to the USA in November where he delivered two major speeches. The earlier installments can be read by clicking on the following links:



010 Aga Khan 2015 London ICOMOS

His Highness the Aga Khan delivers his Keynote Address at the ICOMOS 50th Anniversary conference in London.  Photo: AKDN/Anya Campbell

The Birth of the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture

“Our central objective is to improve the quality of life for people in the developing world, and it is from this perspective that I will speak to you today.

“Our work extends to 35 countries in fields such as education and medical care, job creation and energy production, media and tourism, the fine arts and micro-finance. We believe that by improving the largest numbers of variables in the shortest possible time, we can obtain stable, long-term improvement in the quality of human life.

“Cultural heritage, of course, plays a central role in this endeavour. This focus was sharply intensified for me some 40 years ago when I came to realise that the proud architectural heritage of the Islamic world was progressively vanishing. The physical legacy of great Muslim empires was collapsing, and the response in the Islamic world seemed to be oblivion…There were no processes for revival, just the occasional misplaced dome or minaret.

“Our time-honoured cultural heritage had been buried – obscured not only by the shifting sands of time, but also by an all-consuming occidentalisation. As one observer commented, the physical identity of the Islamic world had been reduced to coffee table books.

“It was out of these concerns that the Aga Khan Award for Architecture was established in 1977, followed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and its Historic Cities Programme.

The Growing Agenda, Beyond the Awards

011 Aga Khan 2015 London ICOMOS

His Highness the Aga Khan delivers his Keynote Address at the ICOMOS 50th Anniversary conference in London.  Photo: AKDN/Anya Campbell

“As our agenda grew over time – and most excitingly – we also came to another critical understanding. We began to see the added potential of heritage projects for advancing an economic and a social agenda, for fighting poverty and driving development. To be sure, this potential was often ignored as culture was too easily miss-labelled as a luxury amid pressing social and economic needs.

“But my colleagues and I became convinced that cultural heritage projects are not a diversion from development priorities. Culture is in and of itself a development resource of immense potential value.

“Some who share this view refer to cultural investments as a springboard for development. Similarly, I like to say that cultural heritage can be a trampoline, propelling dramatic improvements in the quality of human life.

“I have seen this trampoline in action again and again.

Stories About the Al-Azhar Park
(1). Barren Land, Stirring Opportunity and A Green Space

012-7 Aga Khan 2015 London ICOMOS Al-Azhar Park

A 1992 photo of the site of the Al-Azhar Park. “For half a millennium, residents had tossed and hauled household garbage and building debris ‘over the wall’, creating a hilly landfill that rose as high as 40 meters (130′) in the medieval heart of Cairo wrote the late John Feeney in a piece for Aramcoworld. Photo: Gary Otte/AKTC 

“One of my early such experiences came three decades ago at a conference on urban growth in Cairo, a city founded by my own ancestors 1,000 years ago.

“As we looked out over medieval Cairo that week, one glaring anomaly stood out: a stretch of barren land, some 30 hectares, covered largely in heaps of debris.

“What an amazing surprise – in a city that was 1,046 years old and as densely populated as Cairo – to find a site in its oldest area on which no building had ever been built! Even the famous Ayyubid walls, which once ran alongside this site were covered by 5 to 6 metres of waste.

012-4 Aga Khan 2015 London ICOMOS Al-Azhar Park

An aerial view of the Al-Azhar Park, a gift to Cairo by the 49th Ismaili Imam. When the city of Cairo was built by the Fatimids, His Highness the Aga Khan’s ancestors, 20 percent of it was devoted to open space, including a royal park and garden. But by the second half of the 20th century, as more and more people from rural areas moved into the city and new high-rise housing was built to accommodate them, it became one of the densest metropolises in the world. Photo/Caption: Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).

“This rubble dump was a repellent deformity, but it was also a stirring opportunity. And the result was that on this forsaken site there was created a state-of-the-art green space: Al-Azhar Park.

“Opened ten years ago, the Park has since attracted some 17 million visitors. Their access fees produce a re-investable annual surplus of some $800,000 US dollars.

“But there is more to this story.

(2) Revival of the Park’s Surrounding Poor Neighbourhoods

012-5 Aga Khan 2015 London ICOMOS Al-Azhar ParkView of a typical residential alley in Darb al-Ahmar characterised by poverty and building decay. Photo: AKTC.

“Adjoining the park was one of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods – Darb al-Ahmar – its ancient ruins sheltering some 200,000 poor, marginalised inhabitants. Out of those ruins there grew a great archaeological adventure – uncovering and restoring ancient ramparts and gates, six historic mosques and dozens of houses and palaces.

“From the start, the local residents were deeply involved in this adventure. They were trained in restoration skills, and some 200 are still employed in this initiative. Others were trained to support the site and to accommodate the flow of visitors.

“The restoration project also included major improvements in local education and health services, in neighbourhood infrastructure, in vocational training, and microcredit initiatives.

012-6 Aga Khan 2015 London ICOMOS Al-Azhar Park

Left – One of the recipients of a micro-credit loan bought a stove to bake bread and produce hot meals for sale to workers and residents in the Darb al-Ahmar area.  Right – A loan enabled this woman to buy a press to stamp metal components for nearby workshops. Photo: AKTC.

“The result: family earnings there have increased one-third faster than in the whole of Old Cairo, literacy rates have climbed by one-fourth and today the whole area – once one of the most impoverished urban agglomerations on the planet – has become a remarkable residential, recreational and cultural site.

“Similar stories can be told about other places in the developing world, where historic cities can be among the poorest, often serving as makeshift transition spaces from rural poor populations to becoming city dwellers.

A Plea for Ardent Cultural Heritage Support

012 Aga Khan 2015 London ICOMOS

His Highness the Aga Khan and His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester review an exhibition of the work of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) with Luis Monreal, General Manager the AKTC. Photo: AKDN/Anya Campbell

“At such a time – and on occasions such as this – it is important that we commit ourselves ever more ardently to the essential work of cultural heritage as a powerful contributor to improving the quality of life for the entire human community.” — Excerpts from His Highness the Aga Khan’s speech on the 50th Anniversary of ICOMOS, London, England, October 22, 2015. 




His Highness the Aga Khan shared his decades long experience as the 49th hereditary Imam of Shia Ismaili Muslims in an address he delivered at Harvard University on November 12, 2015 in which he focused on building a better world through the notion of the Cosmopolitan Ethic. In an analysis of  the term and what it means to him, he also emphasized that it resonates with the world’s great ethical and religious traditions. The address that he delivered is one which every Muslim and non-Muslim should reflect on and hold true to their hearts because, as His Highness said, each one of us is born of a single soul.

The following are concluding remarks from the address, but we recommend that  readers click on http://www.akdn.org/Content/1368 to read the complete speech. Also, Simerg prepared and published a thematic version of the speech at Two Absolutely Essential Messages in His Highness the Aga Khan’s Harvard Lecture: “The Cosmopolitan Ethic” and the Timeless Truth that “Humanity is Born of a Single Soul”

A Notion of Cosmopolitan Ethic: “We Are All Born of a Single Soul”

013-02 Aga Khan 2015 Harvard

His Highness the Aga Khan spoke at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs on “The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World”. Photo: AKDN/Farhez Rayani

“…I would emphasise that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that resonates with the world’s great ethical and religious traditions.

“A passage from the Holy Qur’an that has been central to my life is addressed to the whole of humanity. It says: “Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women…”

“At the very heart of the Islamic faith is a conviction that we are all born “of a single soul.” We are “spread abroad” to be sure in all of our diversity, but we share, in a most profound sense, a common humanity.

013-03 Aga Khan 2015 Harvard

His Highness the Aga Khan spoke at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs on “The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World”. Photo: AKDN/Farhez Rayani

“This outlook has been central to the history of Islam. For many hundreds of years, the greatest Islamic societies were decidedly pluralistic, drawing strength from people of many religions and cultural backgrounds. My own ancestors, the Fatimid Caliphs, founded the city of Cairo, and the great Al Azhar University there, a thousand years ago in this same spirit.

“That pluralistic outlook remains a central ideal for most Muslims today. There are many, of course, some non-Muslims and some Muslims alike, who have perpetrated different impressions.

“At the same time, institutions such as those that have welcomed me here today, have eloquently addressed these misimpressions. My hope is that the voices of Islam itself will continue to remind the world of a tradition that, over so many centuries, has so often advanced pluralistic outlooks and built some of the most remarkable societies in human history.

014 Aga Khan 2015 Harvard

Professor Diana L. Eck of Harvard University interviewing His Highness the Aga Khan following the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture, 12 November 2015. Photo: AKDN/Farhez Rayani.

Central Lesson From a Personal Journey of 58 Years

“Let me repeat, in conclusion, that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that will honour both our common humanity and our distinctive Identities — each reinforcing the other as part of the same high moral calling.

“The central lesson of my own personal journey — over many miles and many years — is the indispensability of such an ethic in our changing world, based on the timeless truth that we are — each of us and all of us — “born of a single soul.”

Date posted: December 28, 2015.


Who is His Highness the Aga Khan? Learn more about him and the Ismailis at The Preamble Of “The Constitution of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims”