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Cairo’s Historic Cemeteries: Erasing Egypt’s History for Sisi’s New Republic

Cairo is home to countless historical cemeteries that boast the city’s rich heritage, culture and architecture. However, these sites are currently getting demolished due to creeping urban development plans.

Read this article in Arabic here.

Cairo has been historically known for the diversity of its heritage and cultures, showcased particularly through its architecture and urbanism. One expression of this history is seen through the capital’s cemeteries, characterized by unique, elaborate architectural decorations and domes. They are open-air museums linking the life of this world and the hereafter, and are a reminder of the city’s great history with graves containing the remains of the area’s prominent historical figures, scholars, jurists, historians, writers, poets, and artists. In the last few months, many of these graves have been demolished and removed, while others face a similar fate, as the Egyptian regime conducts systematic operations to remove the cemeteries inside Cairo in favor of urban development operations, specifically, the Cairo 2050 project.

The ancient Egyptians venerated the afterlife and used special architectural styles in building tombs; these styles flourished and were particularly innovated during the Mamluk era (between 1250 and 1517). The cemeteries were known in Egypt as Al-Qarafa, after a Yemeni tribe called Banu Qarafa that used to live near cemeteries. It was also known as Jabbanah, which means “desert,” due to the establishment of cemeteries in desert areas. Due to a worsening housing crisis coupled with poor policy-making of successive Egyptian governments, cemeteries are now inhabited by the living. 

Urban development is currently one of the priorities of the Egyptian regime, particularly the expansion of main roads to facilitate traffic flow—despite their dubious feasibility, to which Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi even admitted. After the backlash that followed the start of demolition work, the official spokesperson for the Presidency of the Republic posted a statement on Facebook stating that Sisi ordered the formation of a committee—among them the prime minister and a number of heritage experts and advisory offices—to examine the development situation and come up with viable solutions. 

As a planning specialist and urban researcher, I was taken aback by the official spokesperson’s statement: strategic plans usually go through several stages to be approved before implementation, the last of which is the approval of the Supreme Council for Urban Planning headed by the prime minister and formed by the president himself. The president, however, did not allude to or even seem aware of this process. The spokesperson also stated that the president had ordered the establishment of Al-Khalideen Cemetery, or a Garden for the Immortals, in an unspecified place so that they could transfer to it ancient tombs that stood in the way of urban development projects. This surprised me as well since they did not announce planning alternatives or methods of dealing with the remains before the start of the exhumation process.

However, demolition work continued even after the formation of the committee and this past week, four members of the committee resigned—stating that their opinions and recommendation of halting the demolition process were not taken into account, making it clear that their role was merely advisory only and not binding.

One cannot help but wonder how the authorities would have dealt with these historic cemeteries had public opinion not opposed the demolition process

One cannot help but wonder how the authorities would have dealt with these historic cemeteries had public opinion not opposed the demolition process. If the authorities do move the remains, where will they go? More importantly, why does the Egyptian government and the country’s political leadership want to reinvent our historical heritage? Why do they want to establish new cemeteries to collect the bodies of famous Egyptians, when we already possess some of the greatest cemeteries in history—cemeteries that only need our attention and restoration?

The history of Cairo can be written from its cemeteries

Death has been sacred to Egyptians since antiquity—and this has been demonstrated through ancient Pharaonic structures, particularly tombs and temples. The cemeteries’ importance was already well-known in Cairo well before the Arabs entered Egypt in 641 AD, but following the spread of Islam in Egypt, they started to be remodeled according to Islamic architecture, one example being the Mokattam mountain in the city of Fustat, the first Arab capital of Egypt. Designated for the burial of Muslims, the Al-Qarafa cemeteries remained interlinked and associated with this architecture despite the change of Egypt’s capital and the country’s urbanization.

Cairo’s historic cemeteries are filled with headstones, tombstones, or big columns placed above the graves. An archaeological headstone dating back 1100 years was discovered during the demolition of the tombs this past May; it belonged to the granddaughter of one of the ministers of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid. These cemeteries are also home to the grave of Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi, the historian of Cairo, and the grave of Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun, the founder of sociology and author of the Muqaddimah (Introduction). Al-Maqrizi and Ibn Khaldun’s graves, located in Old Cairo, were demolished and removed, and the graves of famous writer Taha Hussein, poet Ahmed Shawqi, and others may face a similar fate.

Abdel-Azim Fahmi, a historian that documents Cairo’s history and heritage, confirmed the historical importance of Al-Qarafa, as the names of the dead and the era in which they lived and died were written on the headstones, often in intricate Arabic calligraphy. Sheikhs, scholars, kings, and sultans who lived in Egypt from the beginning of the Arab-Islamic reign until present day were buried there. Fahmi also explained the impossibility of separating the cemeteries from Egypt’s architectural heritage in general, especially since the cemetery buildings contain architectural styles dating back to the Mamluk era, which were further revived in the nineteenth century during the construction of the cemeteries of Imam al-Shafi’i, which are currently being destroyed. 

Problems of merging cemeteries with urbanism 

During the first half of the twentieth century, Egypt witnessed an exacerbation of the housing crisis, resulting in the emergence of informal housing areas—slums—especially in the Greater Cairo region. These slums further expanded in the second half of the twentieth century, with successive Egyptian governments either failing to provide adequate housing for citizens, or deliberately creating poor slums to take advantage of them politically. 

During the first half of the twentieth century, Egypt witnessed an exacerbation of the housing crisis, resulting in the emergence of informal housing areas—slums—especially in the Greater Cairo region

These informal areas eventually expanded until they merged with cemeteries, and similarly to the areas inhabited by the living, the cemeteries suffered from negligence and were left without any restoration or cleaning work until they eventually turned into a dilapidated state. Egypt’s population crisis has also further contributed to the deterioration of the cemeteries, in addition to governmental negligence. And according to the regime’s development vision, there seems to be no way forward other than demolition. 

Today, the living and the dead share the same dwellings through so-called cemetery housing or the City of the Dead. The third social development report issued by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in 2019 monitored this phenomenon dating back to more than a century: historically, the cemeteries of the princes and sultans of the Mamluk era often consisted of both a burial room and a room for cemetery guards and a small yard. Initially limited to guards, these cemetery rooms began to be inhabited by other, non-cemetery workers soon after the start of the housing crisis in the 1970s. Later on, the cemeteries’ guards worked as brokers renting these rooms without informing the owners of the cemeteries. In urban studies, the term “residential islands” refers to the overlap of residential areas with other areas; here, there is an overlap of residential areas with the cemetery areas. A Master’s thesis published in 2017 found that the urban space in the Greater Cairo region began to expand until it eventually spilled over onto areas designated for cemeteries. This resulted in the spread of unplanned and unsafe areas within the geographical area of cemeteries, especially historic ones, which negatively affected its urban design. The study also analyzes the 1967 War as a major factor of population increase, where the policy of openness in the 1970s played a major role in the expansion of the residential islands in cemeteries because the Egyptian government stopped constructing low-cost housing, while the private sector simultaneously increased its investment in real estate. This policy resulted in an increase in the prices of construction materials, and with it the cost of housing units, until low-income people could no longer afford them. 

At the same time, a large number of people from cities by the Suez Canal—specifically Suez, Port Said, and Ismailia—were displaced and migrated to Cairo in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War. A large number of people who migrated went on to live in mosques and schools, while a significant part of them moved to cemeteries and settled there. The ESCWA report indicates that the number of people who live in cemeteries reached 1.5 million in 2008, and increased to about 2 million in 2017.

Cairo 2050 and cemeteries

The major reason behind the demolitions in Cairo is Cairo 2050, a development project which the now-Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly oversaw in 2008 when he assumed the presidency of the General Authority for Urban Planning, the state body entrusted with creating urban policies and preparing strategic development plans nationally and regionally. The Cairo 2050 plan aims to create interconnected green areas in a way similar to other cities such as Dubai, Paris, and Tokyo, and one mechanism for implementing the objectives of the plan was to demolish several Cairo slums and transfer their residents to other areas. The plan did not address the development of a strategy to deal with cemeteries. 

Looking at the Egyptian state’s current policy in the urban sector, we find that real estate investments is Cairo 2050’s priority, not its green areas and parks

The plan only mentioned the transfer of Cairo cemeteries, including “the dead, the living, as well as buildings” to the outskirts of the city, and replacing them with parks and green areas. However, looking at the Egyptian state’s current policy in the urban sector, we find that real estate investments is Cairo 2050’s priority, not its green areas and parks. The aforementioned claims of replacing cemeteries by green areas, therefore, are dubious at best, especially in light of the government’s failure to elaborate on the fate of these historical cemeteries. 

What is the way forward? 

There are many alternatives and solutions to deal with Cairo’s cemeteries, but first, the Egyptian government must completely stop demolition work and reactivate the role of the National Organization for Urban Harmony which advocates for and takes care of archaeological and heritage areas. The institution’s role has been marginalized by the authorities despite the fact that it has great urban and technical competencies.

Egypt can also learn from the experiences of other countries in dealing with historically significant graves and cemeteries, with one example being the Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg, Germany, where a large number of the city’s famous poets, musicians, and artists are buried in addition to victims of Nazism in World War II. The cemetery is now a large park as well as a recreational area, with many visitors using it for quiet reflection and meditation. The visitors can also explore the cemetery on foot through a path called the “silent path,” which leads them to the graves of poets and ends with another path that leads them to the graves of writers. This type of urban planning could be a source of new ideas, and could be applied to Cairo.

First, we can develop plans for cemetery tourism, following the footsteps of ancient travelers who came to Egypt and were fascinated by its cemeteries. We can also utilize historical shrine books dating back to the Ayyubid dynasty, whose authors described everyone buried in the Cairo cemeteries in detail, updating them in order to create signs to guide visitors. This move will enhance religious tourism in Egypt, especially from Islamic and South and Southeast Asian countries, and thus support the country’s tourism sector. Religious tourism and visiting the graves of public figures in the cemeteries of Cairo has been a long-held tradition, especially by Al-Azhar students, who keep paying visits today. Pedestrian paths must be created and vehicle traffic within them must be reduced. There should be a plan to establish resting areas, create green areas, and plant trees that are almost non-existent in cemeteries.

Second, we must repair the architectural style of the dilapidated cemeteries, restore Arabic calligraphy, inscriptions and hand-made ornamentation on headstones, and document these monuments in heritage lists, instead of being distracted by flimsy arguments made by the Egyptian government that these buildings are outside the heritage lists. 

The government should abide by the Egyptian constitution and international treaties regarding providing adequate housing for the 2 million residents of slums and residents of cemeteries

Third, and importantly, the government should abide by the Egyptian constitution and international treaties regarding providing adequate housing for the 2 million residents of slums and residents of cemeteries.

There is no doubt that Cairo’s cemeteries face many urban problems, including a growing housing crisis, as many people resorted to living inside them due to poor policies. The easiest solution for the government is demolition, but alarm bells must be sounded when it comes to eliminating heritage and history. Indeed, it is unreasonable for Egypt to demolish its heritage, while some other countries seek tirelessly to create a popular heritage for them and spend big sums of money to achieve this goal—all while Egypt takes its diverse history for granted.

Ibrahim Ezzeldin is a planning engineer and urban researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) who works on the right to adequate housing and against forced eviction.


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