Can Cairo’s City of the Dead come alive? - GulfToday

Can Cairo’s City of the Dead come alive?

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The sprawling City of the Dead is a jumble of Arab, Islamic, Mameluke, Ottoman and Egyptian structures.

A bulldozer demolishes structures in Cairo’s historic City of the Dead, Egypt. File/Associated Press

The Egyptian authorities have paused bulldozing tombs in Cairo’s fabled City of the Dead after protests by public figures, cultural preservationists, tour operators, and global historians. Too little, too late. A wasteland of rubble is all that remains of historic and family tombs in protected heritage sectors of the ten square kilometre necropolis at the foot of the Mokattam Hills, a short distance from Cairo’s 12th century Citadel built by Salaheddin ibn Ayoubi, the military commander who routed the Crusaders in Palestine in 1197.

The City of the Dead, founded in the 7th century, is embedded in Historic Cairo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO, the UN’s cultural organisation, explained its designation of this precious place in the following words: “Tucked away amid the modern urban area of Cairo lies one of the World’s oldest Islamic cities, with its famous mosques, madrasas, hammams and fountains. Founded in the 10th century, it became the new centre of the Islamic world, reaching its golden age in the 14th century.”

The sprawling City of the Dead is a jumble of Arab, Islamic, Mameluke, Ottoman and Egyptian structures standing side-by-side with modern tombs, huts, and buildings. The authorities claim monuments designated as historic will not be destroyed but Reuters has reported that only 102 sites among more than 2.5 million tombs have been granted this designation. One of the cemeteries is named after Imam El-Shafei, the founder of one of Sunni Islam’s four schools of Islamic law, who was buried there after his death in 820.

The demolitions, which began in 2020, have made way for construction of a massive flyover to link Cairo’s southern and western districts and broad highways through the City of the Dead to connect Cairo to the new administrative capital, 45 kilometres east of the crowded mega-metropolis and its 20 million inhabitants. Soheir Hawas, a professor of architectural engineering at Cairo University, said in an interview with Middle East Eye, “The authorities should have conducted enough studies on the area before starting the demolition of the tombs.” Another location for the flyover could have been chosen which would preserve “the ancient buildings of the area.”

A petition, signed by more than 3,300 people, held that public interest “should not come at the expense of the nation’s cultural heritage”.

“It’s always felt like a very sacred space. We always thought that whatever happens in the rest of Cairo, the City of the Dead would be safe,” historian Hussein Omar told the Associated Press. He is compiling a 500-year history of Cairo with the focus on the City of the Dead. “As we see now, that’s not the case.”

The May 2022 decision to raze the tomb of Taha Hussein, an influential 20th-century writer who is considered “The Dean of Arabic Literature,” to make way for an ugly concrete overpass prompted the belated uproar. While the tomb was rescued, it suffered damage.

UNESCO has expressed concern over the demolitions. It said its experts have urged the Egyptian authorities “to reconcile the planned urban development projects with the necessary World Heritage Protection, in line with Egypt’s international commitments.”

Historians and activists make weekly visits to the necropolis where they take photos to document destruction and retrieve fragments of ancient tombstones and items of historical significance.

Families have been told to transfer the remains of their deceased in 2,600 graves in the new graveyard. Legal cases gave been dismissed by the public prosecutor’s office. The remains of former Queen Farida, the first wife of King Farouk — who was ousted in the Young Officers coup in 1952 — were dug up in February and transferred to Al Rifa’i Mosque, where the ex-king and their daughters are buried.

Tombs housing famous figures from the 20th century have been demolished, including the gravestones of the first president of Cairo University, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed; writer, editor and filmmaker Ihsan Abdel Quddous, and Princess Nazli Hanim Halim, doyenne of the Ottoman dynasty of Muhammad Ali Pasha who helped revive the literary salon in the Arab world by holding gatherings at her palace in Cairo from the 1880s until her death in 1913.

The City of the Dead, divided into northern and southern sectors contains the grand mausoleums of Egypt’s rulers, generals, thinkers, and magnates as well as latter day leaders, personalities, singers, filmstars, writers, and ordinary folk. The City of the Dead has always hosted the living as well as the dead. Its inhabitants originally included grave diggers, tomb builders, custodians, and scholars and students in religious institutions established in the area. There was an influx in the late 19th and 20th centuries of poor and working-class Cairenes who could not afford the high cost of housing.

Until the bulldozers began their work, there were at least half a million to a million residents of the City of the Dead. Some have been relocated to apartments on the edge of Cairo. I visited the City of the Dead on several occasions and found it to be a tidy, peaceful oasis in the bustling, chaotic capital city. While grand medieval mausoleums wrapped in thick walls have remained off limits, family members have settled into relatives’ more modest tombs and squatters have made their homes in unclaimed tombs. The largely unpaved streets were well swept unlike those in Cairo’s slums. There were workshops, cafes, mosques, and grocery shops. Schools and hospitals were built nearby. Buses ferried workers to and from jobs in the city while tourist buses brought foreigners to marvel at the magnificent monuments, curious tombs, and elegant Arabic inscriptions on tombs. While recent dead may have remained on Cairo’s electoral roles, living residents of the City of the Dead vote in elections. Until the bulldozers came, the City of the Dead was a lived in, living city.

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