Cairo’s City of the Dead
By: Caroline Umphlet / Arab America Contributing Writer
The City of the Dead is a neighborhood in Cairo near the Citadel and below the Mokattam hills. It is simultaneously a collection of cemeteries stretching across a few miles that dates back to the 7th century. In Arabic, it is referred to as “Al-Maqabir – المقابر” or “Al-Qarafa – القرافة.”
The City of the Dead was established around 642 CE. The necropolis started its transformation to a neighborhood in the 1950s, but there have always been people living there, even if just by grave custodians.
The city has held parades, processions, and celebrations in the past, all right next to the cemeteries. During the Ottoman Empire, it was even home to Sufi colleges.
Egypt is the most populated country in the Arab world, with around 23 million people just in Cairo. The overpopulation issue caused a tough housing crisis and led to people being forced out of the city. In addition to that, various other reasons such as poverty or even natural disasters are also causing Egyptians to be pushed out. After the 2011 revolution, there was a large surge as well because of poor security enforcement. The exact total number of people living in this city is unknown, however, a rough estimate from an architect studying the area suggests almost 180,000.
Egyptians decided to move into the old mausoleums and enclosures with tombs in Cairo’s oldest necropolis to make do. A mausoleum is a building or area with enclosed walls intended to shelter a tomb and serve as a monument or memorial for the deceased. The buildings are a sort of improvised housing. Sometimes it is just a walled plot but they often have a small garden. Families have been able to renovate their homes to a more traditional rendition, some with running water and electricity. Some plots were originally built to host visitors who would spend the night to honor the dead on holidays or special occasions. The neighborhood is transforming slowly into a more functional living space. There is even a post office and medical center.
Many famous politicians, poets, kings, and other royalty are buried there. For example, King Farouk and his first wife Queen Farida, but their bodies have since been moved to an El Rifa’i Mosque. Additionally, Khedive Tawfiq, his wife Emina Ilhamy, and their sons, Abbas Helmy II, and his brother Prince Mohammed Ali Tawfiq are all buried there with more of their family.
There are a number of jobs that the locals hold, across a wide range of industries. Of course, it is common for people to hold jobs relating to the graves such as gravediggers, morticians, and tomb caretakers. Although, others work in the nearby Khan al Khalili market as copper workers and carpet makers. There are also barbers, people selling flowers for those to lay by the graves, and more.
Unfortunately, because the security is almost nonexistent there, it is a hotspot for people to sell drugs, which the locals do not approve of.
Photo Credit: Caroline U.
Going to see the city of the dead is actually a more pleasant experience than one would expect. It is definitely not a top destination spot for tourists in Cairo because of its bad reputation. It is an eerie neighborhood, but the graves have beautiful, bright colors and lovely Arabic script. There are incredibly well-done murals everywhere which really give the unpaved and dusty streets a nice pop.
Left: ceiling of the Sultan of Qaytbay Mosque, Photo Credit: Caroline U., Right: outside of the Mosque, Photo Credit: Wikipedia
There are a couple mosques that visitors can see. The Sultan of Qaytbay Mosque has stunning art along the walls and on the ceiling. The Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaytbay (ruled 1468 to 1496) was a slave who eventually became a Sultan. Another historical mosque is that of Sultan Faraj Ibn Barquq.
The pretty mausoleum in honor of Imam al-Shafi’i, who is buried in the City of the Dead, is also nice to visit. He was a Sunni scholar and Imam.
Sometimes there are even concerts or art exhibits to attend, which keeps the area alive and relevant as well as brings money to the locals.
Future of the City
Egypt is destroying a portion of the necropolis to build a new bridge between downtown Cairo to New Cairo, Egypt’s new capital that is still being built. They are discarding culture, ancient art, and important history. In the process, it will destroy some people’s homes. The Egyptian government is providing housing for those losing their homes, but the cost and rent will be much higher than they are used to so it is not a viable option for everyone. Luckily, some of the tombs are being preserved because they are protected as a historical landmark. The city is also a UNESCO site. Others have already or will be moved to alternative cemeteries.
The City of the Dead may be an unusual and bizarre environment, but the people there are making the most of what they have been given while still honoring their passed neighbors. There is a vibrant and lively community there with a rich history, deserving of respect and courtesy.
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