Cairo master plan threatens ancient City of the Dead

In the morning mist, women dressed in black and men with grim expressions gather in the century-old cemetery of Sayyida Nafisa in Cairo.

But they are not there to bury their loved ones. They are there to exhume them.

“It’s double trauma,” Iman says, sobbing as she conducts the proceedings.

“First my mother – my mentor – died last year. Now I dig up her fresh body and the remains of my grandparents, put them in bags and drive off to rebury them in new graves in the desert.”

Iman’s story is not unusual. Over the past two years, several thousand tombs in historic Cairo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been razed. They include some in the famous City of the Dead.

The Egyptian government is clearing a large area to make way for new main roads and air bridges, which it says will improve traffic flow in the sprawling and congested megacity, home to around 20 million people.

These will also link the heart of the capital to a new administration building being constructed 45 km (28 miles) to the east, a flagship mega-project costing billions of dollars.

The developments are being launched as part of an effort to modernize Egypt. Since President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi came to power in 2014, official figures show that a total of 7,000 km (4,350 miles) of roads and some 900 bridges and tunnels have been built across the country, military contractors doing much of the work.

Authorities insist that none of the many monuments recorded in this ancient part of Cairo, some of which date back to Arab conquests in the 7th century, are undamaged and that due respect is given to the most important tombs.

Map showing part of the City of the Dead in Cairo and the locations of the Sayyida Nafisa and Imam Shafei cemeteries, and where they are in relation to the new capital

Map showing part of the City of the Dead in Cairo and the locations of the Sayyida Nafisa and Imam Shafei cemeteries, and where they are in relation to the new capital

“We cannot do anything to damage the graves of people we admire or against monumental areas. We are building bridges to prevent this,” President Sisi said. “We must not give an opening to those who want to tarnish our efforts.”

Its officials say that the graves affected mostly date from the last century and that compensation is being given.

However, there has been public outcry over the loss of valuable architecture and unique cultural heritage in six historic cemeteries where Egyptian notables have long been buried, often in fancy marble tombs engraved with Arabic calligraphy. .

Members of the royal family, renowned Islamic scholars, poets, intellectuals and national heroes do not rest in peace.

With his white hair and his professional camera, Dr. Mostafa El-Sadek is a special figure who searches the rubble of demolished cemeteries with young volunteers. He is a prominent obstetrician and university professor who became a grave robber.

“I am so sorry to see the graves in historic Cairo being removed. We can learn our history from the cemeteries,” says Dr Sadek, who is trying to recover headstones and other artifacts. “It’s priceless. I believe these treasures should be saved.”

He recounts how this month he spotted a stone slab built into a demolished wall containing carvings in Kufic script, an ancient style of Arabic calligraphy, while searching the Imam Shafei cemetery opposite by Sayyida Nafisa.

His group carefully removed the tombstone and discovered that it bore an inscription for a woman called Umamah and dated to the 9th century.

“The stone was looking at me and I was looking at it. She wanted me to free her from the wall! said Dr. Sadek fancifully. The tombstone has now been handed over to the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in hopes that it will be put on display in a museum.

Under successive caliphates and Muslim dynasties, the dead of Cairo were buried in this part of the city, under the low range of the Muqattam hills.

In the past, each wealthy family had its own enclosed grounds with a mausoleum set up in a green garden. Outbuildings were sometimes added to accommodate visiting relatives and otherwise housed caretakers.

With undertakers and gravediggers and their families, and later tens of thousands of poor Egyptians, who came to live among the tombs, the City of the Dead in particular came to be home to an unusual community, threatened by construction.

Some residents have already accepted government offers to move into rental apartments built on the outskirts of Cairo.

“Unfortunately, Cairo will lose a very precious heritage,” laments Galila el-Kadi, an architect who has studied the City of the Dead and its inhabitants since the early 1980s, as well as other historic cemeteries.

It does not buy the arguments of government departments on a new master plan for Cairo.

“They don’t know what is the meaning of heritage, what is the meaning of history,” she complains. “It’s an environment that all past rulers have retained in ancient times and modern times as well.”

Property developers have long eyed this prime real estate, and over the years Ms Kadi has used her research to organize conferences, lobby ministers and start petitions to try to protect cemeteries.

This time, even an approach to Unesco was futile, although the agency expressed concern that the demolitions of tombs and the construction of roads could have “a major impact on the historic urban fabric”. of the region.

The remains of Queen Farida – the wife of King Farouk I, who was overthrown in a 1952 coup – have been moved to a mosque after her tomb was destroyed.

The tomb of Abdullah Zuhdi, the 19th-century calligrapher whose exquisite works adorn Islam’s two most revered mosques in Mecca and Medina, was also pulled down.

There have been some limited victories, such as a recent campaign to save the tomb of the great 20th-century Egyptian novelist and intellectual, Taha Hussein, after his tomb was marked with a red “x” for demolition.

However, conservationists point out that the integrity of the area is being lost as the remaining tombs and monuments will stand alone below or surrounded by new roads.

“They create isolated islands, separated from each other,” says Ms Kadi.

Now she is devoting her efforts to building a database of photographs and maps of the area.

“It’s a very bad feeling, but me and my team, and all the people who care about heritage, all we can do now is preserve the memory of these places,” she continues. “It’s the only way to pass it on to future generations.”

Back at Sayyida Nafisa Cemetery, Iman remains distraught as she exhumes her loved ones.

She describes how her family received a letter asking them to act quickly after the graves were listed for demolition.

“It’s a desecration of the dead. I used to find peace of mind visiting my mother buried here with my grandparents,” she says. “When I was sad, I would come here and talk to her. Also, it was my mother’s last wish to be buried here with her mother and father.”

The latest round of construction concerns 2,600 private graves. In addition to the emotional strain, many families complain that the compensation awarded to them does not match the financial costs.

“My grandfather chose to be buried next to this Muslim saint and paid $100,000 [£80,700] in 2019 for this private burial space near the Sayyida Nafisa Mosque,” ​​says a woman on another grave, who asks that her name not be used.

His family was given a new 40 square meter (431 sq ft) burial site of much lesser value, about 55 km from Cairo.

She says her feelings of grief and bitterness over what is happening to her grandfather’s plot are overlaid with despair over the scale of the destruction.

“These cemeteries are so rich in architecture and art,” she adds, gesturing around her. “The government shouldn’t tear them down. They should turn them into open-air museums.”

All photographs are subject to copyright.

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