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Tales from Cairo's living City of the Dead

Ahram Online visits Cairo's historical necropolis, where living residents make their homes next to the tombs of the dead

Sarah El-Rashdi , Thursday 21 Mar 2013
City of the Dead
Cairo's living City of the Dead (Photo: Sara El-Rashedi)
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Home to the living and the departed, Cairo's City of the Dead, a necropolis that stretches for several miles on the south-eastern border of Cairo, today provides refuge for countless Egyptians. The City of the Dead is a mélange of tombs and mausoleums that stretch for miles below the hills of Mokattam home to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. Colourful clothes-lines decorate the dusty streets and stray dogs run through the streets, much like any other quarter of the city.

Following the revolution, the dwellers of the vast ancient cemeteries, whose location dated from the Arab conquest of Egypt, concede little has changed aside from security concerns.

“I am not scared of the dead, I am scared of the living. Since the revolution, the crime rate has increased and I feel more insecure than ever," says veiled tomb-dweller Fatma, a middle-aged mother of three. Typical of the cemetery's shy inhabitants, she refused to be photographed or to reveal her full identity.

There has reportedly been a rise in criminal activity in the poorly maintained streets connecting the tombs. Following the January 25 revolution, experts say it is not uncommon for opportunists and criminals to exploit the security vacuum, using the informal setting as a place to trade drugs or hoard weapons.

Lives of the tomb dwellers

Fatma and her family reside in Talaat Harb's tomb, an architectural masterpiece built in honour of the famed economist and founder of the Bank of Egypt.

Perched in the doorway of the grave, Fatma and her two daughters are very welcoming, in contrast to other families, who seem uncomfortable speaking to the media.

“Don’t be scared. Come in and sit with us, there is nothing to be frightened of, I promise," says Khaloud, Fatma’s youngest daughter, a 20-year-old business studies student.

Unlike tombs in other parts of the region, Egyptian graves look like small houses complete with a garden. The family insists on serving food and drinks as we enter the outer chamber which serves as their living quarters and links to Talaat Harb's final resting place.

A small kitchen, simply equipped with a gas cooker and sink, is positioned next to a courtyard, the roof of which houses a chicken coup.

The patio leads to a sparse bathroom and a small salon with an incongruously-placed, oversized television. This area connects to two dimly-lit bedrooms crammed with books and the family’s memorabilia.

“We are better educated than many Egyptians and as you can see we have higher living standards. The revolution didn’t change our lives, we remain content and proud,” says Khaloud, who recently got engaged.

As is often the case with cemetery inhabitants, Khaloud's father the tomb's custodian, inherited the grave from his father and has been residing there for around 45 years.

Custodian of the graves

The young tomb dweller happily conducts a tour of Talaat Harb's grave and the grave of her relatives, who are more humbly buried on the opposite side of the same plot.

Slightly removed from the house, these graves are dug in the garden where clothes, tightly pegged to a washing line, flutter in the afternoon breeze next to the family's shoes scattered across the ground.

Khaloud explains the burial process: a stone slab covering the grave-opening in the ground is removed and then returned once the corpse is placed on a shelf. Men and women are buried in separate rooms, she adds. Tomb dwellers may help in the burial process should the family of the deceased request their assistance.  

Living standards have recently improved for the tomb dwellers. Many graves, like Khaloud’s family, now have electricity and running water.

In some parts of the neighbourhood there are apartment blocks. A medical centre, a post office and two schools were built for the community under Hosni Mubarak's government.

However, residents of the City of the Dead still suffer from the same stigma and discrimination post-revolution, Dr Said Sadek, political sociologist at the American University in Cairo affirms.

He says that inhabitants from this locality have grown accustomed to being rejected by the middle and upper echelons of Egyptian society.

Khaloud agrees. "My sister’s ex-fiancé broke off their engagement once he found out where we live," she told Ahram Online.

Rationale behind the grave dwellers

For many outsiders, the notion of living next to the deceased, coupled with the prejudice levelled against the cemetery inhabitants, is a bizarre one.

However, political sociologists highlight the fact that Egyptians historically revere the dead.

Many believe that living besides the shrines of the deceased is a blessing that will bring a divine reward, while others wish to be close to their ancestors.

The location of the ancient cemetery reputedly dates back to a graveyard established by the Arab conquerors of Egypt outside the city of Al-Fustat, founded after the conquest of Egypt in 642 AD on the site of modern Cairo. In subsequent eras, the tombs that are seen today sprung up, accompanied by mixed local populations who chose to live in the area.

In the modern era, the exploding population, the increase in poverty encouraging rural and urban migration and the shortage of housing all contributed to the relocation of people to the City of the Dead.

“Most Egyptians own graves and are at ease with those living in the grave, since they ensure the general upkeep and in some instances pay rent," explains Sadek.

The tolerable living conditions of the cemetery compared to the capital's slums are appealing for many, suggests Ahmed Seddik, a well-known travel consultant in the area.

“A lot of families here have large gardens, which is a distinct feature of the elite Cairo districts. Most of the living quarters are superior to those of the slum areas," Seddik adds.

He explains that the ostentatious architecture of the tombs is an additional bonus for residents.

Future prospects

Legally, the inhabitants of the necropolis do not have any rights to the land.

They can be evicted by the government or the grave owners at any point, which is also the case for many Egyptians living in the slums.

Nevertheless, lawyer and human rights activist Amir Salem maintains that, despite their lack of land deeds, eviction is unlikely.

“No one can remove them: it would cause too much turbulence and bloodshed. A kind of environmental social balance has evolved given their generational land occupation."

Salem points out that the legal status of tomb dwellers has not changed since the revolution.

Plans to relocate inhabitants of the City of the Dead were instigated by the Cairo governor’s office prior to the revolution. However, new housing is expensive and although many people were relocated to houses in various locations in Cairo, it is a lengthy process and does not appear to be a priority on the new government’s agenda.

Travel expert Ahmed Seddik who provides tours to foreigners in the district, insists that through his work and other tour operators, the living conditions of the locals has improved.

Ambitious projects proposed by Seddik, including educational parks in the vicinity, he says will also have a positive impact.

“I wish to develop my tour business to ensure that one day soon the area becomes a city museum solely for the deceased," he said.

Against the backdrop of a growing informal housing crisis in Egypt, for the moment, the cemetery residents seem happy to stay put in the unusual setting.

"We are living better than many, thank God," Khaloud concludes, after finishing the tour of her home. "We live in a small villa with walls, a roof and have a beautiful garden. Many people in good areas in Egypt do not even have this."

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