Cairo’s City of the Dead: A thousand years of architectural history

Amira Noshokaty , Thursday 30 Jul 2020

Ahram Online looks back at the long history of Cairo’s historic cemeteries, which each hold up mirrors to the rich heritage of Egypt

Bab El Qarafa Gate: 1922-1924
Bab El Qarafa Gate: 1922-1924. Courtesy of Lehnert & Landrock- Dr. E.Lambelet

Cairo woke up last week to disturbing news that the governorate is demolishing the outskirts of the famous City of the Dead — the historic Cairo cemetery where, now, residents inhabit mausoleums — as part of a new road expansion plan.

The news was denied by both the head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish antiquities sector at the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities as well as Cairo governorate.

Official statements explained that very few grave sites were demolished and they were not registered as antiquities, and that the main grounds are completely safe.

Ahram Online set off to revisit the complex heritage of the City of the Dead.


Eternity and beyond

Registered as part of Historic Cairo, and on the list of world heritage sites held at UNESCO since 1979, the City of the Dead has always been an enchanting and mysterious place that holds up a mirror to the intangible and tangible heritage of Egypt. Its formal listing with UNESCO aside, the site became a living representation of an ancient idea: that death is not the end, but rather a beginning. Ancient Egyptians spent much of their lives preparing for the afterlife.

little have changed since then. During holy feasts, lots of families choose to start off the Eid celebrations with their lost loved ones. Visits to the cemeteries include distributing special bakeries (shouriek and orass) to the area's poor as well as bringing flowers . In more modern times, whole communities have lived side by side the dead in the tombs built to hold their remains.

“As far back as the 9th century there was official residence in the City of the Dead," explained May El-Ebrashi, architect and founder of Mogawra, a built environment collective. The cemetery, added El-Ebrashi, had accommodation for overnight stays for visitors as well as the long term accommodation of scholars and Sufis who lived and studied in its madrasas, zawiyas, khanqahs and takiyyas. Religious endowments set up for funerary complexes with institutions attached to them paid for the upkeep of these scholars, as well as salaries for the staff of these establishments. The cemetery grew a population of its own.

“The City of the Dead included funerary complexes and Sufi establishments which at one point were the only source of education. That is why it is easy to find Islamic scholars listed in the obituaries of the 14th century with their last title qarafi —which is another name for the historic cemeteries of Cairo." El-Ebrashi added that the graveyards of the 1920s and 1930s were "more rest houses where you could find a kitchen, a salon and even a place for the hired help. That aspect of intangible heritage reflects the liberal history of Egyptians. This is where most of the elite would bury their dead."

According to a report conducted by El-Ebrashi within the framework of the Urban Regeneration Project for Historic Cairo, under the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the cemeteries of Cairo are an integral part of the history of Cairo. They were born with the inception of the Islamic capital of Al-Fustat in 642 and continued to develop with the city, taking on a role that went beyond the mere funerary or sacred.

The six cemeteries

The cemeteries cover six areas: Al-Qarafa, Sahra, Al-Sayyida Nafisa, Bab El-Wazir, Bab El-Nasr and Zeinhom.

Al-Qarafa is the oldest cemetery, stretched between Al-Fustat in the east and Al-Muqattam in the west, with the outcrop where the Saladin Citadel is located marking its northern border, and the alluvial lake of Al-Habash (where current Al-Basatin is) marking its southern border.

In the Ayyubid period, with the construction of a dome on the shrine of Al-Imam Al-Shafi’i, the founder of one of the rites of Sunni Islam in the eastern section of Al-Qarafa, it came to be known as Al-Qarafa Al-Sughra, with the older western section whose centre was the Fatimid Jami’ Al-Qarafa named Al-Qarafa Al-Kubra.

Al-Qarafa Al-Sughra then became more developed and rose in importance due to its proximity to Qal’atal Jabal (the Citadel), the new seat of rule, and its most important development was the area known as Kharij (Outside) Bab Al-Qarafa in which over 10 Mamlukamirs, mostly linked to the Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad, built their tombs in the 14th century. This cemetery came to be known as Al-Imamayn in the Ottoman and Muhammad Ali period after the two imams Al-Shafi’i and Al-Layth. With the waning popularity of Al-Layth it came to be known as Al-Imam after Al-Shafi’i.

At the turn of the 20th century, the construction of the quarry railroad resulted in new site restrictions as well as new magnets for settlement — particularly of quarrymen and stone masons — around the rail stations, which led to the development of residential pockets around them. This period also saw the densification of the cemetery and the division of its land into plots where walled funerary structures with spaces for accommodation (hawshs) were built.

Al-Sayyida Nafisa is located north of Al-Qarafa and west of the Citadel. It grew around the shrine of Al-Sayyida Nafisa, the granddaughter of Al-Hasan, who in turn was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

While it can be seen as the northern gateway of Al-Qarafa, it was partially disconnected from it with the construction of the Ayyubid city wall (although medieval visitors continued to start their visit at Al-Sayyida Nafisa and walk south into Al-Qarafa). The site includes the Ayyubid tomb of the Abbasid Caliphs, and the street of Al-Khalifa houses a large number of shrines of Ahl Al-Bayt, some of which date to the Fatimid period.

This street (historically called Al-Mashahid after the shrines) was the gateway to Al-Sayyida Nafisa and consequently to Al-Qarafa. The western section of the cemetery is a later mid-20th century extension.

Al-Sahra’ is referred to academically as the Northern Cemetery, with Sahra’ Al-Mamalik referred to as the Eastern Cemetery. Established in the 14th century, the former soon grew in both size and stature as six Mamluk sultans built their tombs there in the course of the 14th and 15th centuries. It beholds a better preserved and more legible urban fabric with more impressive hawshs, particularly from the Muhammad Ali period (1805-1952). Originally organised in a linear manner along the hajj road (to the Hijaz by way of the Levant), it is now bound by Salah Salim Highway in the west and the Autostrade in the east.

This cemetery, too, has residential pockets, mostly around the Mamluk complexes of Barquq and Qaytbay, with some of its tombs inhabited both by the community of caretakers and gravediggers that have lived in the cemetery for centuries as well as rural immigrants.

This cemetery is the only one regularly visited by cultural tourists. This is due to the impressive grandeur of Mamluk funerary structures such as Qurqumas, Inal, Barquq, Barsbay, and the most impressive of all, Al-Ashraf Qaytbay.

Bab Al-Wazir, located north of the Citadel mount, witnessed the construction of a number of Mamluk funerary establishments dating back to the 15th century. Meanwhile, a Fatimid cemetery lies north of the gate of Bab Al-Nasr. It originally had a number of important burials, such as that of historian Al-Maqrizi and the famous Sufi burial enclosure which lay further east, closer to the northern section of Al-Sahra’.

In the 20th century, it was the first port of call for migrant villagers who sought refuge in the capital during times of economic and political strife, particularly during and after World War I and World War II, and flash points along the path of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Looking back in time

The intangible history of the City of the Dead is carefully stitched together with its tangible history in the book Architecture of the Dead: Cairo’s Medieval Necropolis by Galila Al-Qadi and Alain Bonnamy.

The book, based on thorough study, highlights one of Cairo’s marvels, beholding a “diversity of plot sizes [that] engendered a wealth of architectural diversity” from simple stone parallelepipeds adorned with stelae at either end, marvelous cabin-like structures adorned in fine wooden lacework, villas with several outbuildings, and even great domed mosque mausolea: "truly proud monuments standing majestically in vast green gardens,” representing "a thousand years of architectural history." 

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