On a perfect Friday afternoon, I received a text message from my cousin saying that our family cemetery was to be demolished. The racing thoughts and panic attacks have not stopped since.
“Do you think Father would rather be relocated with his father in the new government replacement cemetery in 15th of May City? should we bury him with grandma… wait but grandma’s cemetery will be demolished too!”
In the country that introduced the concept of the afterlife to human civilisation and built tombs that are among the marvels of the world, a civilisation founded on the idea of venerating the dead, the concept of demolishing cemeteries affects much more than the tangible heritage or historical monuments involved. It breaks the ancient spiritual connection and communication with the dead, a connection that manifests the concept of ‘maddad’, which means reinforcement, assistance, support, and connection. From the ancient Egyptians’ concept of eternity and the afterlife to the Coptic and Islamic saints and walis, Egyptians seek ‘maddad’ from the creator and those who crossed over to the other life, for they need to know they are connected and protected in the presence of their creator.
Family cemetery of Egyptian national figure Saad Zaghloul, photo by Amira Noshokaty
The anonymous list
About a month ago, a list was circulated in the mainstream media of over 60 family cemeteries out of 140 chosen to be demolished as part of the state’s road extension plan in the Imam Al-Shafie area, which since 1979 has been listed by UNESCO as part of Historic Cairo.
“First of all, we were not officially notified, we just learned from our toraby (the person responsible for burial) that the government was marking our cemeteries because they wanted to enlarge the street or build a bridge,” explained Mohamed Yakan, the secretary-general of the Liberal Constitutional Party, whose family has three burial grounds, or housh (Arabic for yard), on Ibn Al-fared Street in Al Imam Al-Shafie cemeteries.
“I obtained the list circulated in the media, which highlights the plan to demolish 140 family cemeteries. I managed to get the exact names of 65 of them. Our cemeteries built in 1890 are among them. They hold the remains of 50 to 60 people. How can we bury them on a 30-square-metre plot of land?” Yakan told Ahram Online.
“I also had access to a memo by Cairo government stating that they tried to reach the owners of the cemeteries but could not, and so the prosecution said that the government should take action and start procedures to move the remains to alternative cemeteries in 15 May City,” he added.
So, Yakan has decided to take legal action against Cairo government, the Administration of Property Management (Edaret Amlak), the head of the Cemetery Administration, and the minister of antiquities, since parts of the cemeteries are considered heritage sites. He even filed a complaint against the endowments ministry that runs the 39 feddans allocated by his family to serve and maintain the cemeteries.
Mohamed Yakan’s cemetery is located in the Imam Shafie district on Ibn Al-Fared Street. It dates back to Ahmed Yakan Pasha, who was Egypt’s prime minister and the first head of Misr Bank. His father Haider Yakan Pasha was the minister of finance under Khedive Ismail, and his great grandmother, Princess Fatma Heidar, who is also buried there, was the owner of the royal jewellery palace.
“There are a lot of icons buried here, ministers of defence, Youssef Kamal, Nemat Mokhtar, Queen Farida, to name but a few. We are wiping out part of Egypt’s history, where instead we can make this area a great heritage site that reveals the past 200 years of Egyptian history,” Yakan added.
The historic cemeteries of Cairo
Inside the family cemetery of Egyptian national figure Saad Zaghloul. Photo by Amina Noshokaty
According to a report conducted by May El-Ebrashi as part of the Urban Regeneration Project for Historic Cairo, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre considers the cemeteries of Cairo an integral part of the city’s history. The cemeteries, which were first built with the inception of the Islamic capital of Al-Fustat in 642, cover six areas: El-Qarafa El-Kobra and El-Sughra (Big and Small), Sahra, Sayyida Nafisa, Bab El-Wazir, Bab El-Nasr and Zeinhom. My family's cemetery is in El-Qarafa El-Soghra, in the area that was known as Al-Imamayn during the Ottoman and Muhammad Ali period after the two imams Al-Shafie and Al-Layth. With the waning popularity of Al-Layth, it came to be known as Al-Imam, after Al-Shafie.
(From R-L) The visitor's map of the Urban Regeneration Project for Historic Cairo (URPH), cemeteries in the heart of Historic Cairo.
Tareq Al-Murry, historian, architect and founded the Safeguard of Historic Cairo’s Cemeteries Facebook page, a few weeks to highlight the importance of these cemeteries and help stop their demolition.
Digging infront of the family cemetery of Egyptian actor Youssef Wahbi. Photo by Amira Noshokaty
“The cemeteries of Cairo date back to the Islamic conquests. Stretching from Moqattam down to Islamic Cairo, it became the burial ground for several Moslem figures and Sufi walis like Ibn El-Fared, Ibn Ataa Al-Sakandary, and the Imams Al-Shafie and Al-Layth. The burial ground extended to Bab El-Nasr, where Ibn Al-Haitham, [known as the ‘father of modern optics’], is buried. During the Fatimid era, the great historian Al-Maqrizi, who lived in Borgwan alley, was buried there. Ibn Khaldun, the founder of the science of sociology, is also buried in this cemetery. Then there is Al-Saida Nafisa, who lived during the time of Ibn Touloun. More cemeteries were also built during the reign of Khedive Tewfiq, as the royal family started to build their burial grounds next to the walis and Aal Al-Beit (the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad).
All of this history led UNESCO to dub this part of Cairo, cemetery included, as Historic Cairo back in 1979. And despite of all the history, the concept of relocating the cemeteries appeared in 2000, where the former Cairo Governor suggested to demolish it and transform the place into a vast public garden, however it was fiercely objected and never came through. Twenty years later, in August 2020 the bulldozers found their way to Cairo Cemeteries, they demolished several walls of family cemeteries as part of plans to widen roads for the construction of the Fardose (Heaven) axis, a new multi-lane highway linking the heart of Cairo to the surrounding ring road, New Cairo, and Nasr City.
And now, though not officially announced yet, there are lots of bulldozers and digging already in action at the cemetery of Al-Imam Al-Shafii.
Saad Zaghloul Street
At the head of Saad Zaghloul Street lies the family cemetery of Sheikh Ali Al-Noshokaty – merchant of Moroccan origin – that was first built 1918. The family cemetery topped the list of cemeteries to be demolished to expand the street. The cemetery keepers say they were not notified officially, but that a lot of measuring going on.
“Every other day architects come take the measurements of the streets, then say it is wrong and they need to redo it again,” they commented. As for the torabi, when asked to show us the official notice from the administration of cemeteries asking us to move, he never showed the papers he never received officially.
Adjacent to our family cemetery is that of renowned Egyptian actor Youssef Beih Wahbi. Right outside there is much digging, which the locals believe is for water and sewer pipes, that the government is launching as the foundation of turning this place into an inhabited place with lots of cafes, according to the locals. Wahbi’s mausoleum, holds the tombs of the actor and his family under large, lavish marble tombstones. One of the stones bears a touching epitaph that reads: “Our Daughter Bouthina, the most beautiful girl in the world.”
On the far end of our street lies the vast plot for the family of national Egyptian leader Saad Zaghloul, who was buried there before his remains were moved to his memorial in downtown Cairo.
Intangible and tangible heritage
“Historic Cairo’s cemeteries have historical significance. If we look at it from an architectural angle, the tombs of Mohamed Elwi and Mohamed Sabri Abu Alam were designed by Ernesto Verrucci, the architect of the royal palaces during the reign of the kings Fouad and Farouk,” explained Mostafa Sadek, a physician, photographer and expert on the graveyards of Cairo.
“Take the tomb of Ibrahim El-Nabarawi, the head of all physicians at the time and among the first to go on Muhammad Ali’s scholarship to study medicine in France. [El-Nabarawi was] a watermelon merchant in Nabarou who came to Cairo to sell his merchandise, and when he did not make much profit, he stayed in Al-Azhar where he was head hunted by the scouts of Muhammad Ali to study medicine abroad,” Sadek said.
“There are many people like him buried there. There are also people who are important to their families and their own history,” Sadek noted.
“This is our heritage and I believe that there is nothing more important for us as Egyptians as the cemeteries of our families. Egyptians care far more about their burial grounds than their houses, for the cemetery is their final destination,” Al-Morr said.
So, will Egypt continue to honour her dead?