'A Garden for the Immortals:' Latest idea to move Cairo's historic cemeteries faces pushback

Amira Noshokaty , Friday 6 Jan 2023

For the past few weeks, Cairo's historic cemeteries have been in the limelight after an idea was floated in local media to rebury iconic Egyptian figures in a new site to be called “A Garden for the Immortals” has received pushback from affected communities.

Photo by amira noshokaty


The idea is the latest development in the year-long debate over moving Cairo’s historic cemeteries to make way for urban development, including the construction of new roads and transportation infrastructure.

Dating back over 1,000 years, the cemeteries are currently located in a sprawling area known as the City of the Dead, located to the south and north of the Cairo Citadel and are part of Historic Cairo, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.

It is unknown where the proposed site for the Garden for the Immortals would be located, if the move was undertaken.

In response to the idea, the members of the Safeguard of Historic Cemeteries' initiative issued a request to Egyptian President El-Sisi in December, asking him to intervene and save the heritage of these cemeteries.

The cemeteries symbolise 12 centuries of intangible and architectural heritage, as they are the final resting place for martyrs, as well as icons of thought, culture, art and humanity from Egypt and the world, according to the request. It also noted that the cemeteries are already a tomb for immortals, highlighting the holiness of death in Egyptian culture.

Members of the initiative are committed to maintaining the existing cemeteries. One such member, Muhammed Al-Saied, and engineer and restorer, spoke to Ahram Online, explaining that such work would entail documenting the different architectural types, conditions, history, scale and GPS locations of the cemeteries.

Mohamed Yakan the secretary-general of the Liberal Constitutional Party, expressed a similar sentiment.

"Why do we not keep Egypt's icons buried where they are, and restore the cemeteries that need restorations... fix the streets and turn it into a touristic site that would be a great investment in Egypt and is sure to generate income?" he asked.

Yakan’s family has three burial grounds in Imam Shafie district on Ibn Al-Fared Street in the City of the Dead since 1890.

The family’s presence in the district dates back to Ahmed Yakan Pasha, who was Egypt’s prime minister several times throughout the 1920s and as 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.

Though novel to modern Egypt, the idea of turning historic cemeteries into a tourist site traces its roots back to the Fatimid era (909-1171 AD). The Islamic rulers built great monuments to their dead ancestors and made visiting them such a tradition that they even issued guidebooks for doing so.

The guide books for cemetery visitors – Kotob Al-Ziara (The Books of Visitation) – were issued until the Ottoman era. The books document the location of their tombs and their historic value, as well as the rituals to be performed while visiting them.

For example, Morshed Al-Zowar Ela Qobour Al-Abrar (The Visitor's Guide to the Graves of the Good) by Zein El-Din Ibn El-Mowafaq (d.1218 AD), tells the history of Moqattam Mountain's Cemetery plateau in detail. It explains how the plateau has been the setting of spiritual manifestation, where Prophets such as Moses and Youssef, pious people such as the mysic Zu Al-Noun, and key sufi figures such as Ibn Al-Fared, once sought and most were buried.

In a country such as Egypt whose civilisation was 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. This connection manifests the concept of maddad, which means reinforcement, assistance, support and connection. This concept links the many layers of Egyptian civilisation with each other, from the ancient Egyptians’ concept of eternity and the afterlife, to Coptic and Islamic beliefs.

The debate over removing the 1,000-year-old cemeteries has been ongoing for the past year, after a list was circulated in the media including the over 60 family cemeteries out of 140 chosen to be demolished as part of the government’s road extension plan in the Imam Al-Shafie area.

Since then the families of the cemeteries marked for demolition along with historians, architects and experts on the topic teamed up and created the Safeguarding of Historic Cairo Initiative. The initiative collaborated to form legal petitions, a seminar, documentation and most recently an art and photo exhibition.

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