A historic enclave that has born witness to the city’s cultural richness for centuries, Cairo’s so-called City of the Dead, or cemeteries, is facing a transformation that has sparked widespread debate over the protection and preservation of the country’s heritage and has important societal implications.
The planned demolition of parts of this landmark necropolis, a place of profound significance, is raising concerns among Cairenes.
The City of the Dead, also known as Al-Qarafa, is a sprawling necropolis where mausoleums, tombs, and memorials have housed generations of Cairenes. As a final resting place for both the illustrious and the ordinary, the area is a microcosm of the city’s history, culture, and traditions.
The intricate architectural details of the mausoleums and the serene atmosphere of the area as a whole have made it a unique blend of urban space and cultural site. Families visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects, and Sufi mystics gather in its mausoleums for rituals.
However, amidst Cairo’s rapid urbanisation and population growth, the City of the Dead has not been immune to change. Government efforts to address the need to widen roads, together with housing shortages and overall modernisation, have led to a debate over urban development and the preservation of cultural heritage.
While proponents of the demolition of some of the area’s tombs argue that this will free up space for much-needed housing and alleviate congestion, critics worry about the possible erasure of history and the displacement of current residents.
The demolition of parts of the City of the Dead has alarmed conservationists who see it as a significant loss to Egypt’s social identity. The architecture of the centuries-old tombs and the stories they encapsulate are seen as a connection to the past that should be preserved for future generations.
Critics worry that erasing this cultural landscape will undermine the larger city’s cultural narrative and its connection to its roots.
The owners of the demolished tombs say that the fate of the area now hangs in the balance, prompting society to reflect on the importance of striking a balance between progress and preservation.
Meanwhile, advocates of the changes argue that the development project of which they are a part aims to balance development and modernisation with the protection of historical and cultural landmarks.
An official at the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH), responsible for the protection of many historic urban areas in Egypt, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that a project was underway to study the tombs of the “immortals” — in other words of prominent figures including writers and poets who are buried in the City of the Dead.
Their tombs would be moved from their original locations in order to commemorate their memory and provide the opportunity for future generations to admire their achievements.
Another official at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that although the demolished tombs in the City of the Dead are not listed as World Heritage or its Egyptian equivalent, the SCA would be willing to help in the preservation of these tombs by restoring them and putting them on display at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) or other museums as part of Egypt’s history.
“No one can demolish any of Egypt’s listed monuments, not only because they are part of the country’s heritage and history, but also because they are protected by Law 117/1983,” the source said. However, many of the tombs concerned are not listed buildings.
Commenting on the possible demolition of the Qawsoun Minaret in the City of the Dead, Gamal Abdel-Rehim, professor of Islamic Heritage at the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University and a member of the Permanent Committee of Islamic Antiquities, described it as unfounded rumour.
He said the minaret was undergoing restoration as time had taken its toll on its walls. It is suffering from deep cracks, and instability in the ground has led it to lean dangerously. “The minaret will be dismantled for restoration and consolidation and then returned to its original location,” Abdel-Rehim said.
A larger development project for Historic Cairo depends on pillars such as preserving monumental edifices and buildings of outstanding value through restoration and rehabilitation work as well as reviving the historical urban fabric while conducting inventories of inappropriate activities and allocating alternative places for them. The broader aim is to rehabilitate neighbourhoods of historical value and develop appropriate job opportunities such as handicrafts within them.
The project also aims at transforming the area into an open air-museum showing the diversity of the architecture and monuments over time as well as encouraging tourism to Cairo as a whole, making it a more significant destination especially after the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) and the Sphinx International Airport.
“The development of Historic Cairo is an integral part of government plans to preserve the country’s historical areas and ancient edifices as well as reviving them to become important tourist destinations,” Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly