Treasures from the cemeteries: Activism in a coffee table book

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 20 Feb 2024

At its Heliopolis branch on Saturday, Diwan hosted a book signing for one of its most recent publications, Treasures from the Egyptian cemeteries: The Marvelous Things on the Tombstones (Konouz makaber Masr – Agaeib alomour fi shawahed alkobour).

Treasures from the cemeteries


Published for this year’s Cairo International Book Fair, which opened late January and closed early February, this volume might look like just another coffee table book that assembles pictures of tombstones from the cemeteries of Old Cairo – with some captions attached.

However, this close to 150-page volume is anything but just a coffee table book. It is a statement against the decline and destruction of the historic cemeteries at the heart of Old Cairo. Moustafa Mohamed El-Sadek, the author-photographer behind this title, is a full-time practicing gynecologist, with a passion for history.

El-Sadek has spent his years since returning to Cairo in the early 1990s after finishing his post-graduate studies in France walking the streets of the city, the author said during a short talk ahead of the book signing.

He has been searching for a closer understanding of the history of the nation that he often felt was very poorly told in existing curriculums, he explained. 

“I really and truly think that we are a great nation with a great history and I really and truly think that we have really beautiful monuments that do not often get enough attention,” El-Sadek noted.

Despite the long walks and endless photos he has been taking during these walks of the well-trodden and not-so-trodden streets, it was only during the past couple of years, mostly last year, that El-Sadek’s passion evolved into cautious activism. On his Facebook page, El-Sadek raced against a so-called “development” scheme that was savagely destroying large segments of a cemetery that had lasted in parts for 14 centuries.

The pictures that reflected the unique arts of the old cemeteries of Egypt were getting lots of shares, especially that they were posted with accurate and informative captions on the history of the specific tombs and the stories of the families who used them.

The pictures in the book come with details about the style of art and engraved writings, as well as the history of the calligraphers and artists themselves, found on such tombstones.

“The cemetery is an open history book whose items are there all over the ground and it is for us to go read and learn,” El-Sadek said. 

Speaking during the event, he explained that the tombstones he photographed and included in his book “are not just pieces of art but they are also the identity cards of the deceased individuals. In this sense, these tombstones are there not just for remembrance of people who left this world but also as a chronicle of the social history and history of art in this country.”

The 40 tombstones that El-Sadek chose to include in his book reveal much about the social norms in Cairo in the late 19th and early 20th century, including the normalcy of polygamy, the normalcy of having women slaves – some of whom would be liberated at the kind wish of those who had owned them – and the normalcy for some men to have women, either as spouses or as women slaves, to bare their children if the wives failed to.

The book also shows that, in addition to requests for visitors to the cemeteries to recite the Quran and pray for the deceased, it was customary, especially in the case of the rich and influential, for the tombstones to ask visitors to recite a few verses of poetry in praise of the deceased. The favorite type of request was for poetry that spoke to the deceased’s piousness and generosity, as well as the dismay that befell their families after their departure.

El-Sadek said that he had never planned to assemble his pictures in a book. However, given the attention that the book received, El-Sadek said that he might opt for a second or a third volume given his collection of photos and research about the families and individuals whose names appear on the tombstones.

“It is so unfortunate that parts of this grandeur of art and history have to be compromised either for demolition or decline,” El-Sadek said. He added that his wish is to keep photographing whatever is there and to document things that might end up falling into disrepair or get deliberately crushed.

El-Sadek hopes that his work will be there for future generations who might come when it is far too late for them to capture the quality of art that has evolved over the years in the making of the cemeteries and especially in the making of tombstones.

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