Marked for Demolition: Documenting the legacy of Cairo's cemeteries 

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 7 Dec 2022

Marked for Demolition, an art exhibition held at downtown's Cairo Atelier from 4 to 10 December, is the culmination of efforts by a group of artists to showcase the artistic grandeur and priceless cultural value of the historical cemeteries of the Egyptian capital.



The exhibition is organised by the Safeguard of Cairo’s historic cemeteries group that was launched almost a year ago in reaction to the government's plan to relocate some of Cairo's cemeteries to develop the roads of Cairo. 

The atelier houses paintings that depict Egyptians' visit to cemeteries, a tradition which is deeply rooted in the social history of Egyptians. The tradition goes back to ancient Egyptians who venerated the dead and believed in the spiritual connection between the living and their loved ones who crossed to the other side.

The exhibition displays relics from tombstones that have remained in the rubble after the government had demolished some tombs in the area last year. These relics were contributed to the exhibition by Mohamed Saafan, a heritage concept developer. To share their value with the audience, Saafan displays fragments of valuable tombstones that were recklessly scattered on the streets.

Letter from a martyr

The upper floor of the exhibition has a section that includes photographs and that provides information on the status of the cemeteries.

On entering this section, we are greeted with one of the captions that describe the story behind one of the tombs. The story is of a buried martyr who was shot dead by the British forces then occupying Egypt. The martyr's name is Mohamed Abdel-Hakam who died  16/11/ 1935 and who was first buried at Bab El-Wazir cemetery before his remains were moved to El-Ghafir cemetery.

On his death bed, Abdel-Hakam wrote a letter in English addressing the British prime minister back then. In the letter, he said that a British soldier had been foolish enough to shoot him and that he was about to die. He added, however, that to die for Egypt was a small thing, and that what really mattered was for Egypt to live.

The bigger picture

Photographer Karim Badr's photos gave a panoramic view of the layers of history of cemeteries and the rich and diverse culture they represent throughout the years.

"I am focused on Panoramic views because I am interested in urban photography and in showing all the layers of Cairo. For example, the cemeteries of Cairo were originally on the outskirts of medieval Cairo. These cemeteries overlap with Ibn Touloun  and Sultan Hassan mosques that were built inside the walls of Cairo. Then, in the background, we get a view of Cairo's Tower and Opera house, themselves being symbols of modern Cairo. Therefore, this one photograph captures almost 1000 years of history," he told Ahram Online.

"This one is of Saida Nafisa, mosque and maqam (shrine), with its dome lit in faint green and surrounded by other tombs. I wanted to highlight the concept of Mogawra, which literally means neighbouring; for back in the day lots of people chose to be buried next to Wallis (Muslim saints)," added Badr.

up close

As for Alia Nassar, an architect/ researcher and photographer, beauty lies in the details.

"These are tombstones of graves at Saida Nafisa district; they are from the Ottoman Era and they are in the shape of women's head-covers. These are inside one of the wooden rest platforms for the visitors. I took those in black and white to show how they resemble the drawings of the French expedition," she noted.


Photos of writer Yehia Haqqi's graveyard and cemeteries of Saida Nafisa courtesy of photographer Sara Hassan

The current situation

The controversy over the value of Cairo's historical cemeteries as opposed to the government's plans to construct more roads and bridges in the area started last year.

These plans subjected these cemeteries to the danger of demolition. Traffic resulting from new roads and bridges can also tamper with the ancient foundations of the graveyards.

Since then, lots of demolition marks were put on the graveyards that are planned to be demolished.

The poster of the exhibition shows one of these marks at the graveyard of Egypt's very own renowned thinker and figure Taha Hussien.

"Unfortunately, the danger still looms and a whole cemetery area was demolished in Abaggeya where Taha Hussien's graveyard is," said Mohamed Al-Saied, architect and consultant.

"The poster of the exhibition is a photo I took last May of Taha Hussien's graveyard with the red mark of demolition on it. The demolition stopped till September when massive demolitions began once again," noted architect researcher Mohammed Al-Saied.

Al-Saied revealed that he and others are waiting for the court verdict after filing law suits against demolishing historical cemeteries of Cairo. He said that these suits are under review by Magles Al Dawla (the state council).

"Lots of tombs of prominent figures in Egypt's history were demolished, including tombs belonging to two martyrs of the October war," added Dr. Mostafa El-Sadek, a physician and one of the experts who documented the Historic Cemeteries of Cairo. 

The National Organization of Urban Harmony (NOUH) intervened.

"We started to make a list of all the cemeteries with historical, architectural and cultural value the demolition of which should be banned," said Mohamed Abu Saieda, chairman of NOUH, to Ahram online.

The cultural and heritage value of Cairo cemeteries :

Stretching from the Moqattam Mountain all the way down to Bab El-Nasr, Cairo's cemeteries, also known as Al-Qarafa, have been the burial ground in Cairo ever since the Arabs ruled Egypt during the Reign of Omar Ibn El- Khattab.

The name Qarafa is in fact the name of the first Yemeni tribe that came to Cairo and buried their dead there.

As part of Historic Cairo, the cemeteries were put in 1979 on the list of world heritage sites by UNESCO.

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, stretching from Al-Fustat in the east to 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; whereas  the older western section, whose centre was the Fatimid Jami’ Al-Qarafa, was named Al-Qarafa Al-Kubra.

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 Muhammed.

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 (courtyards), particularly from the Mohammed 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.

In the 20th century, Al-Sahra’ 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.

People also sought shelter there during the flash points along the path of the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Marked for Demolition

4- 10 December at the Cairo Atelier, Downtown

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