Along the trail of Historic Cairo: Imam Al-Shafii district

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 28 Jun 2021

Our second walk alongside Megawra’s founder, architectural historian May El-Ibrashy, is in the Imam Al-Shafii area

Imam Al-Shafii district
Internal cemetery of house al pasha. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

In collaboration with Megawra, Ahram Online launches a series of walks in Historic Cairo to track down the intangible heritage of Al-Qahera, the Conqueror, and attempt to safeguard what’s left of it.

Our second walk alongside Megawra’s Founder, architectural historian May El-Ibrashy, is in the Imam Al-Shafii area. The first walk was in the district of Hattaba, one of the three main districts El-Ibrashy spent about 10 years working extensively on. El-Ibrashy’s participatory conservation initiative gave her valuable insight into the intangible heritage of these districts located in the heart of Old Cairo. This tour is a self-guided tour.

All you need to do is to scan the QR code. The map of the whole tour is located at the gate entrance of the starting point of the tour, the Mausoleum of Imam Al-Shafii.

The Mausoleum of Imam Al-Shafii

Imam Al-Shafii (767-820 AD) was the founder of the eponymous Shafii school of Islamic jurisprudence, one of the four dominant schools in Sunni Islam. The dome is the starting point of the tour. Outside the mausoleum, which is an ideal model to reflect Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Ottoman architecture, lies the map of the self guided tour with QR codes for more details.

Imam Al-Shafii district
Imam shafii mausolem. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

The Social History of Qarafa

With our back to the mausoleum, we take our first right, here we learn more about the residents of the area. Known to be part of the ‘qarafa’ (cemetery), we learn that the burial grounds in Egypt have their own story to tell.

The name qarafa is derived from the Yemini Tribe Bano Qarafa, whose cemetery is in this area, explained El-Ibrashy, adding that since the 9th century, there were official residents in the city of the Dead.

“Here, the important professions in Al-Qarafa district is anything that has to do with the tombstones, and we picked this place because this is the residence and workplace of El-Lemby, the most famous tombstone maker in this district,” explained El-Ibrashy to Ahram Online, adding that in the old days, those who used to live in Al-Qarafa were scholars of religious studies and the name ‘Qarafi scholar’ was actually a prestigious thing, as is seen in old books like ‘Wafiat Al-Aayan’ (‘Obituaries of the Affluents’)

Imam Al-Shafii district
Social history of al qarafa. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

Sabil-Kuttab and Tomb of Radwan Agha Al-Razzaz

Imam Al-Shafii district
Sabil kuttab and tomb of Radwan Agha Al Razzaz. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

“As I told you before, by the time we reached the Ottoman reign, the Dome of Shafii was a political symbol and lots of people would conduct [political] agreements there. At the time, the triangle of power was the Ottoman wallis, the remaining of the Mamluk Amirs in Egypt, and the Ashraf (Families that are descendants of Prophet Mohamed).

Consequently, the Dome of Shafii was surrounded by burial grounds as well, where the cemetery of the Ottoman governors overlooked the northern window of Al-Shafii. Next to it is Hosh Al-Pasha, which is the cemetery of the descendants of Mohamed Ali pasha, along with the deputy of Abdelrahman Katkhuda — Abdelrahman Kathkuda restored and built a mosque on the premises of the Al-Shafii dome.


Then you find on the other side, the mosque and the cemetery of Al-Bakri family, who are one of the two most powerful Ashraf families.

Imam Al-Shafii district
Inside sabil kuttab and tomb of Radwan Agha al Razzaz. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

Dating back to the Ottoman period, Radwan Agha Jurbaji ibn Abdullah — known as Al-Razzaz — was the deputy of the amir Hasan Katkhuda. His Funerary complex included a burial yard, a mastaba and iwan for reciting Quran, as well as a sabil (a communal water dispenser for passers-by)

Imam Al-Shafii district
The sabil of radwan agha al razzaz. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

“Here you find that the Ottomans adopt the same concept and style of buildings as the Mamluks, but on a smaller scale. Like a forest of markers, the tombstones have two stories to tell,” she noted.

“The first is that of the person buried, the symbol of the crown means its a woman while the headgear (turban) means it’s a man. While the second story is that of colours, they were extremely colourful, using blue and gold, as well as patterns that reflected the concept of heaven such as vines, pomegranate, and the sarw tree as an evocation of heaven.”

Tomb of Al-Hasawati

A few steps away lies a Fatimid dome that was built during the reign of caliph Al-Hafiz Li Din Allah (545-1150). It is a monument that commemorates Mohamed Al-Hasawati, a descendant of Prophet Mohamed. The most outstanding architectural element of the dome is its stucco mihrab framed by the Throne Verses from the holy quran in Kufic script.

Imam Al-Shafii district
Tomb of al Hasawatii. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

“We know that the Fatimids were very consistent about building mashahed (domes) on-top of the tombs of Al-Beit (descendants of Prophet Mohamed). During the Fatimid era, a lot of such domes materialised in Egypt like the ones in Al-Khalifa,  Al-Sayeda Nafisa and Al-Sayeda Sakina,” El-Ibrashy said.

“They call him Al-Hasawati. We have no historic reference of his identity, but we chose to share the local myth recounted by the residences:

They say that he lived during the era of Prophet Mohamed and used to collect the pebbles from under the prophet’s feet, hence the name Al-Hasawati (‘the pebble collector’).

The woman who lives in the house next to the dome used to take care of it and light candles. However, she remembers that during restoration, a few years back, something was broken from the dome, and they saw a big hall mark of light coming out of it,” she added.  

The Toraby Profession and the Numbering Systems.

“Here we wanted to reflect on the numbering systems and how they work. The qarafa has two numbering systems, the first is the ahwash (burial grounds). As for the other numbering system, it represents places of residence in the qarafa. Legally, no one is allowed to live in the qarafa but the people responsible for burial and their families.”

Imam Al-Shafii district
General view of al qarafa. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

“The toraby (A person responsible for burial) is the memory of the area. He is not a government employee, but he acts like one in certain circumstances. If you want to restore your burial ground, you need to get official papers from the toraby verifying your ownership and the borders of your land,” explained El-Ibrashy.

In the old days, the toraby’s salary was paid from the money of waqf (endowment) directly as part of the maintenance expenses of the qarafa.

“After the 1952 Revolution, the awqaf had its own ministry and the government shifted the priority of awqaf money towards public housing, thus creating the Awqaf city. Consequently, the money allocated to cover management and maintenance costs of the burial grounds got affected,” she added, explaining that all of the above lead to the misconception of the toraby as being an opportunist who claims burial expenses from the family of the deceased, while in fact he has legal obligations but no salary.

Hawsh Al-Pasha (Madfan Al-Familia)

Imam Al-Shafii district
Housh al pasha. photo by Amira Noshokaty

This is the monumental mausoleum complex of the Mohamed Ali family. Built east of the Imam Al-Shafii Dome. Mohamed Ali himself was laid to rest at his mosque in the Citadel. Hawsh al-Pasha, also known as Madafin Al-Familia (Tomb of the Family), remained the official burial ground for his successors, members of his family, court officials, and servants, until the early 20th century.

Among those buried there are his wife, Amina Hanem (d.1823), and his sons Tusun Pasha (d.1816), Ismail Pasha (d.1825), Ibrahim Pasha (r.July – November 1848), Abbas Hilmi I (r. 1848-1863), Mohamed Said Pasha (r. 1854 – 1863), and their families. Each tomb is marked by a funerary column with the distinctive headdress of the deceased according to their status and gender, a braid or crown for women, turbans or fezzes for men. 

Imam Al-Shafii district
Internal of the cemetery of hosh al pasha, photo by Amira Noshokaty

“The interior of the cemetery reflects Ottoman Baroque style, as well as the typical Mohamed Ali architecture from the 19th century till the 20th century, and it is like a forest of cemeteries. Ottoman historians were amazed by the burial grounds, because they were indoors — unlike the ones in Turkey — which is what preserved their colours for all these years,” she noted.  

Imam Al-Shafii district
Internal cemetery of house al pasha. Photo Amira Noshokaty

Imam Al-Shafii district
The tombs kept their colourful designs. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

Tomb of the Family of Ismail Pasha (Known as Prince Mahmoud Hamdy’s cemetery)

Before 1872, this mausoleum was the burial ground of the family of khedive Ismail. Founded north of Hawsh Al-Pasha, it contains the tombs of two of his wives, Buzum and Jamal Nur.

Tomb of Ahmed Taymour Pasha

“If we did not die, where would we go? Do not cry over your pottery – it is like your lives. He who wears soft wool and he who wears rough linen, both will end up being lowered into a grave,” is a sample of thousands of Egyptian proverbs that were collected by Taymour Pasha.

Renowned Egyptian writer, scholar, and historian, Ahmed Taymour Pasha was the son of Ismail Taymour Pasha, head of khedive Ismail’s diwan, brother of the writer Aisha Al-Taymuriyya, and father of the novelists Mohamed and Mahmoud Taymour.

Ahmed Taymour collected and archived hundreds of rare Arabic manuscripts, which he later donated to the Egyptian Dar Al-Kutub. He wrote books that documented engineers and physicians from the Islamic period, along with a dictionary of colloquial Egyptian Arabic and collected Egyptian sayings and proverbs.

The Map of Words

Imam Al-Shafii district
The back yard of imam al shafii, photo by Amira Noshokaty

The walk ends at the back yard of the Imam Al-Shafii DOme, where the Sadat Al-Bakria hold their burial grounds and are responsible for the servicing of the Imam Al-Shafii Dome.

“Here we talk about the burial traditions that we have known from Kotob Al-Ziara (The Books of Visitation). The practice of Kotob Al-Ziara started during the Fatimid era, however, the book we found covered the time from the Ayyubid dynasty until the Ottoman era,” El-Ibrashy said.

“Such books are exactly like the tourist guide books but with no maps, the maps are in the form of words. For example, the map will tell you walk 100 steps and you will find a tomb where you will find green birds flying drawn on the tomb because the man buried there was called Al-Asafiri and he would feed the birds before he died, so the birds flock to his grave.”

“The books are like an alternative map, for in our heads, the map is affiliated with big buildings, like  Qusun Dome for instance. But for them, these are non-entities, they are not significant at all, because they have no religious value. They would tell you to walk next to the high dome and you would know that this is the dome of Qossoun. It’s a beautiful map of Cairo that tells you the very human details,” she concluded.

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