Restoration of the City of the Dead

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 26 Mar 2024

Cairo’s Historic City of the Dead is to be developed into an open-air museum of Islamic art, reports Nevine El-Aref

Al-Imam Al-Shafei Mosque

Nestling at the footsteps of the Moqattam Hills, Cairo’s historic cemeteries, or the City of the Dead, are not merely ancient burial grounds, but are also living testimony to centuries of Islamic civilisation, architecture, and traditions.
Initially established during the seventh century CE shortly after the Arab conquest of Egypt and the construction of the first Islamic capital of Fustat, the City of the Dead was built in the desert as a necropolis that continued to grow over the centuries and became a distinguished area rich in splendid mosques, mausoleums, shrines and domes.
These belonged to some of the Prophet Mohamed’s companions and descendants as well as Sufis, various rulers, scholars and members of 19th-century ruler Mohamed Ali’s family. For this reason, the City of the Dead was called “Egypt’s Baqia” similar to the Al-Baqia cemetery in Medina in Saudi Arabia.
After years of negligence, the City of the Dead is now to receive a facelift with a view to developing it into an open-air museum for Islamic art as well as transforming it into a new tourist destination for those seeking spiritual experience.
According to the development project for the city, the area will be made more tourist friendly through enhancing and introducing new services for visitors. Special visiting paths will be created, and all monumental edifices will be restored.
“It is a very important project because it does not only preserve a part of Egypt’s Islamic heritage, it also highlights the historical, archaeological, and religious significance of this area that forms a part of the urban fabric of Historic Cairo, one of the sites listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List,” said Ahmed Issa, minister of tourism and antiquities.
A scientific committee chaired by Gamal Abdel-Rahim, professor of Islamic antiquities at the Faculty of Antiquities at Cairo University and a member of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Antiquities, was formed to inspect the archaeological sites and monuments within the City of the Dead and prepare a comprehensive study on its development.
“Religious and spiritual tourism have gained significant momentum, and the development of the City of the Dead will help in enhancing this,” said Abdel-Rehim, who added that among the mausoleums of the Prophet Mohamed’s descendants in the City of the Dead are those belonging to Sayeda Aisha, Sayeda Nafisa, Sayeda Ruqaya, and Sayeda Kalthum.
There are also the tombs of companions such as the Mosque and Mausoleum of Okba Ibn Amer Al-Gahni.
The development could be part of “the ‘Cairo City Break’ product that the ministry is currently working on, transforming Cairo into a standalone tourist destination where visitors will have the opportunity to explore many archaeological sites by offering six diverse and varied experiences encompassing Pharaonic, Coptic, and Islamic places,” Abdel-Rehim said.
This should contribute to increasing the number of tourist nights spent in Cairo from an average of three to four days to 12.
Abdel-Rehim said that the Al-Imam Al-Shafei and Imam Al-Layth complexes and the Hosh Al-Basha tombs are among the most important monuments in the City of the Dead.

AL-IMAM AL-SHAFEI: The founder of the Shafie madhab, one of the four major jurisprudential schools of Sunni Islam, was laid to rest in the City of the Dead during the ninth century, and the mausoleum erected over his tomb, built in 1211, remains one of the most prominent features of the area to this day.
The mausoleum is one of the most important Islamic monuments in Egypt owing to its ambitious wooden dome, the largest in the country. It is also one of the few remaining Ayoubid Dynasty buildings still standing and includes rare examples of Ayoubid stucco decoration and woodwork.


In 2021, the mausoleum was reopened after five years of conservation work carried out by the architectural restoration group Megawra within the framework of Al-Athar Lina, an initiative run in partnership with the Built Environment Collective in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and funded by the US through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.
The aim of the conservation project was to remedy damage to the mausoleum, including floor subsidence, salt damage, the loss of masonry cohesion, damage to the marble cladding and gateway, the disintegration of the external stucco and plaster, and roof leakage. While the interior was better preserved, it was also marred by patchiness in the shades of paint used in various restorations. This was accentuated by unsuitable lighting.
Although Mohamed Ibn Idris Al-Shafei only spent four years in Egypt, it is here, in the family graveyard of his colleague Abdallah ibn Abdel-Hakam, that he was laid to rest in 820 CE. Al-Shafei dedicated his life to developing a comprehensive theory of jurisprudence that earned him the title of the “Sea of Knowledge”.
He was also a great poet who wrote simply yet eloquently about the value of travel, learning, and contemplation.
The sources say that when he died, he was buried in the mausoleum of the Ibn Abdel-Hakam, an Arab tribe that came to Egypt with the Islamic conquest in the seventh century and settled there, becoming one of the most prominent families.
The restoration project was undertaken by the Arab Contractors Company. The restoration took place under the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry’s supervision, with LE13 million in funding coming from the Ministry of Islamic Endowments.
The Al-Imam Al-Shafei Mosque was built during the reign of the khedive Tawfik in 1892 CE. It follows the style of the covered mosques of the time and is constructed of limestone with a wooden roof with a square in the middle.

AL-IMAM AL-LAYTH IBN SAAD MAUSOLEUM AND MOSQUE: This belongs to Al-Layth Ibn Saad Ibn Abdel-Raḥman Al-Fahmi Al-Qalqashandi, the chief representative, imam, and eponym of the Laythi School of Islamic Jurisprudence.
After the imam’s death, he was buried in the small cemetery of the City of the Dead and his tomb was only a mastaba. Later, Abu Zayd Al-Masri, a merchant, erected a domed shrine for the imam. Philanthropists competed in increasing this shrine until it became a mausoleum, being subjected to several renovation efforts over the centuries.
It was restored two years ago along with the mosque that was established during the Ayoubid period and was reconstructed by the Ministry of Endowments during the reign of the khedive Abbas Helmi II in the 19th century, as mentioned on the Kufic writing on its pulpit.
The mosque has a rectangular layout with multiple entrances. Visitors descend to the first entrance via steps, followed by a door leading to a spacious corridor adorned with two marble columns.
Beyond this lies a third door, refurbished by the Mameluke Sultan Al-Ghouri in the mediaeval period. This door features intricate engravings and wooden shutters, originally from the Al-Imam Al-Shafei Mosque. Beyond it lies the rectangular mosque, culminating in the qibla wall housing the mihrab and minbar (prayer niche and pulpit).

HOSH AL-BASHA: This is the “Courtyard of the Pasha” and is a cemetery dedicated to the family of Egypt’s 19th-century ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha. It is located directly behind the Mausoleum of Al-Imam Al-Shafei.
The building is a domed complex granting access to a courtyard that once contained a lavish garden. Each facade is meticulously adorned with gypsum window openings, which diffuse mesmerising hues of light through the stained glass within the interior chambers. This results in a spectrum of diffused and delicate lighting, casting enchanting rainbows throughout.
Inside the complex rest three of Mohamed Ali’s sons, Tosson, Ismail, and Ibrahim, alongside their wives, children, devoted servants, and esteemed statesmen and advisors. It also houses the towering white marble tomb of the khedive Tawfik’s mother.
The cenotaphs of the deceased are carved with gilded and painted flowers, garlands, and foliage, while a stela is found at the head topped by a head-covering indicating the rank and gender of the deceased. Men are identified by turbans or fezzes, while women are identified by coronets.
Raised relief braids signify a royal mother, painted braids represent a royal wife, and a loosely gathered coil of hair, often embellished with golden tears, signifies a virgin princess.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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