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Egypt is killing the history of its City of the Dead


Cairo’s City of the Dead—a vast Islamic-era necropolis located at the foot of the Mokattam Hills, a short walking distance from the Cairo Citadel—was, until recently, a burial site boasting an impressive array of historic mausoleums and cemeteries. Some of the tombs in the complex date back to the Mameluke era of the 1200-1500s. Others serve as the final resting place for scholars, cultural figures, rulers, and members of Egypt’s royal and elite families.   

Now, a large part of the necropolis has been reduced to rubble as bulldozers continue to raze the centuries-old mausoleums to the ground. This is part of a government plan to “modernize Cairo” and make space for roads and bridges that would link central Cairo to a new administrative capital, which is currently under construction in the desert—some twenty-two miles (thirty-five kilometers) east of the congested city.

Since taking the presidency in 2014, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has spent over $500 billion on urban development projects that include the construction of the new capital, smart cities, and extensive road networks, making infrastructure development a defining feature of his presidency. While supporters hail the nationwide infrastructure overhaul as timely and essential, critics dismiss Sisi’s “vanity” megaprojects, arguing that they’ve come at too high a cost for the Egyptians. Skeptics also note that the projects are a lucrative business for the military contractors that carry out the bulk of the construction work. Meanwhile, Sisi insists that the military’s role in these projects is merely “supervisory.”         

The ongoing demolitions of the medieval cemeteries have provoked an outcry from conservators and citizens who lament that their cultural heritage and part of their history is being erased. Yet, the cries have fallen on deaf ears, and the destruction of the heritage site continues unabated.

The government has defended its modernization plan, insisting that developing road networks and removing slum areas are in the public’s interests. It also insists that antiquities in Historic Cairo, a UNESCO World Heritage site where the City of the Dead is located, will remain intact. But cultural heritage conservators are unconvinced. They warn that many of the historic mausoleums at the burial site are not registered as antiquities, which puts them at risk of demolition. They are calling for the protection and preservation of Historic Cairo because of its historical significance and architectural value and are suggesting it be developed as a tourist attraction.

The demolitions, which started in 2020, had paused for some months after an outpouring of anger from activists on Egyptian social media platforms. In May 2022, the government made the decision to tear down the tomb of Taha Hussein, an influential twentieth-century writer and intellectual popularly dubbed “The Dean of Arabic Literature,” to allow for an overpass linking Cairo’s Ring Road with the new administrative capital. This triggered a fierce backlash from activists. 

Bowing under conservationist pressure, the government rescinded its controversial decision to bulldoze Hussein’s mausoleum. But the tomb has suffered damages from the construction of the new flyover, which now looms above it, creating yet another concrete eyesore. Bridges that have been mushrooming across the country for years are a distinctive characteristic of Sisi’s New Republic, while numerous street trees have been felled to clear the way for the massive road construction projects. Public parks have also been systemically razed to create space for cafeterias and parking lots.   

In recent days, Omniya Abdel Barr, an architect specializing in cultural heritage conservation and documentation, raised the alarm, announcing via her X—formerly known as Twitter— account that the bulldozers were back at the heritage site. Publishing a picture of a forklift lurking ominously above an elaborate mausoleum adorned with delicate Arabic calligraphy, Abdel Barr appealed for help to stop the demolitions. 

“Help! Inhumane creatures are destroying our heritage,” Abdel Barr tweeted on August 23. Her exhortation was likely addressed to conservationists and the international community. A  few days later, on August 28, Abdel Barr posted on X that four members of the permanent committee tasked with documenting monumental and heritage buildings of outstanding architectural value and historical significance had resigned in protest at the destruction of the mausoleums in the Imam al-Shafi’i and Sayyeda Nafissa districts.

On August 31, Ayman Wanas, professor of urban planning at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport and Head of the committee for Cairo’s eastern district, also submitted his resignation to Cairo Governor General Khaled Abdel Aal, stating that the demolition of historic mausoleums violates Law No. 144 of 2006, which protects buildings inventoried because of their outstanding architectural value or historical significance. The following day, Wanas retracted his resignation, stating on his Facebook page that it had been used by critics “to attack the state’s rigorous and continuous efforts to develop and improve the infrastructure and the lives of citizens, which was neither my aim nor my intention.”      

UNESCO, which is concerned with the protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world, has also voiced concern over the demolitions. In a statement to The National, the United Nations agency said its experts were in contact with the Egyptian authorities “to reconcile the planned urban development projects with the necessary World Heritage Protection, in line with Egypt’s international commitments.”

In a bid to salvage what they can of the prized relics, a group of historians, conservationists, and cultural heritage aficionados have organized weekly visits to the City of the Dead. They take photos to document the scenes of destruction and sift through the rubble in search of scattered fragments of ancient tombstones and other pieces of historical significance.

An online video published on the Facebook page of Hossam Abdel Azeem, founder of a group called “Witnesses of Egypt,” shows a bulldozer tearing down a sabil—a kiosk in the Islamic architectural tradition, where water is dispensed to the public—that had stood in the courtyard of a cemetery where Prince Ibrahim Helmi, the son of Khedive Ismail (1863 to 1879) and half-brother of former King Fouad l—the later King of Egypt, was laid to rest. Young men are seen in the video searching through piles of debris for pieces of a shattered marble stele with kufi calligraphy engraving and trying to put the relic back together.

Galila El Kadi, author and Paris-based emeritus professor of urban planning and architecture, has—together with a group of urban planners, architects, and activists—started a petition calling on the government to stop the demolition of the cemeteries in Historic Cairo. The petition also states that “demands of the public interest should not come at the expense of Egypt’s cultural heritage.” The group is also vigorously campaigning against a plan by the Ministry of Housing to exhume graves at the site and have families transfer the remains of their buried loved ones to a new graveyard in the Tenth of Ramadan district on the outskirts of Cairo. 

In recent months, dozens of families have received calls or letters from the government asking them to transfer the remains of their deceased loved ones from the Imam al-Shafi’i cemeteries in the City of the Dead to the new graveyard. Many had no choice but to comply. Some have filed legal complaints with the Public Prosecutor’s Office but to no avail. Others who did not receive the dreaded call have exhumed the graves of deceased family members for fear that their tombs would be leveled without prior notification.

Their fears are not entirely unfounded. Two thousand tombs are earmarked for destruction as part of the government’s plan to make way for an extension to the Yasser Rizk overpass. In the rush to prepare the ground for the construction work, “mistakes” have been made, and some mausoleums that did not have a red cross spray-painted on them by the developers—a sign indicating they were slated for demolition—have been flattened, Abdel Azeem told me. 

Members of Egypt’s core royal family have not been spared either. Thirty-five years after her death, the remains of former Queen Farida, the first wife of King Farouk, were dug up in February and transferred from the Imam al-Shafi’i cemetery to Al Rifa’i Mosque, where her late husband and daughters are buried. This only happened after surviving family members learned that her tomb was among those set to be demolished.

The trail of destruction left behind by urban developers has evoked feelings of bitter resentment among preservationists and activists alike. A tweet published on August 28 by Amro Ali, a writer and former assistant professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, encapsulates those sentiments: “The level of blind-sided greed, self-entitlement, and impunity it must take to destroy your own beautiful heritage when even foreign wars and colonial endeavors didn’t dare touch it.”

Others have raised concerns over the fate of thousands of low-income families that have been living and working among the tombs for decades, relying on alms from the relatives of the dead to sustain their own families. The destruction of the tombs will mean those impoverished families must search for alternative housing, shelter, and other means to survive.  

Since September 2, the demolitions at Imam al-Shafi’i have ceased and the heritage site has been closed off to visitors—including conservationists—amid a heavy security presence in the area, according to Mada Masr. The red markers on the walls of mausoleums slated for demolition have also been painted over or removed. The moves are likely the result of the social media firestorm over the government’s destruction campaign. Still, it is too early to tell whether those in charge have had a change of heart about the demolitions or whether they are waiting for the anger to dissipate before resuming their annihilation of Historic Cairo.     

The latter strategy would be a mistake, and the government would be wise to heed the activists’ calls to permanently stop razing the burial site. The authorities must pay attention to the lessons of the past, when a 2013 sit-in was staged by artists and intellectuals at the Ministry of Culture to protest the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood over the arts. This ultimately served as a prelude to the June 30, 2013 protests that brought down the former Islamist government.

With Egyptians’ patience wearing thin over a deepening economic crisis and dire living conditions, the last thing the government needs is another issue that inflames the populace.

Source: Atlantic Council

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