Cemetery of the Living Threatened

A mausoleum in Cairo’s oldest cemetery, stripped of its ancient wooden doors, windows and marble tombstones. photos: Heba Khamis/nyt

The one buried in Cairo’s oldest working cemetery on a recent afternoon had been of some significance. Shiny SUVs piled up in the dusty alleys around an ancient mausoleum draped in black and gold; designer sunglasses hid the tears of mourners.

The cemetery’s undertaker, Ashraf Zaher, 48, stopped to inspect the funeral, another job done. But he didn’t stop for long. Just down the alley, his daughter was about to get married. Hundreds of his neighbors, who like him also live in the cemetery, gathered in front of his house, a few mausoleums away.

A wedding party for the daughter of Ashraf Zaher, the funeral director of Cairo’s oldest cemetery, outside the mausoleum where the family lives. Heba Khamis/nyt

As part of the celebration, the men and boys were already updating a traditional sword dance with new break-dancing moves. The women served festive couscous.

They had laid out on long tables the belongings that the bride would take to her new home, pell-mell in abundance against the austere secular tombs where she had grown up: pots and plates; a hairy red basket; a mattress made as if for the wedding night, its frilly white cover topped with a stuffed panda.

Exhumed remains of some of the ancestors of the plot owners of the oldest cemetery in Cairo. Heba Khamis/nyt

Ever since the Arabs conquered Cairo in the 7th century, Cairenes have buried their dead under the Mokattam cliffs that rise above the city’s historic center, interring politicians, poets, heroes and royalty in graves covered with marble in the middle of verdant walled gardens.

By the middle of the 20th century, the City of the Dead had also come to house the living: gravekeepers, undertakers, gravediggers and their families, as well as tens of thousands of poor Cairenes who found refuge in and among the great mausoleums.

Much of it will soon be gone.

The Egyptian government is razing large swathes of the historic cemetery, paving the way for an airlift that will connect central Cairo to the new administrative capital, the grand new seat of the Egyptian government, which President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is raising in the desert about 48 kilometers east of Cairo.

Fathy and his wife, Mona, in front of their house next to the tomb of Neshedil Qadin, wife of a 19th century Egyptian ruler. Heba Khamis/nyt

Destruction and construction are part of his campaign to modernize Egypt. But its costs are rarely mentioned.

“You see the Cairo family tree. The headstones say who was married to whom, what they did, how they died,” said Mostafa el-Sadek, an amateur historian who has documented the cemetery. “You will destroy history, you will destroy art.”

“And why?” said Seif Zulficar, whose great-aunt Queen Farida, the first wife of King Farouk of Egypt, was buried here in one of the mausoleums slated for destruction. “Are you going to have a bridge?”

Big cities always cannibalize their past to build their future, and Cairo is a notorious recycler. The medieval conqueror Saladin demolished old buildings to build his massive citadel, now one of the main landmarks of the city it overlooks.

In the 1800s, one of Egypt’s rulers removed stones from the pyramids to erect new mosques (although, when it came to pharaonic plunder, European visitors were more avid).

Cairo is also not the only metropolis to pave graveyards for public infrastructure, as New York has done to establish some of its best-known parks. But, say curators, Cairo’s City of the Dead is different: What will disappear is not just a historic monument where Egyptians still visit their ancestors and bury the newly deceased, but also a bustling neighborhood.

Parts of the cemetery have already been razed in the past two years, and some mausoleums are already rubble, their antique carved wooden doors blown away and their marble missing.

“It is against religion to remove the bones of dead people,” said Nabuweya, 50, a resident of a grave who asked that her surname not be published for fear of government reprisals. “You are not comfortable when you live. You are not comfortable even when you are dead.”

The cemetery is different from a typical Western cemetery. Each family has an enclosed plot, in which a garden of palm trees and fruit trees surrounds an airy mausoleum. The marble tombs are carved with golden Arabic calligraphy.

In the larger plots, outbuildings once housed living relatives who came on death anniversaries and major holidays to spend the night, honoring the dead with parties and charitable donations.

The tomb of Neshedil Qadin, center left, flanked by the graves of his two daughters, Princesses Nimetullah Ismail and Emina-Aziza Ismail. Heba Khamis/nyt

The rest of the year, home caretakers maintained the mausoleums. This is how Fathy, 67, who also did not want her surname to be used; his wife, Mona, 56; and their three children came to live next to the tomb of Neshedil Qadin, wife of the 19th century ruler, Khedive Ismail, considered the founder of modern Egypt.

Fathy’s father and grandfather looked after the royal mausoleum, raised their children there before passing on their jobs and homes.

After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 deposed the king and sent most of the Egyptian aristocracy to flight, the government allowed commoners to buy burial grounds inside the old family mausoleums and stopped paying to maintain the fallen down. The custom that parents spend the night has faded.

Fathy received his last paycheck from the government in 2013. But he had built a decent life for himself: by saving, the family members renovated their homes, installed electricity and running water. They were enjoying what looked like a private garden, drying their laundry on lines passing over half a dozen graves.

The government plans to move residents to furnished public housing in the desert. But, critics say, few will be able to afford the roughly $3,800 (130,000 baht) down payment or $22 monthly rent, especially after their livelihoods – jobs in the cemetery or neighborhoods shopping nearby – disappear with the graves.

The dead also will go to the desert. The government offered new burial grounds to families south of Cairo, uniform brick mausoleums much smaller than the originals. They are free, although families must pay for the transfer.

Fathy’s parents were buried near Neshedil’s tomb. But he was worried about where the princess, as he called her, would go. “My grandfather, my father and I have all spent our lives here with her,” he said.

Vendors prepare wares for a market in Cairo’s oldest cemetery in the City of the Dead, which has long been home to a vibrant community. Heba Khamis/nyt

Egyptian officials have weighed the destruction of the cemetery and the displacement of its inhabitants into the desert for years, partly to modernize the city and improve living standards, partly, critics have charged, because private developers were eyeing the ground on which he sat.

In the early 1980s, Galila el-Kadi, an architect who studied the cemetery for decades, found about 179,000 residents, the last known count. She said many more moved in after Egypt’s 2011 revolution, when a power vacuum relaxed the security forces.

“They never dealt with the relationship between the city of the living and the city of the dead,” Ms el-Kadi said of the officials. “It was embarrassing for the government. And in Egypt, when there is a problem that seems unsolvable or very difficult to solve, the solution is simply to remove it.”

The mausoleums listed as monuments will be preserved, according to Khaled el-Husseiny, spokesman for Administrative Capital for Urban Development, the government corporation developing the new capital.

Tombs of the City of the Dead, home to the oldest cemetery in Cairo. Heba Khamis/nyt

Other graves to be spared include that of a relative of Mr el-Sissi, according to the Tories, who said the government’s plans for the cemetery had changed to avoid razing his relative’s grave.

But only a small portion of the total has the historic designation, which will leave them isolated islands between new construction, the conservationists said.

Mr. Zaher, the funeral director, moves to the new cemetery with the displaced dead. He wastes no time in nostalgia. Many cemetery residents are happy to leave shabby makeshift homes for new apartments, he said.

“Instead of living in a cemetery,” Mr. Zaher said with a shrug, “they will be able to live in an apartment.”

Comments are closed.