Demolitions at Cairo’s Al Qarafa cemetery come with high human and cultural cost

Despite a public outcry and political action, demolitions of some of Cairo's oldest tombs are still under way

Tombs at Cairo's City of the Dead, where a government project to build a network of roads is bulldozing many tombs, some 1,000 years old. Kamal Tabikha / The National
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Cairo’s City of the Dead, its largest cemetery and a Unesco heritage site also known as Al Qarafa, is overrun by excavators that are demolishing thousands of graves, some of which date back more than 1,000 years.

The demolitions are part of a development project in the city’s historic quarter where its most prominent Islamic, Coptic and Jewish relics are located.

A network of roads and flyovers will be built there, allowing tourists easy access to the historic sites in an effort to drum-up more revenue for the state.

So far, the project has been condemned by many of Egypt’s most prominent figures. On Thursday, the head of a government committee responsible for deciding which structures in the area are too valuable to destroy resigned.

In light of the demolishing of important heritage sites in the area that possess architectural, urban and historical value, I submit my resignation
Ayman Wanas, former government committee head

In a letter to Cairo Governor Khaled Abdel Aal, Ayman Wanas, the head of the recently convened committee, said efforts have proven insufficient when it came to mitigating the destruction of culturally significant buildings in the area.

“In light of the demolishing of important heritage sites in the area that possess architectural, urban and historical value, I submit my resignation,” Mr Wanas wrote.

“What is happening is not merely a destruction of graves that possess a great deal of heritage and historical value that has been recognised internationally, it is a destruction of Egypt’s cultural and historical attributes.”

Mr Wanas is not the first to decry the destruction of the many graves at The City of the Dead.

Dozens of cessation requests were officially submitted to Parliament, most notably by MPs Fatima Selim and Maha Abdel Nasser.

In a formal request submitted to Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly in July, Ms Selim said that to create a network of flyovers in an area that “predates the building of Cairo by three centuries” was abject destruction of a story that goes back more than 1,000 years.

However, such requests have to be approved by Parliament before they are allowed to go into effect and since the house has been on a summer recess since mid-July (until October), they have fallen on deaf ears.

Despite objections, bulldozers continued to flatten entire blocks of graves in the Al Qarafa on Thursday as residents looked on, some in acceptance, others in anger.

For them, the demolitions are having a bigger impact on life.

“What everyone is talking about is how this project is impacting the area’s cultural significance or the country’s history, but no one is talking about how it’s going to affect me and my community. Many of us who live here have nowhere to go,” Hadeer, 29, a resident of the area, told The National.

She is one of thousands, by her estimate, who live in the area alongside the tombs. Many of the tombs consist of several rooms where family members are buried and a small open courtyard where people like Hadeer live.

Al Qarafa’s living residents are some of Egypt’s poorest people. Many cannot afford to live anywhere else, particularly now when the country’s inflation rate is at an all-time high and expected to continue rising.

“I was married, but it didn’t work out and suddenly I found myself with three children, no husband and nowhere to live,” Hadeer said.

“I was told by a friend that there are brokers who offer housing in Al Qarafa for very low prices. I met with him, he worked for a number of prominent families who have loved ones buried here and he watches over many tombs.

“He said he would give me one to live in for a one-time payment of 5000 pounds ($162) and then 700 ($23) a month for as long as I was there.”

Tenancies like Hadeer’s are almost always not approved by the families who own the tomb. The families usually pay monthly fees to guardians in the area who clean the cemeteries and water their plants, in addition to other maintenance jobs.

The men who guard the tombs for the often wealthy families offer them as housing to those in need.

“I don’t think that what we’re doing is wrong because many of these families don’t need anything and are very well off," Hadeer said.

"Many don’t even come to visit their loved ones except once every few years. So, we live in the tombs and we take care of them and help keep them up and there is no harm done."

Perhaps some of the strongest condemnation that has been directed at the government since the announcement of the development project four years ago was over the destruction of tombs where intellectuals, writers and statesmen are buried.

The remains of Queen Farida, the wife of Egypt’s last monarch, Farouk I, were disinterred and transferred to a royal cemetery in Al Qarafa, where the majority of the founder of modern Egypt Mohamed Ali’s family are also buried.

The transfer was the result of a months-long conversation between the government and Farida’s descendants, who were surprised to learn the planning of her tomb's demolition.

Had the family not moved to stop the demolition, it most probably would not have been spared, a family member told The National.

Families are normally notified by the guards of their tombs when one is scheduled for demolition. Some choose to move their loved one's remains to other viable cemeteries in Cairo, while others do nothing and let the demolition take its course, Hadeer said.

Last September, the tomb of Taha Hussein, one of Egypt’s most well-known 20th century writers, was scheduled for demolition and painted with the customary red “X”.

Following an outcry on social media led by the author’s granddaughter Maha Aon, the tomb was spared.

On Tuesday, Mr Aal issued a statement denying that the tombs of Imam Warsh, an eighth century Quran reciter buried at Al Qarafa, and Ahmed Shawky, known as the Prince of Poets, were to be demolished.

The statement came a week after a social media campaign said that a number of Jewish heritage sites in Egypt were renovated recently while Islamic sites were being demolished.

In June, following repeated objections over the project, the government announced that a new cemetery would be built to house the remains of well-known Egyptians whose tombs would have to be demolished for the road project.

The location of the cemetery was not announced, although a name was chosen for it: The Cemetery of the Immortals.

The government also said that a museum highlighting the works of the “immortals” buried at the new cemetery would be built on the site.

The fact that the government only spared the tombs of those who had the means to contest the demolitions was not lost on Hadeer, who said that she feels helpless to stop her imminent eviction.

“In my area, they will destroy many of the tombs where normal people live, but they will spare the pasha’s cemetery. I am not a pasha (a person with high status) nor has anyone in my family ever been a pasha so we will leave and find our luck somewhere else.” Hadeer said.

Updated: September 03, 2023, 11:49 AM