Romeo was a loving and generous soul, and a perfect companion. Or so say the words engraved on his tombstone.
“I will never love anyone the way I love you. I will always have you in my heart until I die,” the inscription says.
It is only one epitaph in a sea of similarly moving tributes to lost loyalty and love in the only known pet cemetery in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
It is a leafy area about the size of a basketball court and is dotted with palm trees. The site is almost completely hidden from view by a wall and a hedge that run along the side of a golf course.
Hundreds of pets, mostly dogs such as Romeo, are buried in the cemetery at the upmarket Gezira Sporting Club, founded about 140 years ago on the Nile island of Zamalek.
Some of the concrete graves have been painted green and blend into the lush surroundings. Many are marked by marble headstones with tributes carved into them, or are adorned with brass plaques that carry the heartfelt words of pet owners.
But space between the diminutive plots is limited and demand from pet owners has led to overcrowding, with some graves encroaching on the grounds of the golf course.
“We dig wherever we can find space, no matter how small, for new arrivals,” said Abdel-Fatah Rabia, 40, who took over as caretaker at the cemetery two months ago.
“We make sure we don’t dispose of old remains and replace them with newly deceased dogs or cats because of the space problem. We dig deep now, so each spot can take more than just one animal."
The cemetery is one of the curiosities of Cairo, a bustling city of more than 20 million people where chic and squalor are never far apart.
The site is not a landmark similar to the Pyramids at Giza or medieval markets. But the cemetery is special because it highlights a variety of contemporary socio-economic issues that help to explain Cairo’s complex dynamics.
Owning a pet is beyond the means of many people in Egypt, let alone paying for a secluded burial plot for the family's furry friend.
The cemetery in Cairo can only be used by Gezira Club members, an odd mix of what remains of the country’s old aristocracy, families of retired generals and senior government officials, as well as the nouveau riche.
“I was shocked when I first heard that there’s a place especially set aside for dogs and cats to be buried,” said taxi driver Mohammed Khalil as he drove past Gezira Club.
“We struggle to buy a tiny plot of land to bury family and loved ones. When we do, it is far outside the city in the desert. We all think some people have it all, now I am thinking their dogs and cats do too.”
But the exclusivity of the cemetery and the overall cost of owning a pet does not mean that only those with deep pockets love animals. Many Egyptians show compassion for the estimated 15 million stray dogs and many more stray cats that roam the cities.
Some people go out of their way to feed stray animals and leave water for them during the punishing summer months.
Several animal protection groups have established social media accounts in recent years. There are also some initiatives to catch, vaccinate and neuter stray dogs.
It speaks to how Egyptian attitudes are changing towards dogs, which were not traditionally thought of as an acceptable household pet.
An ageing apartment building in Abdeen, a crowded, middle-class district in central Cairo, is an example of how some of the city's residents care for strays.
Many tenants leave food out, but others go further. When a cat gives birth, it is not unusual to find someone has put out a shoebox to shelter the mother and her litter. In winter, the box will usually be lined with an old towel.
“I love the cats in our building and how they take our kindness for granted,” said Ibtisam Ahmed, a retired civil servant.
“When I forget to leave them food outside my door, they come and meow incessantly until I do. Believe me, they would ring the doorbell if they could.”
This affection for animals has led to an increase in pet shops and dog shelters, and created a booming grooming industry.
And there is the cemetery, which offers evidence of the privileged lives of pets and their owners.
Tombstones are marked by brief eulogies written in Arabic, as well as English and French. Many of the pets’ names also show foreign influences – there are graves for Danny, Bugsy, Samantha, Sweetie, Dolly, Funny and Sushi.
But the epitaphs are also a potent symbol of the universal affection people have for their pets.
Here are a few:
- "Caramel, you have given me love without expecting anything in return; you helped me get through the most difficult of days. My love and companion.”
- “You’ve left paw prints in our hearts. Thanks for sharing your life with me.”
- “Google, if love could have saved you, you’ll have lived for ever.”
- “Mighty Zeus, we love you.”