It was two days after bulldozers demolished Ablaa Zein El Abdeen’s family tomb in mid-June when the 72-year-old widow learnt what happened to the remains of family members buried in Cairo’s storied City of the Dead.
Relatives broke the news to her, saying they had to act fast to save the remains of their loved ones before they were lost forever. Instead, a new motorway and an overpass will replace the graves of hundreds.
“I was outraged,” said Mrs Zein El Abdeen, who had members of both sides of her family buried in the City of the Dead, for centuries Cairo’s main burial ground in the desert on the eastern edge of the capital.
“I could’ve never imagined that one day someone would remove my family’s remains."
The mother of two is not alone in her predicament.
Dozens of families with loved ones buried in the area have been shocked and angered in recent weeks that their burial plots had to make way for developments to ease traffic and cut travel time to suburbs east of Cairo. The Egyptian capital is among the fastest-growing cities in the Arab world and needs infrastructure upgrades to tackle heavy traffic congestion.
The government says that none of the demolitions touched sites listed as historical. Families, according to antiquities and urban planning officials, were given adequate notice to remove the remains of relatives before the bulldozers moved in, and alternative burial plots were offered in several satellite cities around Cairo.
The head of the Ministry of Antiquities’ Islamic, Coptic and Jewish sector, Osama Talaat, denied that the demolitions in the City of the Dead included the historic Mamluks Necropolis as claimed by critics. The demolished tombs, he said, belonged to the modern era and dated back to the 1930s.
“None of the tombs demolished were listed as Islamic or Coptic historical sites. They are modern tombs that belong to [ordinary] individuals,” Mr Talaat said in a statement.
The area’s architectural integrity, however, has been recognised by Unesco and included on its World Heritage List, deeming it one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities.
“The process is simple. We get word from authorities letting us know that demolitions will be happening soon and then we call the families to tell them,” said Shaymaa Mohmmed, who stands in for her husband, a graveyard guardian, while he is away on his day job.
“It could be a one-day or month-long notice.”
Mrs Zein El Abdeen said she was unaware of the demolitions until she found out from relatives. By then, her mother’s grave was disturbed but she and her family were eventually able to find her remains and relocate them elsewhere.
Cairo’s City of the Dead is roughly divided into two sections. The Northern cemetery stretches for about three kilometres and was used by the sultans and nobles of the Mamluk era between the 13th and the 16th centuries. The Southern Cemetery, also known as the Qarafa, is the older one, dating back to the 8th century and still in use today.
The City of the Dead is architecturally unique and is home to the final resting places of prominent Egyptians ranging from historical figures and senior aristocrats to former prime ministers.
The Mamluk mausoleums in the area, for example, house the tombs of sultans. King Farouq, Egypt’s last monarch, famous actor and singer Farid Al Atrash, a heart-throb in the 1940s and 1950s, and pioneering banker Talaat Harb are all buried here.
The demolitions in the Northern Cemetery are to make room for an expressway called Al Fardous, or Paradise. Mahmoud Nassar, head of the urban planning agency, said that these were carried out along a 300-metre stretch with tombs removed on either side of the under-construction expressway up to eight metres deep.
It is not the first time that tombs in the City of the Dead have been demolished to make way for urban development, according to Cairo University’s Islamic history professor Mukhtar El Kasbany. The last time, he said, was in 1956 to build a highway named after Salah Salem, one of the officers who staged the 1952 coup that toppled the monarch.
“There are plans under way to turn the Mamluk tombs into a tourist site,” he said.
The demolitions in the Southern Cemetery were to make way for the flyover.
But when news of the demolitions first surfaced on social media, with images of bulldozers bringing down walls surrounding graveyards, mausoleums and ornate arches, many were quick to criticise authorities for obliterating an integral and important part of the urban fabric of Cairo, now a city of 20 million people.
The government’s drive to ease Cairo’s nightmare traffic, they contend, has been pursued at too high a cost. They cite the leafy suburb of Heliopolis as among that drive’s victims.
The neighbourhood has had dozens of its trees cut down and greenery uprooted to make way for flyovers intended to speed up the journey to eastern suburbs and the new capital being built in the desert farther east.
Elsewhere in the city, a bridge is being so close to residential high-rises that it can be touched from upper-storey windows.
Ironically, the City of the Dead has been inhabited for centuries. It now attracts the city’s poor and new arrivals from rural areas who live inside the walled graveyards. The area is now connected to the city’s water and electricity grids, turning it into the closest thing to a regular neighbourhood.
Afaf Abdel Nabi is one of those residents. She was born and raised in the City of the Dead, where she started her own family. They have also fallen victim to the demolitions.
When The National spoke to her, she said she had received an eviction notice two weeks earlier.
“For the past two days I’ve been relocating all my furniture and trying to find somewhere to store them so they’re not stolen,” she said.