Cairo: Facing a Future Without a Past

Published on 19.07.2023
Reading time: 8 minutes

In an attempt to modernize and solve the city’s notorious traffic issues, Cairo is in the grip of a building boom, in which there seems little space for the ancient tombs that make up the City of the Dead.

The paradox is evident when you see the tombstones. Carved to immortalize the names of their owners, they have been crushed and leveled by a bulldozer. In his book Batn al-Baqara – the name of a Cairo slum – Khairy Shalaby talks about his experience seeing the demolition process in the great Mamluk graveyard (Qarafa).  

“I was destined to witness an unforgettable experience, which  was the construction of the highway,” he writes. “The bulldozers mercilessly cut through the heart of the cemeteries, with brutal plows plunging into the soil tossing the bones of the dead to both sides, after which the gravel spreader came and leveled the ground.”

The historic Cairo district of Al-Sayyida Aisha boasts a bustling square, always crowded with people and all kinds of  new and used merchandise. On the outskirts, there is a huge urban revolution going on, characterized by sweeping changes rapidly following one another. 

If you do not visit the area for three consecutive days, you may be surprised on the 4th day by the tremendous changes. Demolition and construction go hand in hand. A dome that once reached for the sky disappears unnoticed, its crescent barely noticeable leveled with the ground.  

An old minaret was demolished and disappeared from the scene under the pretext of re-erecting it in a more suitable place. Families that lived here for years move to places they do not know anything about.

What is Going On?

The problem with knowing what is actually going on is the general lack of information. People rarely know what is happening. 

Which graveyards will be removed? And which will remain? What is the difference between a registered monument with apparent immunity and an unregistered one, which is to be removed? How to distinguish one area from another? Why specifically this area? And then someone might ask: “Where is the right of the deceased to a peaceful afterlife?”

Despite the simplicity of these questions, the answers are difficult to answer in currentday Cairo. 

Cairo is home to Al-Qarafa (the graveyard). This is originally a reference to Bani Qarafa, the Arab tribe that inhabited the region when the Arabs entered Egypt. Yet today the term refers to the cemeteries of only Cairo, not any other cities of Egypt or the world. 

The Qarafas of Cairo vary. There is the cemetery of al-Ghafir (Turb al-Ghafir) and the Mamluk Qarafa, both located to the left of Salah Salem Street heading towards the citadel. There is the Qarafa of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, located south of the citadel and named after the mausoleum of Sheikh Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti. 

There is the Qarafa of al-Imamin and the Qarafa of al-Imam al-Shafi’i that surrounds it. There are the Qarafa of al-Sayyida Nafisa, Qarafa of al-Basatin, and Qarafa of al-Ibajiah. All these graveyards have clear signs and indications, and are associated with people one way or another.

People often have a strong attachment to shrines and domes. A sign of such  attachment is that they wish to be buried alongside their loved ones and righteous men (saints). 

The aristocracy in Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries preferred to establish their tombs and mausoleums there. It is considered fortunate to secure a place next to a famous saint, such as Al-Shafi’i, Al-Layth ibn Saad, or descendant of the Prophet Sayyida Nafisa.

Roads, Roads, Roads 

The story of demolition began in 2020, when the tombs of Turb al-Ghafir, located on the Salah Salem Road in the Darrasa district, were demolished to complete the Firdous Axis project, which aims to link historic Cairo with New Cairo. 

What many people objected to is that the area falls within the scope of the northern Mamluk tombs, an area full of khanqahs and domes built by the sultans of Cairo in over seven centuries. It is a region full of history, architecture and art.

One glimpse as you pass Salah Salem Road suffices for you to understand the meaning of that last sentence. While a month is not enough to explore the region’s richness.

The demolition works were to affect only modern tombs, according to the government. The word “modern” here means what has come about less than 100 years ago. 

But the teeth of the bulldozer proved stronger than the tongues of the objectors. They crushed several tombs built in the 19th and early 20th century to establish the Firdous highway. 

Ever since, Cairo does not rest. A new axis is being built here, and a new bridge there. The state considers that developing the area of Lake Ain al-Sira requires the complete elimination of tombs, preserving only the antiquities registered by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, to attract visitors to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC).

For the construction of the axis to the NMEC hundreds of tombs in the Qarafa of Imam al-Shafi’i near Lake Ain al-Sira were removed. The tomb of the Tabataba family, the only one remaining of the 10th century Ikhshidid era, was relocated. 

Construction of the axis will not be complete until it is connected to Autostrad, for which the Museum of Civilization Bridge had to be constructed. Along its path, a significant number of private and heritage tombs were displaced. 

As for the Mokattam district, the al-Ibajiyya bridge was built, separating the tombs of al-Ibajiyya, al-Basatin, and Imam al-Shafi’i. Then the Yasser Rizk axis was built, which penetrates the area of the al-Ibajiyya tombs passing over the tomb of the dean of Arabic literature Taha Hussein.

What Future Ahead?

Project maps show that Al-Sayyida Aisha Square will be made wider than it is now, as the garden will be removed. The Arab al-Yassar area will be eliminated, which is currently being done. The Mamluk artifacts located near the Qarafa of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti will be relocated, while the Sayyidah Aisha bridge will be removed.

The Al-Sayyida Aisha Square will have six connecting roads, four of which already exist, while the other two will be built behind the Al-Sayyida Aisha Mosque leading to the al-Sayyida Nafisa Mosque. All the graves surrounding the latter will be removed. 

As for the second road, it will affect the front part of the Qarafa of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti extending to al-Ibajiyya Bridge. The intersection in the Al-Basateen area will be disastrous, as it results in the removal of a very large number of graves due to four complete rotations in that area.

As for the tombs of Imam al-Shafi’i, a Daraj visit to the area learnt that signs were placed on the tombs and graveyards meant for removal. A road will be constructed, which cuts through the cemetery in the middle of Qadiriya Street in order to connect the Salah Salem Road extending from Al-Sayyida Aisha Square to the Ibajiyya Bridge. 

The process can be described as a violation of Cairo’s urban fabric, as it will totally isolate certain areas from others, without considering the streets connecting them. 

What is the Problem?

To approach archaeological areas in Cairo as independent units without considering the urban fabric is the main problem. Cairo was created with one urban fabric and a single architectural cohesion. The Qarafa is an integral part of this fabric. It is a natural extension of the city.

Throughout its history, al-Qarafa offered a space for people and their walks. In addition to being a place for hundreds of families that work in burying the dead and maintaining the graveyards. Building a network of roads is tearing apart the ancient character of al-Qarafa.

Al-Qarafa has long been associated with certain rituals and traditions practiced by Egyptians for over a thousand years.  For example, the people of Qarafa have “the path of visitation,” which starts from the Sayyidah Zainab Mosque and ends at Imam al-Layth ibn Saad leading along numerous  imams and saints along the way, including Sayyidah Nafisa, and Imam Al-Shafi’i. 

Dozens of books have been written, explaining the many sites in the thriving Qarafa of Cairo. Yet, the bond that connected the entire Qarafa has now been severed. It is no longer valid. 

In the past, Salah Salem Street severed the link between the Qarafa of al-Sayyida Nafisa and the Qarafa of Imam al-Shafi’i. They became two, although in the past they were one Qarafa of one architectural nature. 

Now, the Civilization Axis has caused another isolation, as the Qarafa of Imam al-Layth ibn Saad is now separated from the one of Imam al-Shafi’i. The two imams were isolated from one another. There is no longer a special path for people to walk, while due to the height of the bridge, the shrine of al-Layth has become a marginal building. 

Other Solutions?

In the 1950s, the US started constructing long and extensive road networks within major cities to relieve traffic congestion. In the 1980s, however, cities such as Boston noticed that roads do not solve a traffic crisis, but only increase the use of cars. 

The solution was to develop and support public transport systems to make movement in the city more effective. Cities have since begun to remove bridges and roads and replace them with public transport. This is what Cairo really needs. 

Urban researcher Amr Essam has presented an alternative to all the roads and bridges, which are impractical to construct and do not effectively solve the problem. He suggested constructing a tram line within historic Cairo. Such a project would preserve the urban fabric and offer a real solution to the problem of traffic congestion.

Everywhere in the world people are looking to provide more effective and sustainable solutions to address urban traffic problems not only by supporting public transport but also by encouraging walking and cycling.

In Cairo, the authorities have been trying to compensate for the lack of public transport since the 1970s. Still, the city today relies on public buses for only 2%, while private microbuses make up 14%. Both percentages are very low and not sufficient to solve the capital’s very serious traffic issues.

Published on 19.07.2023
Reading time: 8 minutes

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