Grave danger: Controversy over the Egyptian government’s plan to demolish historic cemeteries in Cairo – Special heritage – Heritage
It was a full house last Saturday, during the seminar and photo exhibition entitled Contemporary Architecture of Cemeteries in Egypt, Value and Challenges. The event was organized by the Cairo Historical Cemeteries Safeguarding Group which was launched a few months ago as a reaction to the government’s plan to relocate some of Cairo’s cemeteries as part of the capital’s road development.
The government’s plan has been strongly contested in the media by the families of the cemeteries in question as well as by historians who believe that the cemeteries are an integral part of the tangible and intangible heritage of Egypt. Ahead of the seminar, the Cairo Historical Cemeteries Safeguarding Group launched an online petition calling on Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi to intervene.
Held at the Greater Cairo Public Library, the seminar was moderated by one of the organizers of the event, Professor Galila El-Kadi, architect and research director at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) in Paris. . El-Kadi is co-author of Architecture for the Dead: Cairo’s Medieval Necropolis
The cultural value
“What the ancient Egyptians left us were tombs, and it was from these tombs that we learned our ancient history. So if each ruler demolished the cemeteries of the one who preceded him, all the The history of ancient Egypt would not have existed, as if it had never existed, we would have known nothing of them,” El-Kadi said, explaining the immense importance of Cairo Historical Cemeteries. She added that they reflect a rich and diverse plateau of architectural styles depending on the culture and social class of the people buried there. And they all have an open inner courtyard. “The house is built with stones in order to challenge the time and live,” she added.
“And because of all these values, UNESCO put Cairo Cemeteries in 1979 on the list of World Heritage Sites since it is already within the premises of Historic Cairo. The National Organization for Urban Harmony, when it was established in 2002, focused on cemeteries and started registering some of them as places of unique architectural style,” she added, explaining that she is also protected by Egyptian laws. And despite all these laws, cemeteries have suffered from neglect over the decades.
According to El-Kadi, since Greater Cairo’s first urban plan in 1956, there has been no plan to regulate the relationship between the city of the dead and that of the living, apart from the 2050 plan which aims to demolish the city of the quite dead. She recalled how the Fardous (sky) axis last year crossed Mamluk cemeteries from east to west, demolishing saved homes in the process.
“It is a personal family heritage that has become a human heritage, it is not just a burial place,” El-Kadi concluded, noting that the planned new axis in the historic cemeteries in the south would demolish the cemeteries of Egyptian cultural icons.
“General well-being is important and heritage preservation is also general well-being, we can always respond to both,” she concluded.
“Historical Cemeteries, A Timeline of Egyptian Capitals”
According to Professor of Antiquities Hossam Ismail at Ain Shams University, the historic cemeteries in Cairo are more of a settlement trail of modern Egypt from the time of Amr Ibn Al A’as until now.
The choice of this particular area, at the bottom of the Moqattam mountain, dates back to the negotiations of Amr Ibn Al A’as for the handing over of Egypt to the Byzantine ruler Al Moqawqes. “The story goes that Al Moqawqes wanted to keep Al Moqattam mountain because of its religious value, but Amr Ibn Al A’as refused. It is said that when God chose a mountain on which he will reveal himself, all the other mountains donated plants and flowers as a sign to the chosen mountain. With the exception of Al Moqattam, it has donated all of its greenery. So God rewarded the Moqattam by making it the burial place of those who will go to paradise,” Ismail explained.
And from that time when Amr Ibn Al A’as built the Egyptian capital Al Fustat, he started to bury in that area where many Sahabis (disciples) are buried like Oqba Ibn Amer.
During the reign of the Abbasids, when they built their new capital, The Askar, they extended their cemeteries to the region of Imam Al-Shafii and al Saida Nafisa. During the reign of the Mamluks, the cemeteries reached the Saida Eisha square and were named the cemeteries of Qayed Bay, the eastern arafa or arafet al-Mamalik.
The origin of the name Arafa
The name Arafa, added Ismail, is synonymous with cemeteries only in Cairo, as it is derived from Beni Qarafa, pronounced Arafa in Egyptian slang, one of the first Arab tribes that settled in Cairo during the reign of Amr ibn Al ‘as and place their burial there.
A Symbol of Continuing Legacy
Thanks to her talent for the lens and her research skills, Alia Nassar, architect and photographer, shared some highlights of her Al Arafa documentation project.
“Arafa is a symbol of continued heritage, as Arafa has social values that stretch from the ancient Egyptians to the present day,” Nassar noted, pointing out the similarities between the two. “Eternity House was literally a home and a place to live like their own homes. They wrote their names and titles like we do on our tombstones, for the ancient Egyptians the name is part of the soul and erasing the name means it never existed.
Communication between the dead and the living
“The concept of ‘offerings’ in the form of food and drink in ancient Egypt was a means of communication with their dead. They also brought them blue lotus flowers. They believed that the dead could protect them from all evil spirits,” Nassar explained, noting that the food they receive is ultimately distributed to the poor, which is exactly what Egyptians do these days when they come visit loved ones in cemeteries. . They would buy flowers, bring food to distribute to the poor and spend the whole day there spreading flowers and happy memories of the sick, she added.
“Then after celebrating their illness, they would break an ‘olla’ (pottery drinking pot) after that so that death wouldn’t come again, like we do when someone terrible finally leaves, as a sign of good riddance” , Nassar added.
“And finally, the ancient Egyptians used to write letters to their dead and we still do, like these letters to Sufi Imam Al Shafaii and the Walli they believed to live in Bab Zoweila,” said she concluded.
A wide open history book
“I think cemeteries are a field history book, you can learn and love your country from all the history of the people who came before,” explained Dr. Mostafa El-Sadek, a physician and the one of the experts who documented the Historic Cemeteries of Cairo.
“I believe that the tombstone is a person’s identity card. You will find an emma (head turban) or a tarbouch (Fez) and braids for women. Some would shoot their medals of honor, here the flowers decorating the graves are hand engraved on marbles which is very unique and artistic considering there were no machines at the time to do it, come on see how much we will lose if we tear it down,” El-Sadek concluded.
An alternative route
“We have created an online map of historical cemeteries in Cairo on Google and anyone can add to it. So we have documentation with photographs and maps of valuable cemeteries,” explained Tareq Al-Murry, historian, architect backup consultant and founder. of the group of historic cemeteries in Cairo. Al Murry shared with the public an alternative axis that could ease traffic without demolishing cemeteries. This was followed by a comprehensive strategy for Egyptian public transport proposed by the young engineer Amr Essam.
The interrupted man!
“My name is Hany al-Fekki. I am the one who designed and built the Fardou Axis and the Salah Salem Axis and all the bridges in Heliopolis and Nasr City,” explained the man in black who surprised the audience because he was not guest.
After briefly explaining that he would not touch any “historic” tombs, an argument ensued between him and the panel because all tombs in Historic Cairo are by default considered historic and of great value and should not be demolished in accordance to UNESCO 1979 and national standards. laws.
El Fekki explained that the plan of the new axis of Salah Salem and how the road will extend to Al Saida Eisha area, take off the Saida Eisha bridge and cut into the slum behind the Saida Eisha mosque.
“Political leaders said they wanted to do construction sites for Al Al Beit (Death of the Prophet Muhammad) mosques like Al Hussien’s construction site, and that’s what we started doing,” El Fekki noted. .
The public has argued that this axis will allow more cars next to historic cemeteries, which will cause a lot of turbulence and gas emissions that could eventually ruin the historic cemeteries they drive past.
By asking him directly, will cemeteries in general be affected by the new Salah Salem axis?
“Yes and in the future all cemeteries are going to be demolished except historical cemeteries,” he told Ahram Online.