Demolishing City of the Dead Will Displace a Lively Quarter of Cairo

CAIRO — Whoever was being buried in Cairo’s oldest working cemetery on a recent afternoon had been of some consequence. Glossy S.U.V.s crammed the dusty lanes around an antique mausoleum draped in black and gold; designer sunglasses hid the mourners’ tears.

The cemetery’s chief undertaker, Ashraf Zaher, 48, paused to survey the funeral, another job done. But he didn’t stop for long. Just down the lane, his daughter was about to get married. Hundreds of his neighbors, who like him also live in the cemetery, were gathering outside his home, a few mausoleums away.

As part of the celebration, men and boys were already updating a traditional sword dance with new break-dance moves. Women were serving celebratory couscous. They had set out on long tables the belongings the bride would take to her new home, a jumble of abundance against the austere centuries-old tombs where she had grown up: pots and plates; a furry red basket; a mattress made up as if for the wedding night, its frilly white coverlet topped with a stuffed panda.

Since the Arabs conquered Cairo in the seventh century, Cairenes have been burying their dead beneath the Mokattam cliffs that rise over the city’s historic core, interring politicians, poets, heroes and royalty in marble-clad tombs set amid verdant walled gardens.

By the mid-20th century, the City of the Dead had also come to house the living: tomb caretakers, morticians, gravediggers and their families, along with tens of thousands of poor Cairenes who found shelter in and among the grand mausoleums.

Much of it will soon be gone.

The Egyptian government is razing large swaths of the historic cemetery, clearing the way for a flyover bridge that will link central Cairo to the New Administrative Capital, Egypt’s grandiose new seat of government, which President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is raising in the desert about 28 miles east of Cairo. The destruction and construction is part of his campaign to modernize Egypt. But its costs are rarely mentioned.

“You’re seeing Cairo’s family tree. The gravestones say who was married to whom, what they did, how they died,” said Mostafa el-Sadek, an amateur historian who has documented the cemetery. “You’re going to destroy history, you’re going to destroy art.”

“And for what?” said Seif Zulficar, whose great-aunt, Queen Farida, the first wife of King Farouk of Egypt, was buried here in one of the mausoleums scheduled for destruction. “You’re going to have a bridge?”

Great cities are always cannibalizing their pasts to build their futures, and Cairo is a notorious recycler. The medieval conqueror Saladin tore down ancient buildings to construct his massive citadel, now one of the chief landmarks of the city it overlooks. In the 1800s, one of Egypt’s rulers pried stones off the pyramids to erect new mosques (though, as far as pharaonic plunder goes, European visitors were greedier).

Nor is Cairo the only metropolis to pave over graveyards for public infrastructure, as New York did to establish some of its best-known parks. But, preservationists say, Cairo’s City of the Dead is different: What will disappear is not only a historical monument where Egyptians still visit their ancestors and bury the newly deceased, but also a lively neighborhood.

Parts of the cemetery have already been razed over the last two years, and some mausoleums are already little more than rubble, their carved antique wooden doors carted away and their marble gone.

“It’s against religion to remove the bones of dead people,” said Nabuweya, 50, a tomb dweller who asked that her last name not be published for fear of government reprisal. “You’re not at ease when you’re living. You’re not at ease even when you’re dead.”

The cemetery is unlike a typical Western one. Each family has a walled plot, in which a garden of palms and fruit trees surrounds an airy mausoleum. Marble tombs are carved with gilded Arabic calligraphy. In the bigger plots, outbuildings once hosted living relatives who came on death anniversaries and major holidays to spend the night, honoring the dead with feasts and charity handouts.

The rest of the year, live-in caretakers maintained the mausoleums. That was how Fathy, 67, who also did not want his last name used, his wife, Mona, 56, and their three children came to live next to the tomb of Neshedil Qadin, a consort to the 19th-century ruler Khedive Ismail, considered modern Egypt’s founder. Fathy’s father and grandfather looked after the royal mausoleum, raising their children there before passing down their jobs and homes.

After the 1952 Egyptian revolution deposed the king and sent most of the Egyptian aristocracy fleeing, the government allowed commoners to buy burial plots inside the old family mausoleums and stopped paying to maintain the tombs. The custom of relatives staying overnight faded.

Fathy drew his last government paycheck in 2013. But he had built a decent life: Saving up, the family renovated their quarters, installing electricity and running water. They enjoyed what amounted to a private garden, drying their laundry on lines running over half a dozen graves.

The government plans to move residents to furnished public housing in the desert. But, critics say, few will have the means to cover the roughly $3,800 down payment or the $22 monthly rent, especially after their livelihoods — jobs in the cemetery or commercial districts nearby — disappear along with the graves.

The dead, too, will go to the desert. The government has offered new grave plots to families south of Cairo, uniform brick mausoleums much smaller than the originals. They are free, though families must pay for the transfer.

Fathy’s parents were buried near Neshedil’s tomb. But he was concerned about where the princess, as he called her, would go. “My grandfather and my father and me all spent our lives living here with her,” he said.

Egyptian officials have weighed destroying the cemetery and moving its inhabitants to the desert for years, partly to modernize the city and improve living standards, partly, critics charged, because private developers were eyeing the land it sat on.

In the early 1980s, Galila el-Kadi, an architect who has studied the cemetery for decades, found about 179,000 residents, the last known count. She said many more moved in after Egypt’s 2011 revolution, when a power vacuum loosened security enforcement.

“They have never dealt with the relationship between the city of the living and the city of the dead,” Ms. el-Kadi said of the officials. “It was an embarrassment for the government. And in Egypt, when there’s a problem that seems unsolvable, or very hard to solve, the solution is to just delete it.”

The mausoleums registered as landmarks will be preserved, according to Khaled el-Husseiny, a spokesman for Administrative Capital for Urban Development, the government-run company developing the new capital. Other tombs to be spared include that of a relative of Mr. el-Sisi, according to preservationists, who said that the government’s plans for the cemetery had changed to avoid razing his relative’s grave.

But only a small portion of the total have the landmark designation, which will leave them isolated islands between new construction, preservationists said.

Mr. Zaher, the chief undertaker, is moving to the new cemetery along with the displaced dead. He is not wasting time on nostalgia. There are many cemetery residents happy to be leaving shabby make-do homes for new apartments, he said.

“Instead of living in a graveyard,” said Mr. Zaher, shrugging, “they’ll get to live in an apartment.”

He said the new flyover would also ease traffic, though it was unclear whether this should matter to people who are largely carless and rarely travel beyond the neighborhood.

Many officials do not appear to realize what the new bridge will replace.

While leading a tour of the new capital, Ahmad el-Helaly, a development company official, was troubled to learn that Queen Farida had been disinterred, her remains moved to a nearby mosque by special government permission. Mr. el-Helaly had named his baby daughter after the queen.

It was sad, he said. But after a moment, he shook it off.

“What can I say?” he said. “Cairo is too overcrowded. We have to do something to regain the glory of ancient Cairo, to restore the beauty of ancient Cairo.”

So much for the old. Then it was back to the tour, and the new.

Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.

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