City of the Dead in Cairo, Egypt

City of the Dead

by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

One of Cairo's Cities of the dead

Like Naema Zaki and her five children have been forced to make the cemeteries in Cairos City of the Dead their permanent home because of the countrys chronic housing crisis shortage. We came to live in these cemeteries because they are inexpensive and practical for a starting point. However soon we realized that its not a temporary house and that we want to continue here these people are kind and all of us here care for each other, unlike other Cairenes. said Zaki, a widow who lives in a tomb room in the Northern Cemetery with her children.

For many Cairenes the City of the Dead is a mysterious, foreboding area. Many Cairenes are aware of its existence but few understand this group of vast cemeteries that stretches out along the base of the Moqattam Hills.

Another view of a Cairo City of the Dead

Among these cemeteries lives a community of Egypts urban poor, forming an illegal but tolerated, separate society. More than five million Egyptian live in these cemeteries, and have formed their own enterprises, said Malak Yakan, an anthropologist and tour guide.

There are five major cemeteries in this city there, the Northern Cemetery, Bab el Nasr Cemetery, the Southern Cemetery, the Cemetery of the Great, and Bab el Wazir Cemetery, said Yakan.

From the Salah Salem Highway, the City of the Dead appears to be organized and proper, a match for the beige, sandy landscape of the distant Citadel. Inside, however these cemeteries bear witness to the centuries of Cairos history.

Previously, Cairo rulers chose the area for their tombs outside the crowded city in a deserted location. This area was used as a burial ground for the Arab conquests, Fatimids, Abbasids, Ayyubids, Mamlukes, Ottomans, and many more, said Yakan.

The historic belief in Egypt is that the cemeteries are an active part of the community and not exclusively for the dead. Egyptians have not so much thought of cemeteries as a place of the dead, but rather a place where life begins. said Yakan. In modern times, because of Egypts housing crisis, a lack of satisfactory and affordable housing for a rapidly growing population, many poor Egyptians have made these rooms their permanent homes.

Walking with the dead

These invaders have adapted the rooms to meet their needs. They have used the grave markers as desks, and shelves. They have hung strings between gravestones for their laundry to dry out.

We have brought in the electricity by wires over the roofs coming from the nearby mosque to be able to be able to live properly, said Zaki.

The City of the Dead seems to its inhabitants ideal because it is already built, affordable, and partially equipped. However there are many disadvantages of living there. They are joined by even a greater number of cockroaches, mosquitoes, flies, and vermin of all sorts", writes Nedoroscik in The City of the Dead, A History of Cairos Cemetery Communities.

The rooms are also filled with the overwhelming smell of the garbage piled outside their doors and sewage leaking out of the un-drained tanks.

In addition, The residents settling in the City of the Dead are insecure about their living status because they are living there against the law, said Yakan. It was the French occupation from 1978-1801 that began changing the image of the vast cemeteries of the City of the Dead.

It has brought a more westernized attitude towards cemeteries in the Egyptian society, making the presence of people living and carrying out activities in the cemeteries ignored, condemned and shamed by the majority of Cairene society, writes Nedoroscik. The cemeteries built in the City of the Dead are much different than the western idea of cemeteries. This is because traditionally, Egyptians buried their dead in room-like burial sites so they could live in them during the long mourning period of forty days.

Today, the population of the City of the Dead is growing rapidly because of rural migration and its complicated housing crisis that is getting worse.

But the future of the City of the Dead remains uncertain. The residents of the city will not deliberately agree to relocate unless the government provides other housing for them.

I will not move from this house after all these years to go out in the streets, said Zaki, Of course I want to leave the depressed mood in this place, but that doesnt mean I want to live in the street. We deserve proper houses.