The City of the Dead, or simply Al-Qarafa (the cemetery), as the inhabitants of Cairo call this extreme place on the border between the countryside and the city, between the living and the dead, is the largest cemetery in Egypt and home to hundreds of thousands of ‘souls in the flesh’.
This Islamic cemetery in Cairo, built after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 642 AD, is the oldest in the country and still in use today. Since the middle of last century, an increasing number of people have settled there, due to the difficulty of finding affordable housing and to the relentless growth of urban population – the capital city now has more than nine million inhabitants. People have built houses and set up offices for small economic activities in this place. The cemetery, which stretches for over ten kilometers on the eastern outskirts of Cairo, at the foot of the Moqattam hills, behind the eight-lane urban highway of the Egyptian metropolis, is commonly called the City of the Dead. Groups of tourists often arrive so close to this place without being aware of it. The City of the Dead, in fact, is right next to the Al-Azhar Mosque and Khanal-Khalili bazaar, two basic destinations of organized tours.
Sometimes, some intrepid tourists leave the souvenir stalls to look around this cemetery. The place, in fact, is home to some of Cairo’s most beautiful mausoleums and places of worship, commissioned by the Sultans and Emirs who ruled the city centuries ago: such as the Mosque of Sultan Qaitbey dating to 1474, which is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Islamic architecture in Cairo.
The hidden charm of this place lies in the life pulsing among the graves. The vast necropolis is, in fact, inhabited by many of the city’s poor and homeless people, who found a makeshift shelter in the funerary constructions.
“We have lived here for twenty years now. Earlier we lived in the centre of Cairo, but the house rent was too expensive and the traffic was unbearable. Children grow up well and safe here”, says Ali, a carpenter and father of four children, who were born in this place. Many of those who inhabit the City of the Dead share Ali’s opinion.
In the past century, because of Egypt’ s housing crisis, a lack of satisfactory and affordable housing for a rapidly growing population, and the failure of social housing policy, many poor Egyptians have made tomb rooms and some small buildings originally built to host pilgrims and security guards, their permanent homes. In the 14th century, however, the graves of the cemetery, were already used as shelters according to some academics. Traditional funerary constructions included some small buildings which were used as shelters by distant relatives when they came to visit their dead for several days. Even the humblest graves were designed to contain a room where pilgrims could spend the night. Those, however, were just temporary shelters used for the sole purpose to host visitors who were there to honour the dead.
Today the cemetery is permanently inhabited. Some people live in the graves of their family, near the remains of their ancestors; others have illegally occupied abandoned graves or have managed to get the allocation of graves which apparently did not belong to anybody, through special procedures handled by the local undertakers.
The Egyptian authorities prefer not to interfere in the management of the cemetery. They just provide the population of Al-Qarafa with basic services such as water, electricity, schools and sewers. There is even a small police station and a postoffice in the necropolis. The inhabitants of the City of the Dead are estimated to be between half a million and a million, data are uncertain. The population living among the graves and the inexorable process of urbanization has altered the features of this place. An occasional visitor would not realize that he is in a cemetery, in fact, alongside the graves one can see craft stores, and stalls just like in any other working class district in Cairo.
Inside the cemetery, one can see those lines, which women use to hang clothes up to dry, dangling from the walls of the mausoleums. Battered cars, motorbikes and carts pulled by donkeys circulate in the sandy streets around the graves. Children play among the tombs almost unaware of those who rest there. On the other hand, it is a long time since the cemetery has lost its aura of sanctity. In this place, one can smell the aroma of spices used to season lamb and couscous coming from ovens. Despite all this, one can still feel the religious sense of peace there. “We cannot complain, our neighbours are all very quiet”, Ali jokes. Then, between Thursday afternoons and Friday evenings many people arrive at the City of the Dead. During this time of the week, in fact, according to the local tradition, the spirits of the dead come back to visit the world of the living. Whole families go to the cemetery to honour the dead and then improvise bag lunches and merry gatherings among the tombs. (J.L.M.)