The heart of Egypt’s capital is home to an immense wealth of historically significant monuments and districts – from the ruins of Al-Fustat, to the Cairo Citadel, and Mamluk palaces dating back to the thirteenth century.
Just as monumental is the debate over the preservation of this heritage amidst rapid urban development.
Over the past week, the ongoing demolition of cemeteries in Historic Cairo, an area of the capital listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site, has stirred public outcry and reinvigorated arguments over heritage conservation in Egypt.
In the past two years, dozens of cemeteries in Cairo’s City of the Dead – a vast necropolis sitting at the foot of the Citadel and dating back to the seventh century – have been marked for demolition. The removals aim to make space for the construction of new main roads, to improve traffic flow in the congested capital.
In 2021, UNESCO expressed concern about the demolition of tombs and mausoleums in the City of the Dead, noting that this “could have a major impact on the historic urban fabric of these parts of the property and channel more traffic into the city”.
Various initiatives have since attempted to halt the demolitions, including the Safeguard of Historic Cairo’s Cemeteries, launched in late 2021 by historian and architect Tareq Al-Murry to raise popular support through talks, petitions, exhibitions, and social media.
Despite many efforts, hundreds of graves have already been razed and many more await the same fate, including in the districts of Al Imam Al Shafi and Al Sayeda Nafisa, which date back respectively to the ninth and seventh centuries. The fight to save Cairo’s historic cemeteries, however, has lately regained substantial traction.
Renewed Public Outcry
On 22 May, television presenter Lamees El Hadidi decried the loss of heritage resulting from the demolitions on her talk show, Kelma Akheera (Last Word). “Other countries are trying to purchase history,” she said, “We already have history, and we’re choosing to bulldoze it?!”
In the following days, growing numbers of Egyptians took to social media denouncing the erosion of Cairo’s urban heritage.
حاسس بحسرة شديدة على التاريخ والتراث والعمارة ومش قادر استوعب كم الإزالات اللي بتحصل. pic.twitter.com/m5WKc2Z1Qk
— Michael (@MichaelAzmy) May 28, 2023
Translation: I feel a deep regret for this history, heritage, and architecture, and I can’t even process the number of removals that are taking place.
شوف اسطنبول محتفظه ازاي بمقابرها الاثريه في وسط اسطنبول وبتعتبر مزار للسياحه. بجد اللي بيحصل مشين ومرعب. ليه اصدقاء كتير مقابر عائلاتهم اتهدمت مش قادره اوصفلك حالتهم ازاي
— Lina Abouzeid (@Linaabouzeid) May 28, 2023
Translation: Look at Istanbul, which preserves its historic cemeteries in the middle of the city and considers them a tourist attraction. What’s happening [in Cairo] is odd and terrifying. I have a lot of friends whose family cemeteries have been demolished, I can’t describe how upset they are.
#Cairo is yet again on the verge of losing a great historical architectural heritage of #Islamic cemeteries in its famous city of the dead for the sake of highways. priceless mausoleums that do not exist in any other place. check this photo thread https://t.co/y6jMePiQCY
— Zeinobia 🎙️📷📓 (@Zeinobia) May 24, 2023
Architects, conservation specialists, and impacted families have led the chorus of voices expressing shock and outrage at the demolitions.
This upheaval culminated in a high-profile lawsuit: on 30 May, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights announced on its website that it had filed a legal proceeding before the Administrative Court to stop the demolition of cemeteries in Historic Cairo.
The proceeding was filed against the Prime Minister, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, the Minister of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities; the Head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the Cairo Governor, and the Head of the Urban Development Fund.
Unlisted Heritage at Risk of Demolition
Speaking to El Hadidi in a phone call on live television, obstetrician and vocal heritage conservation advocate, Dr. Mostafa El Sadek, argued that one factor at play in the demolitions is the large number of heritage sites that are not registered as such, a view which El Hadidi strongly echoed.
The framework regulating heritage conservation in Historic Cairo is notoriously complex. The area has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list since 1979, however, it was not until 2010 that its exact delineations were legally codified. Within them, heritage sites sit side by side with ordinary buildings.
The former are subject to strict regulations specified in Law 117/1983, which places all historical landmarks under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Meanwhile, Law 144/2006 sets out comprehensive demolition procedures for the latter.
Many sites of historical value, however, are not registered as heritage. Therefore, they fall under the purview of the National Organization for Urban Harmony and are subject to the same regulations as ordinary buildings.
On Twitter, Egyptologist and Dean of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, Monica Hanna, condemned the division of responsibility between these different entities.
في عوار تنظيمي من 2001 احنا بنتحمل نتائجه انهاردة وهو ان جهاز التنسيق الحضاري نشأ منفصل عن المجلس الاعلى للأثار – تفريق دم التراث المادي بين القبائل هو ما نراه اليوم، الحل ان يكون كل تراث مصر يتبع لجهة واحدة حتى يتسنى لنا محاسبتها…
— Monica Hanna (@monznomad) May 29, 2023
Translation: We are bearing the consequences of an organizational defect dating back to 2001. Namely, the National Organization for Urban Harmony was established separately from the Supreme Council of Antiquities. What we are seeing today is the division of material heritage between different tribes. The solution is to put all of Egypt’s heritage under one supervising body that can be held accountable…
Similarly, a post published to the Instagram account Cairobserver, run by architectural historian Mohamed El Shahed, blamed responsible entities for failing to list the cemeteries as heritage sites. However, El Shahed nonetheless argued that this should not justify their demolition.
“If buildings are unlisted that’s an indication that those whose job [it] is to list have not done their job, it isn’t an excuse to demolish,” reads the post.
Living Relatives of the Deceased and Informal Residents
Cairo’s City of the Dead is not only home to archaeological sites, but also to the graves of people whose living relatives have had to exhume and move their bodies to newer cemeteries on Cairo’s outskirts.
“No one told us that the family cemetery was going to be demolished. Only one relative was informed, then he spread the news to the rest of us,” said Dr. Altaf Al Baroudi, granddaughter of Egyptian poet Mahmoud Sami El-Baroudi, to El Hadidi on a live phone call.
The cemetery housing the 19th century poet and former Prime Minister of Egypt – in a mausoleum engraved with verses of his own poetry in kufic lettering – is among those marked for demolitions, despite belonging to a historical figure.
The fate of ordinary citizens is just as grim. Speaking to the BBC, one woman described the act of exhuming her relatives from the Sayeda Nafisa cemetery as doubly traumatic.
“First my mother – my mentor – passed away last year. Now I am digging up her fresh body and my grandparents’ remains, putting them in sacks, and driving away to rebury them in new graves in the desert,” she said.
Some of the aggrieved have also taken to social media to express their dismay at the removal of their family members’ final resting place.
Cairo is living one of its worst nightmares; many historical sites that contain cemeteries, some of which are of famous people, and most of which are of a heritage design. They are being demolished in order to build bridges to connect new cities that most people cannot live in. https://t.co/6Zf3C5O8Ru
— بين الكاف والنون (@Rababoush) May 28, 2023
The graves of my family (my mother’s and my father’s) will be demolished, including the one where my father was buried three months ago.
The citizens of Cairo are saddened and still cannot believe how or why this is happening!
— بين الكاف والنون (@Rababoush) May 28, 2023
The necropolis is also home to thousands of low-income families who have lived there for generations, many of whom have accepted offers of alternative housing on the city’s outskirts. Nonetheless, some commentators have denounced the relocation, including architect Galila Al-Kadi, who has studied the City of the Dead since the 1980s, and interprets the move as a means to erase a structural issue rather than tackle it adequately.
Threatening Egyptians’ Ties to Their Heritage
Writing for Ahram Online in 2021, writer and journalist Amira Nokoshaty, whose family has been impacted by the demolitions, noted that “the concept of demolishing cemeteries affects much more than the tangible heritage or historical monuments involved. It breaks the ancient spiritual connection and communication with the dead”.
As she went on to note, communion with the dead is a facet of Egyptian civilization transcending historical eras and faiths – with some of the country’s contemporary funerary practices dating back to ancient Egypt. As such, she argues that the demolition of cemeteries in particular has tragic implications for cultural preservation.
This perceived severance of historical ties between Egyptians past and present is not the first to stir controversy in the past two years, during which the demolition of Cairo’s Nile Houseboats and the hosting of concerts at ancient temples have also sparked heated debate.
What the public outcry in each case reveals are widespread fears that urban development could become synonymous with gentrification, compromise the capital’s unique urban fabric, or come at the expense of the country’s rich heritage.