The Demolition of Cairo’s “City of the Dead”

By Mariam EINagger | Summer 2023

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Nestled beneath the Mokattam cliffs lies Cairo’s “City of the Dead,” a sacred resting place for Cairenes since the seventh century. This historic cemetery, adorned with marble-clad tombs amidst tranquil walled gardens, is home to the graves of politicians, poets, heroes, and royalty alike. However, a storm of controversy looms over it.

The Egyptian government is forging ahead with its plan to demolish portions of the cemetery to make way for a flyover bridge, which would connect central Cairo to the New Administrative Capital and which government officials claim is symbolic of Egypt’s growth and development. Yet critics argue that this move disregards both the cultural and religious significance of the site, triggering heated debates and a tug-of-war between heritage preservation and economic development.

The government’s push for economic development and progress is undeniable. The flyover bridge is advertised by governmental figures as crucial to projecting Egypt as a modern nation. Proponents of the demolition argue that sacrifices must be made to pave the way for advancement and economic growth.

Critics contend that this approach neglects the intrinsic importance of preserving historical landmarks and sacred sites that hold religious, cultural, and artistic significance. They warn that the presence of new highways beneath or around the existing tombs and monuments will destroy the area’s character. Others also argue that the establishment of a new administrative capital is an enormous waste of resources, especially as the North African nation faces an unprecedented currency crisis.

There’s also the consideration that for years, thousands of Egyptians have called the City of the Dead their home. Among them is Nabuweya, a 50-year-old, housing-displaced “tomb-dweller,” who requested the omission of her last name for fear of governmental reprisal. Nabuweya expressed concern at the demolition, adding that the removal of the dead through the government’s plans is against Islamic religious beliefs. “You’re not at ease when you’re living. You’re not at ease even when you’re dead,” she said.

As the demolition plans proceed, even historic figures’ final resting places will not be spared. The tomb of Abdullah Zuhdi, a renowned 19th-century calligrapher whose masterpieces grace Islam’s most revered mosques in Mecca and Medina, has already been brought down. Even the cemetery housing the grave of a 19th-century poet and former Prime Minister of Egypt, Mahmoud El-Baroudi, is among those slated for demolition.

There have been a few limited victories, like the campaign to save the tomb of Taha Hussein, the renowned Egyptian novelist, whose grave was marked with a red “X” for destruction. Unfortunately, such victories may be too few and too late.

These demolitions raise important questions about the balance between development and preserving the historical legacy of eminent figures whose contributions shaped Egypt’s cultural heritage. It seems that while other countries attempt to purchase history, Egypt is choosing to bulldoze its own.

Preserving cultural heritage and promoting economic progress do not need to be mutually exclusive. Many cities around the world have successfully integrated historical landmarks into modern development projects, serving as testaments to their rich histories while embracing change. Suzhou, for example, has founded its renewal on both economic development and centuries of Chinese urban planning approaches, labeling itself as “the Venice of the East.” Cairo has a unique opportunity to do the same. Instead of erasing history, planners could find ways to incorporate the City of the Dead into the urban fabric, creating a harmonious blend of past and future.