CAIRO — The one who was recently buried in Cairo’s oldest working cemetery had been of some significance. Shiny SUVs crammed the dusty alleys around an antique mausoleum draped in black and gold; designer sunglasses hid the tears of the mourners.
The cemetery’s chief undertaker, Ashraf Zaher, 48, paused to survey the funeral, another job done. But he didn’t last long. A little further on, his daughter was about to get married. Hundreds of his neighbors, who also live in the cemetery like him, gathered outside his house, 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 served festive couscous. They had placed on long tables the things the bride would take to her new home, a hodgepodge of abundance against the austere ancient tombs where she had grown up: pots and plates; a furry red basket; a mattress made up as for the wedding night, with a striped white bedspread with a stuffed panda on top.
Since the Arabs conquered Cairo in the seventh century, Cairenes have buried their dead beneath the Mokattam cliffs that rise above the city’s historic core, with politicians, poets, heroes and royalty being buried in marble-lined tombs amid verdant walled walls. gardens.
By the mid-20th century, the City of the Dead had also come to house the living: funeral directors, undertakers, gravediggers and their families, along with tens of thousands of poor Cairenes who found shelter in and among the great mausoleums.
Much of it will soon be gone.
The Egyptian government is razing large parts of the historic cemetery and clearing the way for a flyover that will connect downtown Cairo to the new administrative capital, Egypt’s grandiose new seat of government that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is setting up in the desert about 45 kilometers east of Cairo. The destruction and construction are part of his campaign to modernize Egypt. But the cost is rarely mentioned.
“You see Cairo’s family tree. The tombstones say who married whom, what they did and 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 slated for destruction. “Are you going to have a bridge?”
Big cities can always cannibalize their past to build their future, and Cairo is a notorious recycler. The medieval conqueror Saladin tore down ancient buildings to build his massive citadel, now one of the main landmarks of the city he overlooks. In the 19th century, one of Egypt’s rulers pried stones from the pyramids to erect new mosques (although European visitors were more greedy for the pharaonic plunder).
Cairo is also not the only metropolis to pave cemeteries for public infrastructure, as New York did to create some of its best-known parks. But, conservationists say, Cairo’s City of the Dead is different: What will disappear is not just a historic landmark where Egyptians still visit their ancestors and bury the recently deceased, but also a lively neighborhood.
Parts of the cemetery have been razed to the ground in the past two years, and some mausoleums are already little more than rubble, their carved antique wooden doors have been driven away and their marble is gone.
“It is against religion to remove the bones of dead people,” said Nabuweya, 50, a grave resident who asked not to publish her last name for fear of government reprisals. “You’re not comfortable when you’re alive. Even when you’re dead, you don’t feel comfortable.”
The cemetery is different from 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 larger lots, outbuildings were once home to living relatives who came to spend the night on death anniversary and important holidays, honoring the dead with feasts and charitable alms.
The rest of the year, resident caretakers maintain the mausoleums. For example, Fathy, 67, who also did not want his last name used, his wife, Mona, 56, and their three children settled next to the grave of Neshedil Qadin, a consort of 19th-century ruler Khedive Ismail. considered the founder of modern Egypt. Fathy’s father and grandfather looked after the royal mausoleum and raised their children there before passing on their jobs and homes.
After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 deposed the king and displaced most of the Egyptian aristocracy, the government allowed commoners to buy cemeteries in the family’s old mausoleums and stopped paying to keep the graves. to maintain. The custom of letting relatives stay overnight faded.
Fathy received his last government salary in 2013. But he had made a decent living: saving, the family renovated their rooms, installed electricity and running water. They enjoyed what amounted to a private garden, drying their laundry on lines that ran over half a dozen graves.
The government plans to relocate residents to furnished social housing in the desert. But, critics say, few will have the wherewithal to cover the roughly $3,800 down payment or the $22 monthly rent, especially after their livelihoods — cemetery jobs or nearby commercial districts — disappear along with the graves.
Even the dead will go to the desert. The government has offered new burial plots to families south of Cairo, uniform brick mausoleums much smaller than the originals. They are free, although families must pay for the transfer.
Fathy’s parents were buried near Neshedil’s grave. But he was worried about where the princess, as he called her, was going. “My grandfather, my father and I have lived here with her all our lives,” he said.
Egyptian officials have for years considered destroying the cemetery and moving its inhabitants to the desert, in part to modernize the city and improve living standards, in part, critics argued, because private developers were monitoring the land.
In the early 1980s, Galila el-Kadi, an architect who has studied the cemetery for decades, found about 179,000 inhabitants, the last known count. She said many more were withdrawn after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, when a power vacuum eased 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 a disgrace to the government. And in Egypt, if there is a problem that seems unsolvable, or seems very difficult to solve, the solution is to just remove it.”
According to Khaled el-Husseiny, a spokesman for Administrative Capital for Urban Development, the government-run company developing the new capital, the mausoleums registered as landmarks will be preserved. Other graves to be spared include that of a relative of Mr el-Sisi, according to conservationists, who said government plans for the cemetery had changed to prevent his relative’s grave from being razed to the ground. was created.
But only a small fraction of the total has monument designation, which will leave them isolated islands among new construction, conservationists said.
mr. Zaher, the chief undertaker, moves with the displaced dead to the new cemetery. He wastes no time on nostalgia. There are many cemetery residents who are happy to leave shabby make-do homes for new apartments, he said.
“Instead of living in a graveyard,” Mr. Zaher said with a shrug, “they will live in an apartment.”
He said the new viaduct would also ease traffic, although it was unclear whether it would matter to people who are largely car-free and rarely travel outside the area.
Many officials don’t seem to realize what the new bridge will replace.
While leading a tour of the new capital, Ahmad el-Helaly, a development company official, was alarmed to learn that Queen Farida had been exhumed and that her remains had been moved to a nearby mosque with special government permission. Mr. el-Helaly had named his daughter after the Queen.
It was sad, he said. But moments later he shook it off.
“What can I say?” he said. “Cairo is too crowded. We must do something to regain the glory of old Cairo, to restore the beauty of old Cairo.”
So much for the old one. Then it was back to the tour, and the new one.
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.