Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 February 2008
Issue No. 883
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A tour among the dead

How could the City of the Dead be a tourist attraction? Mohamed El-Hebeishy is bold enough to try to find out

An overview of the City of the Dead

"Egyptians have always thought of tombs not as a place of death but rather a place where life begins", a statement that started with our ancient ancestors and which has still managed to hold its truthfulness through the ages.

A rectangular one-storey building set in an endless matrix, one row after the other, and nothing but a number of minarets and domes break the subtleness of the scenery. This might be the view of the City of the Dead up from a plane, but when you dare the inconsistent streets and stroll its zigzagging alleyways, you will be literally stunned by the historical richness it embraces.

A cemetery indeed, yet and for a handful of various reasons, mostly economical, it changed into a lively neighbourhood with all the elements of a resident quarter except for one mere fact -- its dwellers are actually living among the dead. A woman with a small stall selling cigarettes, a guy with a noisy tool fixing an old wrecked car, a queue of adolescents piling in front of the baker, and a group of bare foot children playing hide and seek in the barely fitting one-car streets. Within the parameters of five main cemeteries in Cairo, five million people are estimated to be living, some in small buildings that were raised haphazardly next to each other, others in slum-like forms that have nowhere to go but crumble if thunder strikes. But for the majority, they live in tombs. The way Egyptians build their tombs, whether they have reserved either a courtyard where the deceased is buried or an adjacent room, there is where people live.

But how does such a place hold monumental archaeological and historical value?

It all started around the middle of the seventh century. The area currently bordered by Salah Salem Street and the Autostrade and at the foot of the Muqqatem Hill was once designated as the cemetery of Al-Fustat, Egypt's capital at the time. The Northern Cemetery, as it is sometimes referred to since its location is actually north of the Citadel, had waves of newcomers as the days passed. First came the Sufis. By design they looked for seclusion as a means to facilitate their pursuit of spiritual communion. Secluded from the mundane hassle of the city, the cemeteries represented themselves as a viable option. They settled in, built themselves a place to live in and performed their rituals, zikr. These places are better known as khankahs. When Sufi imams died, they were also buried nearby, within the boundaries of the City of the Dead.

Later came the Mameluke sultans who found in this necropolis a good place to bury their dead. Mamelukes first appeared in the Abbasid court around the ninth century. They were originally slaves brought mainly from the Caucasus to serve as soldiers. Armies often consisted of recruits from different tribes, but the caliphates feared that in case of any rebellion of the sort, soldiers would defect in favour of their mother tribe. Hence, foreign soldiers with no allegiance but to the caliphate were a sound option, if only for the fact that by time, Mamelukes started to gain power. In reality their involvement increased significantly during the Ayyubid Dynasty. After the death of the originally Kurd Saladin, his successors fell victim to internal power struggles, one heir after the other. The death of the last Ayyubid Sultan Al-Salih Ayyub in 1250 marked the birth of the Mameluke Sultanate, as Shageret Al-Durr, Al-Salih's widow, had to remarry and Mameluke General Ezzeddin Aybak was the chosen groom.

By the 14th century, Mamelukes developed the Northern Cemetery into an important burial site, not for the masses but rather for the sultans.

The Mameluke Sultanate is divided into two main dynasties: Bahari and Burgi Mamelukes. The Bahari Dynasty ruled for around 130 years (1250- 1382). They were of Turk origin and preferred the island of Al-Roda as a place of residence, hence the naming (Bahri translates to maritime). One of their prominent rulers was Al-Nasir Mohamed who ruled in three different stages yet was marked by temporary depositions. During the third one, the Mameluke royals and court began to build a funerary complex in the City of the Dead. The very first mausoleum Mamelukes ever built was not of a sultan's; it was for Al-Nasir's wife Khawand Tughay. Brought to Egypt as a slave, Tughay was the sultan's favourite wife and mother to his beloved son Anuk. She was known not only for her beauty but for her genuine piety. Slaves were considered lucky to serve in the sultan's court as Tughay treated them in a humane way, to say the least. In 1348, the bubonic plague, or rather the Black Death as it is better known, struck the capital. Khawand Tughay was one of its prominent victims.

Tughay had a very special friend, a Mongol princess by the name of Khawand Tulbay. Tulbay's line of blood goes all the way to her great great grandfather, the world's most feared emperor at the time, Genghis Khan, a name that upon hearing, the bravest of men would feel a shiver down their spine. To seal a peace treaty between the Mongols and the Mamelukes, Sultan Al-Nasir married Princess Tulbay. By default, a sultan's wife would not befriend one of the sultan's harem. Au contraire, Tughay and Tulbay's friendship continued even after Tughay fell victim to the plague. Khawand Tulbay ordered her small funerary enclosure to be built right next to that of Khwand Tughay. "I will be next to my friend even in death."

The whole of the Mameluke era was known for its instability and frequent coups. Nevertheless the revolt that broke out in 1377 had grave significance. It sparked in Syria and soon reached Egypt. In no time, the Bahari Dynasty was history and the Circassians (originally from the Caucasus) were now in power. Al-Zahir Seif Al-Din Barquq proclaimed himself the first Burgi Mameluke. As opposed to their predecessors, Burgi Mamelukes ruled from the Citadel and not the island of Al-Roda (Burg means tower). Their dynastic leader Barquq had a life wish -- to be buried next to the Sufi sheikhs in the Northern Cemetery. His son Farag fulfilled his father's wish.

Two identical minarets, two stone domes and a spacious courtyard, the Khankah is not only a mosque and a burial site, but also had a baker, bath, mills and market; a whole living set-up. Keeping with the Sufi practice at the time, the complex lacks decoration. It is fortress-like the spirituality of which calms the soul and eases the bustling noises just outside its gates. What is most impressive about this complex is actually the minbar (where Muslim imams preach the Friday prayers), made out of stone, a material of contrast to the wood which is the most common. It was actually gifted from Sultan Qait Bay in 1483. Though this amazing edifice is often called Khankah of Sultan Farag Ibn Barquq, Farag himself is not buried there, as he died fighting the Mongols in Syria. Only his father and his brother Sultan Abdul-Aziz are buried there.

Not far away from Barquq, neither in terms of time or distance, lies the Khankah of Sultan Al-Ashraf Barsbay. Ruling a couple of decades after Barquq, Sultan Barsbay is most remembered for his military campaign targeting Cyprus. Its king opted for peace and paid an annual tribute to the Mameluke sultan. Barsbay's era, though short in relevance as he ruled for only 16 years, was well known for its economic strength. A less than 10-minute walk from Barquq's complex, the Khankah of Al-Ashraf Barsbay holds firm in a very narrow street. Its mosque is the best preserved with a wooden minbar considered among the finest in Cairo. It was gifted to the mosque in 1447.

If you are entering the City of the Dead from the west side starting from Salah Salem at Al-Fardous Bridge, the first monument that will come into sight is Khankah of Sultan Inal. Starting off as one of Sultan Barquq's Mamelukes, Inal had a progressive career ending up as a sultan at the age of 73, ruling for the next seven years of his life. He started building himself a funerary enclosure when he was a prince. At the beginning it contained a small mosque, a minaret and a small dome. Later it was extended to a Khankah. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the complex as a whole lacks on architectural balance.

Al-Ashraf Abu Al-Nasr Seif Al-Din Qait Bay Al-Jekasy Al-Zahiry, better known as Sultan Qait Bay, was originally a Circassian who was bought for 50 dinars by the ninth Sultan Barsbay before being freed by the 11th Sultan Jaqmaq. Qait Bay was renowned as a great patron of art and architecture during his 29-year rule. Out of more than 60 constructions and renovations he sponsored in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Mecca, his most famous is the Qait Bay Citadel in Alexandria, but that's not all. The mosque of Sultan Qait Bay in the Northern Cemetery is not just a remarkable historical edifice, but by far one of Islamic Cairo's most breathtaking monuments. The jewel of the City of the Dead, the mosque has the most beautiful decorations, a perfectly proportioned minaret and a grandiose stone dome.

But the Northern Cemetery is not all about Mameluke monuments; the historical value lingers to the Ottoman era as well as modern day. The tomb of Emir Sulayman stands as the only Ottoman monument in the vicinity, built 27 years after the Ottoman conquest. The tomb has the Mameluke essence with a touch of Ottoman. The dome structure as well as the decorations demonstrate a clear example of the Mameluke inspiration, while the blue and white tiles inscription around the dome drum reflects the influence of Ottoman decorative techniques.

Moving even forward in history, Sir Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, the outstanding explorer and diplomat who died in a motor accident in February 1946, is also buried in the Northern Cemetery. Following the essence of the site, Hassanein Pasha was laid to rest in a Mameluke-style mausoleum built by his brother-in-law, the architect genius Hassan Fathi. It is located right off Salah Salem Street, in front of Dar Al-Iftaa.

With such a wealth of history, the City of the Dead is not only a hidden treasure right in the heart of Cairo but it is the least explored and the least developed. What further adds to the dilemma is the fact that foreign tourists are not granted access to the place as it lies off tourist police jurisdiction. Based on my own personal experience, the area does not posses the least threat in terms of insecurity or lack of safety. Aside from laughing kids who may follow you for a note of change that you may spare, the place is as safe as crossing your own street back home.

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