Thursday,16 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)
Thursday,16 August, 2018
Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Living among the dead

Cairo’s City of the Dead, a sprawling cemetery below the Mokattam Hills, is home to both the living and the dead and is at the centre of many Egyptian traditions, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“The entire earth is the tomb of heroic men, and their story is not given only on stone over their clay but abides everywhere without visible symbol and woven into the stuff of other men’s lives” — Pericles

They come and go, both the living and the dead, and the dead before the living. But the subject here is not occultism. Rather, it is about how to resolve the housing shortage, the scarcity of living space, in the metropolis of 25 million that is modern Cairo. This shortage has forced some two million people to live among the tombs of the City of the Dead, a cemetery below the Mokattam Hills in Cairo.

This is not about Egyptian esoteric traditions, and certainly not about Hermeticism, the religious and philosophical tradition of the legendary Egyptian priest-king Hermes Trismegistus, except insofar as there is a truth, a hidden wisdom, in all religions, being the intrinsic human need for shelter.

Topography is a key factor in safeguarding the interests of the residents of the City of the Dead. Nestled in the foothills of the Mokattam Hills in eastern Cairo, the winding streets, or rather alleyways, of the City can at first sight seem impenetrable, a maze where outsiders can easily get lost.

An estimated two million people now live in the necropolis. Al-Arafa, in colloquial Arabic, is roughly 6.4 km long, a dense grid of tombs and mausoleums. Dawn light swathes the din and pollution of the dimly lit alleyways as dishevelled street urchins roam the cemetery.

Homelessness and the break-up of marriages force many to live in the City of the Dead, with predictable results for the children.

Family disputes are another reason for settling in the necropolis. “I had a quarrel with my brother, and we were living at close quarters,” Ahmed, a resident, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “We both have large families and our wives were constantly bickering. It reached a point when it became unbearable. One of us had to move before we killed each other, and so I left the old neighbourhood and settled in the City of the Dead. I am much happier here.”

Mohamed, another resident, moved into the necropolis about ten years ago. His son wanted their tiny flat in neighbouring Manshiet Nasser, a sprawling shantytown, for himself as he was getting married. So Mohamed decided to move out to make room for his son. “I don’t regret it, and I pay no rent,” he told the Weekly, a reason many residents of the necropolis cite for living among the dead.

Financial ruin is often cited as a reason for moving into the necropolis. Living conditions are deplorable, but the geographic centrality of the City of the Dead and its proximity to several business districts and wealthy suburbs encourages people to move in. They pay relatively little for transport, another incentive in a city where traffic has turned into a challenge in recent decades.

People do not actually live in the tombs, but rather in the courtyards and mausoleums of the wealthy dead of yesteryear. Tradition has it that soon after the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642 CE, the Arab commander of the expedition, Amr Ibn Al-Aas, founded the first Islamic capital of Egypt and called it Al-Fustat, also establishing his family’s graveyard at the foot of the Mokattam Ridge.

The custodians of the graves of the Arab aristocracy were the first residents of the City of the Dead. In Egypt, the courtyards and mausoleums attached to tombs were traditionally constructed as part of the structure for the families of the dead to come and visit on special occasions, such as eids, or festivals.

This is an ancient Egyptian custom that dates back to the days of the pharaohs, and the new Muslim rulers of the country, austere nomads who despised the display of wealth and ostentation, eventually succumbed to the less frugal practices of the Egyptians they ruled over.

Successive Muslim dynasties then built new capitals, all in the vicinity of what later was transformed into Cairo. For instance, the Fatimids, a Shia dynasty, encouraged religious pilgrimages to the shrines of the Ahl Al-Beit, members of the Prophet Mohamed’s family. Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyub, better known in Europe as Saladin, then buttressed his Ayyubid dynasty, uniting the various settlements that made up Cairo into one grand urban centre that included the cemeteries.

The Mamlukes, a dynasty of non-Arab and mainly Turkic slaves, built new cemeteries for themselves and their families. Their retainers in turn became residents in the northeastern reaches of Cairo.

The Ottoman Turks, the next dynasty to rule Egypt for some 500 years, built extravagant cemeteries, and these were also inhabited by loyal retainers. The custodians of the tombs and mausoleums of Egypt’s aristocratic rulers were therefore the first residents of the City of the Dead. Other families followed suit, and some have lived there for generations.

The City of the Dead today has metamorphosed into a hive of dubious activity, especially at night. The necropolis is dotted with unlicenced parlours where people of all walks of life go for recreational purposes. It is said that the necropolis has turned into a centre for narcotics trafficking. The police rarely venture into its eerie surroundings. This feature of the necropolis has been included in many Egyptian films.

Among the films set in the City of the Dead is Ana La Akzeb Walakini Atagammal (I’m Not lying, I’m Adorning Myself), a particularly poignant film that stars the late Egyptian film actor Ahmed Zaki as a man who lives among the dead.

Catastrophe, too, has prompted people to move to the City of the Dead. In the aftermath of the October 1992 earthquake, when thousands were left homeless, many Cairo residents moved into the necropolis, one of the few Cairo districts with no high-rise buildings. It was considered safer to live in a mausoleum, whether mediaeval or modern, than a high-rise apartment building.

The crypts, hidden vaults and stone burial chambers are all alive with the living. “Are you scared of ghosts or evil spirits?” one resident, Ibrahim, was asked.

“We who live in the tombs do not fear the dead. We only fear the living,” he answered with a wry smile.

Seeing modern dancers in the area, one thinks of the professional dancing women of ancient Egypt. Their modern counterparts enact the same rhythmic motions to the strains of the rababa, the stringed instrument of ancient Egypt, and the pulsating percussion that accompanies it.

Some pharaonic funeral traditions persist to this day. The burial vault used for the deceased was spacious and the custodians and caretakers of family tombs often lived there. This venerable ancient Egyptian tradition still prevails, having survived into the 21st century.

In later eras, the crypt was a stone chamber beneath the floor of a church, then, more recently, in a mosque. The architectural designs of the two are almost indistinguishable. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the southern apse of a church is known as the diaconicon and the north apse the prothesis. In mosques and shrines of Muslim saints and the Ahl Al-Beit, almost the same pattern is used.

The apse in ancient Egypt was a semi-circular recess covered with a hemispherical shaped roof. Sarcophagi were originally called neb-ankh by the ancient Egyptians, or “lord of life”, or “possessor of life.” The apse today is located beneath the altar and is where the clergy are seated.

Sarcophagi were most often designed to remain above ground. Catacombs, although underground passageways, were decorated. In Alexandria the Kom Al-Shoqafaa, or “Mound of Shards,” cemetery has stone staircases leading to the lower level, which is adorned with sculpture and vivid depictions of papyri and lotus flowers.

Another film that captures the spirit of the City of the Dead is Al-Shaqqa Min Haq Al-Zawga (The Apartment Belongs to the Wife). In this film, the protagonist, played by Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, leaves home for the drug dens of the City of the Dead.

Karakon fi Sharie (Jail in the Street), another acclaimed Egyptian film, depicts the allure of the cemetery and stars the celebrated actors Youssra and Adel Imam. Shaqqa Mafrousha Lil Igar (Furnished Flat for Rent) is another film that is set within the catacombs.

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