City of the Dead, Cairo
City of the Dead (Qarafa, Arafa) is a four mile long cemetery from northern to southern part of Cairo, Egypt. To the people of Cairo and other Egyptians, it is simply el'arafa which means "the cemetery". It is a bustling grid of tombs and mausoleums where people live and work amongst their dead and ancestors. Many residents live here to be near their loved ones, or because they were forced from more crowded areas in Cairo and 60s immigration from countryside. In fact many came from their villages simply looking for work — a good example of rural to urban migration in an LEDC.
Its foundation dates back to the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642 AD. The Arab commander, Amr ibn al As, founded the first Egyptian Arab capital, the city of Al Fustat, and established his family’s graveyard at the foot of the hill al Moqattam. The other tribes buried their dead within the living quartiers. The following Arab dinasties built own political citadel northwards to the previous, founding a new graveyard every time. The Great Qarafa and the Lesser Qarafa (the commander’s family cemetery) have been inhabiting since the first centuries after the conquest. Its first resident nucleus consisted of the custodians to noble graves and the staff in charge of the burial service as well as the Sufi mystics in their khawaniq (colleges). During the Fatimid Caliphate, because of their Shi’ite faith, the sovereigns supported pilgrimages to Ahl al Bayt (Prophet’s family) shrines as part of their politics. These pilgrimages increased the cemetery’s habitat in order to provide pligrims’ needs. The following sultan, Salah el Din, in order to unify all the four capitals within a surrounding wall, included both cemeteries in an unique urban space. The next Mamluk rulers, originally freed slaves forming a military caste, founded a new graveyard named Sahara, because of its deserted environment, outside the city at its north-eastern border. It was also a place for military parades, such as tournaments and investiture ceremonies, as well as for processions, at which sultan and nobles took part during the religious celebrations. So that many of them built their palaces on the main road of the cemetery in order to assist to the spectacles.
The Northern Cemetery is to the rest of Cairo what black is to white. Honeycombed with tombs, the narrow streets are car-less and empty. The air here acts as a sponge, soaking up the din that the rest of city is engulfed in. The result is an arid desert silence, clinging onto in each street and corner like mildew on clothes.
Yet here life still finds a way. The homeless and the impoverished make a living for themselves as tomb keepers. The women wash pots and pans with their bare leathery palms; kids patter around in slippers 6 sizes too large for their feet. But say what you will-- this is still their makeshift home, their little patch of the world. It doesn't take a pauper to know Despair, but neither does it take a monarch to rule a land.
The secret to their troubles isn't graffittied in Arabic on the walls; it's written on their faces and you don't need to travel to the backalleys of Cairo to learn it. And though it's untaught in any classroom, it's a familiar sight on any playground. You've most likely seen it in the office pantry, heard it bounce off the walls of a long corridor and been part of it yourself.
It is the language of laughter, and it may be one of the most empowering things we will ever have.
Please FULL VIEW photo.
Cairo has two main "City of the Dead", and the Northern Cemetery is recommended.
This place offers an escape to those who need a break from the endless bustle of the city, for the streets are quiet and the area on the whole seems to live at its own pace. There is an unsual sort of charm here that is enchanting simply because it's so different from the rest of Cairo that stepping into it is akin to discovering another world altogether.
According to my well-travelled Iraqi friend, however, it resembles many other slums in the middle east.
EXTRA TIP: Go with a local and see if he can talk to the swarms of children there and have one of them guide you to a house for a peek at the tombs behind the closed doors.
In the "City of the Dead" on the eastern fringes of Cairo are other structures that feature of Mamluk architecture: the mosque of Farag, the tomb of Barquq , the mosque and tomb of Barsbey , and the impressive madrassa and mausoleum of the Sultan Qait Bey.
Due to housing shortages, overpopulation, and the rising cost of living, the cemeteries have become home to over 5 million of Egypt’s urban poor. They have migrated there in droves turning these tombs of the dead into residences for the living.
this was amazing, we did it with a friend who had been many times before, and was also egyptian. do not do this without a tourguide. due to the housing prblem in cairo a population greater than the population of belfast lives here. you see cables bringing electricity from the mosques to the tombs, washing hanging from tombs, children playing hide and seek around gravestones. you probably will get a small crowd following you.
keep valuables very safe, but it is an excellent experience.
We were 'lucky' enough to find a taxi driver with a family tomb within the City of the Dead - it's a vast cemetry where many people are forced to live amongst the dead in the tombs after a terrible earthquake some years ago (the governements rebuilding plans are very obvious throughout the outskirts.)
Our driver allowed people to live there free of charge, with the proviso that they clean the area whenever the family wish to pay their respects.
I was very humbled my it all; although the people there seemed content and dignified.
I was actually looking for the Citadel walking from Midan El Hussein and ended up on a ring road, after crossing 6 lanes of furious traffic I saw that at my feet was the so-called cities of the Dead. It was the most enchanting afternoon I spent in Egypt, wandering around for several hours.
Cairo has poverty, just as many countries in the world.
In Cairo, there are poor communities that have taken up residency in the old tombs of the buried from centuries ago.
It is eye opening to take a journey through the city's back streets to see how these people live.
Inside Cairo, north of Saladin's Sqare and going to the Islamic Cairo, ther's a cementery used by locals as their home!
The Family's mausoleum are their houses. It's all organized! they even have their post office inside the complex!
It is amazing but truth, living around their deths!
The City of the Dead:
I'd suggest a visit there to those who want to see a Cairo which is really different. Note, however, that venturing there alone is not the safest thing in the world, especially if you have valuables on you. Take a guide from the locals if you know some Arabic, you'll see more and be safer. The huge graveyards existed there since 12th century and the place became the City of the Living as well, with people inhabitins the mausoleums. You'll see many different things: rich mausoleums of those who once where famous, Copt tombs looking like tiny houses with neat gardens, or just stones.
City of the dead. Actually, Egyptians never call the sprawling cemetery at the eastern edge of Cairo 'City of the Dead.' Only Westerners do. Cairenes prefer to call it simply the arafa, the cemetery, and it is as much a part of the topography here as glass and steel skyscrapers are in Hong Kong.
But what better name than City of the Dead to describe the four-mile-long walled necropolis that now houses thousands of families and countless small businesses? Video stores, car repair shops and tile factories line the main arteries of the cemetery,
and cramped buses deliver hoards of commuters
at the end of each work day. Furniture makers ply their craft inside tombs and streams of uniformed children parade to and from school, stopping for a quick soccer game between the cenotaphs.
The arafa is a necropolis turned metropolis,
where the needs of the living have far outpaced
the sanctity of the dead.
Here, survival takes precedence over superstition,
and the impact of overpopulation and overcrowding
wears a human face.
The cemetery is filled with refugees from Cairo's housing shortage who became homesteaders in a landscape of tombs and mausoleums. Today, some 50,000 people live in tombs while between 500,000 and a million more are cramped into tenement houses where tombs once stood. These people staked their claim in the cemetery when no place else could absorb them, and
subsequently they came to prefer the silent company
of the dead to the harsh conditions of urban living.
Many claim they wouldn't leave even if they had the chance.
Today, tombs that were designed to house a single family teem with bare-bottomed children, chickens and goats. Soccer balls fly where the relatives of the deceased used to pay their respects every week, and
tattered laundry floats between the cenotaphs,
obscuring the names and prayers engraved on weather beaten surfaces. Where horse-drawn carriages used to deliver weekly visitors, sooty buses honk their way down paved roads, and on a once contemplative lane between the tombs, a Friday junk market overflows with the refuse of modern society looking to be reborn.