Cairo’s City of the Dead (…and Living) Face Eviction

Razing the City of the Dead to Breathe New Life into Cairo
Matt Bradley, The National, Abu Dhabi (June 18, 2009)

“Living around the Dead Helps Me See How We Will End Up. It Makes Me Feel Closer to God”
Matt Bradley, The National, Abu Dhabi (June 18, 2009)

Imagine you and all your neighbors being evicted from your neighborhood, except your neighborhood is a cemetery. And you’re not dead.

An astonishing estimated 100,000 to 120,000 Cairenes live among the centuries-old tombs and on graves in the four-mile City of the Dead, locally known simply as el’arafa (“the cemetery”). As part of city revitalization initiatives, the Egyptian government plans to turn out the residents—living and dead alike—to convert the cemetery into a park to increase Cairo’s public green space.

Creative Commons Flickr image by 10 Ninjas Steve
Creative Commons Flickr image by 10 Ninjas Steve

Some live in the cemetery to be near dead ancestors. In a city with severe housing shortages, however, most cemetery residents have no where else to go. The rent is nonexistent and the homes are comparatively larger, quieter and more private than other cheap, urban housing. Despite a few advantages to the unusual location, the residents, who include newcomers to the city looking for work as well as graduates from prestigious universities, suffer the social stigma of dwelling among the dead. “People living in the city think we’re twisted or sick for living with the dead. But I have gotten used to it. It’s my home,” says one woman.

Some are more than happy to accept the ministry’s offer of relocated housing, presumably with the running water and electricity that many cemetery homes lack. Others are not so keen. Says one elderly woman, living in a one-room flat attached to a mausoleum, “Of course I would say no. We’ve been living here for years. It’s a quiet and nice area. Why would they want to move us?”

Other Resources:

Tomb with a View by Hugh Levinson (BBC)

Cities of the Dead by Heba Fatteen Bizzari (Tour Egypt)

City of the Dead: a History of Cairo’s Cemetery Communities
by Jeffrey A. Nedoroscik (1997, Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey) Google BooksAmazon
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