The Strange History of Cairo's City of the Dead
The City of the Dead is very much alive in Cairo. The cemeteries that make up the city on the outskirts of Cairo are home to around half a million people who live among the dead, using gravestones for furniture and hanging out in their own private community. How’s that for creepy?
The history of the City of the Dead is a long and twisted one. It may not be riddled with mysteries and strange happenings, but seeing all the activity of daily life played out in such macabre surroundings is more than a little unsettling. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting details.
The City of the Dead Is a City of Cemeteries
The City of the Dead, otherwise known as Cairo Necropolis or al-Qarafa in Arabic, is the name given to a stretch of cemeteries in Cairo, Egypt. The 4-mile piece of land is divided into two parts to make the North and South Cemeteries. Both graves of common folks and impressive mausoleums are housed in the area that is the final resting place for some of the country's most prominent citizens.
The City Has Been Around for a Very Long Time
The City of the Dead has been alive — pun very much intended — since 642 CE, but it was originally known as Fustat. Over the course of hundreds of years, the city hit its pinnacle of development between the 13th and 15th centuries.
Famine Led to the City’s Existence
During the 11th century when Cairo was Fustat, a famine hit the area, and the death toll was significant. At the time, the City of the Dead was nothing more than unused land, and the citizens thought it would serve well as a burial ground for the people lost to the famine.
More Than the Dead Made the City Their Home
Although the City of the Dead served as a final home for the bodies of departed souls, it wasn't just a final resting place for those who had died. The city was home to quite a few living residents as well. The living occupants included gravediggers, tombstone custodians and others who worked on the grounds.
An Arab Muslim Commander Founded the City
Amr ibn al-'As was the commander who led the Muslim conquest of Egypt. When he gained power and founded the City of the Dead, the area was divided into different plots of land and given to different tribes. The Quraysh tribe was the most prominent, and the Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi'i stands on their land today.
The Fatimid Period Extended Over Time
From around 989 to 1171 CE, the Fatimid dynasty ruled over the City of the Dead. The dynasty instilled ancient Egyptian rituals and traditions and began building mausoleums so the people could visit their dead ancestors long after they were buried in the cemetery.
The Dynasty Encouraged Development
Several of the mausoleums built by the Fatimid still stand in the City of the Dead today. During their reign over the area, they built a number of other palaces and homes in the area with the Qarafa cemetery. The palaces they built were meant to be like vacation homes for people to use while visiting the prophet's descendants.
The Area Declined Slightly Near the End of Their Reign
Near the end of the Fatimid period, the political climate in the area worsened significantly. After one of the powerful Fatimids, Vizier Badr al-Jamali died in 1094, it started the slow decline of the period. By the time 1168 rolled around, the decline was almost complete.
The Ayyubid Period Took Over
Once the Ayyubid period began, the revitalization of the area resumed, and urbanization began. Some previously built monuments were demolished, but new monuments were erected in their place. The idea was to remove all of the Fatimid Shi'a's influences from the cemeteries, and they were highly successful in doing so, thanks to the destruction of a lot of the Fatimid buildings, tombs and mausoleums.
Ayyubids Built Up the Area
Perhaps the most notable new build under Ayyubid reign was the dome built over the al-Shafi'i's tomb. The beautiful structure is the largest detached mausoleum in Egypt, and it was built because al-Shafi was supposedly a great Muslim saint, although the Quran doesn't mention that in its text.
The Mamluk Period Changed Things
When the Mamluk sultans came to the City of the Dead, they used their prolific building skills to establish a new cemetery on land that was formerly used for military training. The new cemetery was just east of the existing one, and the Mamluks built monuments there.
Cairo's Affluence Led to Revitalization
During the time of the Mamluks’ influence, Cairo's prosperity was booming. Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad reigned supreme over the area, and this led to an influx in usage of the Qarafa necropolis. At the height of its wealth, Cairo began using the City of the Dead for prestige.
The Plague Hit the Population Hard
Once the plague of the 14th century hit, the population of Cairo suffered some great losses. That didn't stop the Mamluks from rebuilding the City of the Dead, however. They extensively built up all across Cairo and even expanded out into new areas surrounding the city.
Play Came After the Plague
After the plague died down, the roadway that was built was surrounded by restaurants and stables, all of which were there for travelers who went through the area. In 1265, the area was then turned into a play area of sorts.
The Bahri Mamluks Continued New Construction
Even while the area was turned into a leisure center, the building continued. The Mamluks continued to build funerary structures, and the Northern Cemetery eventually surpassed the Southern Cemetery in terms of development.
Ottoman Rule and the Khedival Period Had Little Impact
In the 16th century, Ottoman rulers took over Egypt and the City of the Dead along with it. The political reign of the Ottomans was rocky, to say the least. Because of the challenges, not much occurred in the City of the Dead during their reign.
The French Invasion Changed Everything
When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, he and the French banned the burial of the dead in the cemeteries and destroyed the city’s walls. This caused the residents of the city to be displaced as well. The Qarafa was the only burial ground left.
Ottoman Rule Came Back with a Vengeance
The family of the Ottoman ruler was buried in a now-famous mausoleum called the Hosh al-Basha. Following his example, many rulers, officials and elite members of society in the area began to build their own funerary compounds on the cemetery grounds.
Demolitions Changed the Area in the 19th Century
When the 19th century was coming to a close, the wealth of Cairo began to dwindle, and more of its citizens were classified as poor and experienced housing issues. When the modernization of the area led to a large demolition of historic districts in the city, even more people were pushed outside of the city.
Governments Moved the Poor to the City of the Dead
The Ottoman rule that prohibited living in the City of the Dead wasn't reinforced for very long. In the early 1900s, people were encouraged to set up permanent residences in the field of cemeteries.
The Poor Were Pushed Out of Cairo Proper
The city's wealthy wanted the city's poor to be "out of sight/out of mind," so they did what they could to push them to live in the City of the Dead. Even though the government wasn't equipped to handle the mass migration to the area, it happened quickly as the century progressed.
The City Experienced a Rise in Living Inhabitants
Over the course of 20 years — starting around 1956 — the City of the Dead experienced an influx of the living, and the population began to grow. The urban development that was happening in and around Cairo was the main culprit behind the surge of people moving to the necropolis.
An Earthquake Helped Push Migration
The migration into the City of the Dead finally stalled out a bit, but that all changed in the early ‘90s. An earthquake struck Cairo, literally shaking the city to its core. The damage was great enough to cause another influx of impoverished people to move to the graveyard city.
There Are Now Five Areas in the City
The City of the Dead is split up into five distinct cemeteries that serve as a community of organized landscape in the middle of the desert. The five areas are the Northern Cemetery, Bab el Nasr Cemetery, the Southern Cemetery, Bab el Wazir Cemetery and the Cemetery of the Great.
Residents Made Their Own Communities
The poor people who were forced to migrate to the City of the Dead made the most of it and turned the cemetery into their own private little community. It became an affordable alternative, and the mausoleums and structures that were built more than 1,500 years ago in the City of the Dead were sturdy enough to withstand natural elements.
The Area Is Now a Slum
Because of Cairo's vast population, the City of the Dead has become a place where the living and dead coexist. Misplaced residents have been forced by circumstance to live in the grave town, and more than 500,000 people call the necropolis home today.
Residents Don't Fear the Dead
It's easy to assume that the City of the Dead would be considered a dark and haunted place. After all, there are unlimited ways supernatural entities could become things of legend in a giant living graveyard city. Surprisingly, the residents who live there are far more afraid of each other than the dead that sleep among them.
Residents Use the Structures to Their Advantage
Not only have impoverished residents turned an old series of cemeteries into homes, but they also utilize everything in the area to their advantage. Residents have been seen using old gravestones as desks and other furniture, and they even have laundry clothes lines strung across gravestones.
Living in the City Is Still Illegal
Although there are half a million people living in the City of the Dead, it's actually against the law to do so. The area — full of garbage, cockroaches and horrible living conditions — is not a legal residence. Although the law enforcement agencies of the area mostly ignore the residents, it doesn't change the lack of living security they have.
The Area Has Turned into a Tourist Attraction
The City of the Dead has long fascinated the morbid curiosity of the world, and although it's a disturbing place to be, that hasn't stopped tourists from flocking to the area to see the giant macabre cemetery spread across a 4-mile stretch. Along with mingling with residents who have set up homes in the area, visitors can choose from plenty of different tours.