The Strange History of Cairo's City of the Dead

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: DEA/W. BUSS/Getty Images

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Casual Builder/Wiki Commons

Interestingly, the area is dedicated to the burial of common citizens as well as historical rulers and elite members of society. The name is self-explanatory and well fitting: It is literally a city of dead people.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Michal Huniewicz/Wiki Commons

During its peak, the City of the Dead rose in popularity and became the top of its class in prestigious burial grounds for anyone who passed away in the city of Cairo. The monuments became more elaborate during that time, and the visual prowess of the cemeteries became memorable, to say the least.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Internet Archive Book Images/Wiki Commons

It was then given its Arabic name, Qarafa, because of the meaning of the word and the use of the area as a mass grave and cemetery. Thousands of people who didn't make it through the grave food shortage that plagued the city ended up buried there.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Eduard Spelterini/Wiki Commons

Small urban settlers began to set up homes in the area, and the city became home to religious scholars, Sufis and other wealthy citizens of Cairo. The population of the City of the Dead rose and fell just like any other city's population would.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Protious/Wiki Commons

Each tribe had its own respective area and cemetery, and the people often had their own mosques to worship in. The division of the area is what started the customs that spread and formed the City of the Dead.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Sherief1969/Wiki Commons

The prophet Muhammad was said to have descendants buried in the cemetery, and the Fatimid wanted those tombs to be available to visitors because they took their faith and belief systems very seriously. They even built shrines dedicated to housing the remains of the prophet, although his remains were never officially moved to the shrines.

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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.

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They also built a number of mosques, ribats (small military buildings) and madrassas (Islamic colleges), which were used for religious, educational and military purposes. They also helped build infrastructure for water and other living necessities.

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.

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The city suffered greatly from the fall, and although the burial grounds and buildings remained intact, the area experienced a large decline in importance. The sections of the city that weren't yet built up became burial grounds afterward as part of the Greater Qarafa.

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.

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The Ayyubids built the very first Sunni madrasa, which is a widely recognized Islamic seminary in Egypt today. They changed the area greatly, turning it into a miniature district.

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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.

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The structure is still one of the most impressive buildings available to see in Cairo today, and it’s often regarded as a triumphant symbol of "orthodoxy over heterodoxy." The tomb houses the Muslim saint and is widely visited by Muslims for prayer.

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.

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In fact, the monuments they built were of such high architectural quality that they are still standing at the site today. One of the most notable structures is the Zawiya of Shaykh Zayn al-Din Yusuf. The structure served as the core of the new area and attracted new residents to the City of the Dead.

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.

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The revitalization of the area had the wealth of Cairo to thank, and the power wielded by Cairo helped ensure the revitalization of the Smaller Qarafa, thus turning it into the Greater Qarafa. The Greater Qarafa was built around the Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi'i.

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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.

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The focus was on the Northern Cemetery, which is still standing today. It was built up, and they even built a roadway because of the area's growing importance. The Mamluk military took over the region and used the road as a safe passage for pilgrims to migrate to the area.

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.

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Sultan Baybars (also spelled Baibars) used his power to start an early equivalent of a large tourist attraction with equestrian games, horse training and even military parades. The area went from a development area to a well-built leisurely spot in no time at all. This was all while bodies lay in the tombs and graves around them.

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.

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More mausoleums, tombs, mosques and madrassas were built. They used their skills and the extra space to build out as well as up to extend the City of the Dead over a larger and wider area. Many historians believe they were trying to create a more urbanized area as opposed to extending the necropolis into more areas.

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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.

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During their time in power, they were financially weak, and only six monuments were added to the Qarafa during that time. The populations in the cemeteries also declined during their time in power, but foreign tourists still flocked to the area to visit the impressive structures.

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.

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The French only occupied Egypt for a short time. When an Ottoman ruler established his own dynasty, he decided to modernize the area and restrict the use of the City of the Dead. He ruled that only burials and funerals could happen in the city. That meant those living there had to settle elsewhere.

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.

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Because of this, the City of the Dead required workers again, and the city was then populated with workers and their families with housing provided to them. The population of the area began to steadily grow again, even though urban planners had tried to forbid the habitation of the area.

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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.

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The boundaries of the cemeteries were very difficult to establish at the time. As a result, census numbers for the residents living in the City of the Dead are not an accurate depiction of how many citizens actually lived there at the time.

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.

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The government even offered assistance to some people by helping them move there. It also created a streetcar line that connected the outskirts of the Imam al-Shafi'i neighborhood to the Pyramids of Giza as well as the rest of Cairo. By the time the 1940s started, the city had almost 70,000 residents.

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.

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Those who lived in the City of the Dead were given the nickname "Tomb dwellers," and the citizens who were pushed into that way of living were often excluded from government initiatives. That only fueled the fire when it came to people needing housing but not being able to afford it.

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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.

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Because of the industrialization in Cairo, it was hard to take care of the city's poor population. They couldn't afford to stay in the city, and so they migrated to the City of the Dead to live out their lives among the many bodies that were buried there.

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.

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With nowhere else to go and the inability to rebuild their lives in Cairo following the devastation of the earthquake, these residents had no choice but to turn to the City of the Dead for refuge. It wasn’t a solution they loved, but it saved them from everything that was happening all around them in Cairo.

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.

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Each area was home to a different tribe when it was first built, and now these areas all have their own rich history that differs from cemetery to cemetery. Some serve as the final resting places of prominent families, while others are home to regular citizens who just needed a place to be buried.

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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.

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Not long after people migrated to the city, a community was formed. Some families live in tombs, and the neighborhood became an entity of its own, with residents setting up their own businesses and establishing lives in the area.

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.

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Some of the people live in and around the tombs and mausoleums. There have been plans to move them to better living areas, but the amount of people living there has caused great delays in their relocation. The residents now reside in morbidity with no other place to go.

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.

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Residents have been reported saying that the dead don't bother them much and that life in the City of the Dead is both peaceful and quiet. Some creepy assumptions could be made about living in a giant cemetery, but the residents don’t seem to mind.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Rgoogin/Wiki Commons

The juxtaposition of the rich historical macabre mixed with the slightly modern society is enough to make the area seem that much creepier. The city also has electricity, with electrical wires strung across the roofs of the ancient mosques that stand nearby.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Bertramz/Wiki Commons

The legal issues also bring shame and condemnation to the already disadvantaged residents. They are viewed as less than relevant by other societies and are seen as disgracing the dead who have been buried there.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Joshua Doubek/Wiki Commons

Some private tours take interested travelers through the area and into mosques. Even the slums in the City of the Dead are on display for all the world to see.

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