Bulldozer war.. Cairo’s historic cemeteries under threat

Al-Jazeera Net published a report highlighting the developments of the ongoing works in the historical “Tarab al-Ghafir” cemetery, which includes many prominent figures in the history of Egypt.

According to the report, the Turb al-Ghafir cemetery, home to the Heba al-Khatib family, a pseudonym, has been standing for generations along Salah Salem Highway, one of Cairo’s arterial roads.

Al-Khatib’s father in the family lived on the grounds of what is now the cemetery for centuries and many of their relatives are still buried there to this day.

But it is now one of many monuments and shrines threatened with demolition, as private cemeteries for families and those of prominent figures in Egypt’s history are being demolished in the area to make room for development projects, the latest of which is a new highway.

The report added that the cemetery is part of the city of the dead in the Egyptian capital, also known as the Cairo cemetery or “Al Qarafa”, which is an extensive network of tombs dating back to at least the seventh century, which has witnessed many changes over the past three years to make room for new roads. New main and flyovers, which Sisi’s government says will improve traffic in major cities.

But the site is not only home to ancient mausoleums and ruins, it is also home to many of Cairo’s poor, who have been relegated for generations to the margins of the megacity.

Heba Al-Khatib grew up a stone’s throw from the City of the Dead and spent time doing charitable work for the many families who have lived there for generations.

She was eventually forced to leave Egypt because of her media work, but her parents still live near the site and, over the past three years, have watched parts of the City of the Dead demolished for new construction and poor families forced from their homes.

With pressure building and housing prices rising in Cairo in the face of increasing urbanization over decades, families who could not find a place to live or who managed to find work tending tombs began moving to the city of the dead.

To find living space among the dead, they would convert parts of ancient mausoleums or fenced-in family burial “yards”, which usually had at least one enclosed room already to accommodate them.

The new highway has the Khatib family worried about their family’s graves, but they don’t feel able to intervene, like many others who have private plots of land there.

“There is nothing anyone can do once the government decides that the site needs to be demolished,” Khatib told Al Jazeera.

“My parents know that they are powerless, and they are afraid of the consequences of objecting to the government and suppressing any form of dissent,” she said, adding, “It is a battle not worth fighting for a lot of people there.”

The current demolitions are part of an ongoing project that began in July 2020, according to Jalila El-Kady, a former professor at the French University in Egypt and co-author of “Architecture for the Dead… Medieval Cairo Cemetery.”

In that year, two roads were built, Ain al-Hayat in the southern part of the cemetery, and al-Firdaws in the eastern part.

“Valuable tombs belonging to famous personalities of the Arab Renaissance in the worlds of art, literature, economics and politics were demolished,” Jalila told Al Jazeera, adding that this destruction of the UNESCO World Heritage site was described as a violation of national and international law in the World Heritage Report issued in June 2021 (PDF) .

Since then, hundreds of burial grounds and dozens of monuments have been destroyed for the ongoing project, she says, which is part of the Housing Ministry’s 2008 development plan called Cairo 2050.

The “Cairo 2050” project includes re-launching Cairo as a global city through a number of urban planning projects.

The historian said: “The current demolitions for the construction of a highway pose a threat to the valuable artifacts north and south of the Salah Salem Highway, where there are 11 recorded Mamluk landmarks.”

“These areas contain the most valuable tombs of important figures in politics, culture and art, and they are registered as shrines of great historical, architectural and spiritual value,” she added.

Civil society groups working to preserve the heritage at the site have so far been unable to stop the many demolitions, recounting to Al Jazeera their grief and despair at the loss of the historic sites.

One of the few victories was the campaign to save the tomb of the 20th-century Egyptian novelist and thinker Taha Hussein, said William Carruthers, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia and editor of A History of Egyptology.

But according to the judge, all remaining cemeteries will be separated from each other, isolated because they are surrounded by new roads.

Carruthers explained that there are many theories as to why a repository of such cultural richness was destroyed for development projects.

He said, “One of the explanations is that it will facilitate access to the new administrative capital, which has been under construction for a few years and includes military contractors and investments from the Gulf states.”

He added that others say: “The goal is to facilitate the army’s access to downtown Cairo to quell the uprisings following the 2011 Tahrir Square revolution in the Arab Spring.”

Finally, there is the theory of infrastructure development, as the projects are expected to increase Egypt’s income, the historian continued.

“I’ve seen some people say, ‘Egypt needs this,'” Carruthers told Al Jazeera. “I don’t know how widespread that view is, to be honest.”

Jalila al-Qadi said: “The latest demolitions began in April, when bulldozers crushed dozens of family cemeteries, leaving behind piles of rubble.”

“This spectacle of desolation has replaced the unforgettable image of the beautiful and decorated tombs that stand along broad, lined streets,” she said.

The demolitions will also soon displace families who have lived in makeshift dwellings in the City of the Dead for generations.

Al-Khatib said: “Many of the families I spoke to over the years in the City of the Dead were guards hired by families who owned burial grounds, like themselves, and some passed the job on to their children, and they remained in the City of the Dead for decades.”

“The cemetery-dwelling community has always been ignored and has historically been marginalized,” Al-Khatib said.

She added that many of them cannot obtain birth certificates or forms of identification, cannot afford basic necessities and live on the margins of society with little regard for them by any government.

Many of the families who have made burial grounds their home for generations now have nowhere else to go.

“I’m afraid there is no future plan to house or support them,” Al-Khatib said.

According to Carruthers, development projects that displace populations are no stranger to Egypt.

He added that the city center of Luxor was excavated a few years ago and residents who had uprooted their homes were offered housing elsewhere. He added that in 1960, the construction of the High Dam in Aswan flooded a large area and offered the residents resettlement.

“Development projects of various kinds have always caused this kind of thing to happen,” he said.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the leader of the coup, said people in any apartment buildings cleared for national projects would be compensated to help them relocate, according to the Egyptian English daily Al-Ahram, but many of those who were among Cairo’s poorest in the city of the dead are unable to. I wouldn’t afford to move to apartments anywhere else at all.”

Al-Khatib said: “The complete absence of both the history of architecture and the sanctity of cemetery sites as well as the inhabitants of those cemeteries in the modern era is amazing.”


Source: بوابة الحرية والعدالة by fj-p.com.

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