Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is undergoing a major redevelopment project that involves clearing a significant area in Historic Cairo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The government aims to construct new main roads and flyover bridges in order to alleviate the traffic congestion in the sprawling city. This initiative is also seen as a step towards modernizing Egypt and connecting the heart of the capital with a new administrative center being built in the east.
However, this development comes at a cost, as numerous gravesites, including those in the renowned City of the Dead, will be affected. Many of these graves belong to prominent figures from Egypt’s history and culture, and they are adorned with intricate Arabic calligraphy on fancy marble tombs. The new highway construction will involve the removal of thousands of family graves, jeopardizing Egypt’s heritage and history.
Assem, a concerned advocate for preserving Egypt’s identity and history, criticizes the government’s approach. He emphasizes the importance of safeguarding the country’s heritage, citing the example of the Aswan High Dam project, where collaborative efforts with UNESCO were made to protect threatened archaeological sites.
Heritage enthusiasts are now actively collecting tombstones, plaques, inscriptions, and unique mausoleums from the 17 cemeteries slated for demolition. They fear that these valuable artifacts may be stolen or destroyed. Notably, the tombs of Ali Pasha Fahmi, the Daramli family, and Prince Ibrahim Helmy’s freedmen, which have stood for over a century, are among those being demolished.
Historian Sameh Al-Zahar emphasizes that Historic Cairo, including the cemeteries, is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. He dismisses the government’s claim that some cemeteries are unregistered, pointing out that this is an intentional disregard for their significance. Al-Zahar also highlights the government’s selective approach to heritage preservation, noting the demolition of graves in Sufi cemeteries in the past.
It is evident that the government’s project is not only causing concern among heritage advocates but also igniting a debate surrounding the preservation of Egypt’s rich history and cultural identity.
Some of the cemeteries slated for demolition hold historical significance, dating back as far as 700 to 1,000 years. Al-Zahar explains that these burial grounds were allocated by Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of the Muslims, over 1,400 years ago as a resting place for Egyptians. The forced eviction of these cemeteries lacks legal, moral, and humanitarian justification, as the owners possess official contracts for these sites. Therefore, no one has the right to expropriate their property or disturb their remains without consent from the owners and their families.
Al-Zahar also exposes the government’s double standards, where certain places associated with historical and important figures, such as the home of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Rifa’i Mosque, are registered as archaeological buildings despite being less than 100 years old. He highlights past incidents, such as the demolition of graves belonging to al-Maqrizi and Ibn Khaldun in Sufi cemeteries during the 1990s, indicating a longstanding strategy of disregarding historic cemeteries.
IPS UN Bureau Report
IPS – UN Bureau, IPS UN Bureau Report, Egypt