Cairo’s ancient City of the Dead is to be demolished under plans aimed at easing traffic jams in Egypt’s congested capital city.
Widely considered to be “one of the urban wonders of the world, and certainly among its most spectacular cemeteries”, said The Times, the vast burial site “sprawls across four square miles, its tombs ranging from the modest to the grandiose”.
“So spectacular and spacious is the cemetery that hundreds of thousands of locals choose to live there,” the paper added. But“ neither the quick nor the dead are to be spared” under government plans to demolish more than 2,000 tombs and build a ten-mile elevated motorway through the heart of el-Qarafa, the cemetery’s Arabic name.
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‘Luxury homes, quick commutes’
In Cairo, where the total population is now nearing 22m, “every inch of sidewalk feels crowded”, said National Geographic. Cars drive “bumper-to-bumper, madly honking”, making the “idea of stillness seem alien”. But in the City of the Dead, the streets are “quiet”, “narrow” and “seem to wind forever”, the magazine continued.
No official figures are available on how many people live in the vast cemetery, which dates back 700 years. But the site is home to a “million or so tombs, each of which is a walled compound, some with buildings and fountains inside”.
Yet despite its historical and architectural significance, Egypt’s general-turned-president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, wants to “bulldoze” parts of the Unesco world heritage site to “make room” for the proposed motorway, The Economist reported.
With around two-thirds of Cairenes living in “shoddy informal housing”, few doubt that Cairo “needs an overhaul”, said the paper. But many fear that poorly paid workers will be “displaced” to pave the way for “quick commutes” for the city’s elites.
As well as threatening the homes of “hundreds of thousands of people”, said The Times, al-Sisi’s “ambitious plans to rebuild Cairo in his image” include bulldozing “the grandest area” of the site, a shrine to Imam al-Shafi’i, a scholar who founded one of the four schools of Islam.
Hundreds of “individual plots” will also disappear, including the burial sites of “princes, writers and artists, as well as ministers like Adly Pasha Yakan”.
“Our entire family is buried here,” Wahid Mardenly, a businessman and member of an influential local family, told the Financial Times (FT). “These are people who served Egypt. My great-grandfather built the first port for agricultural produce on the Nile in Cairo. Everyone in my family feels broken by this.”
Preserving the past
Under al-Sisi’s watchful eye, Egypt is undergoing “a massive infrastructure drive”, the FT reported. His military government has “overseen a huge roster of projects that includes bridges, utilities, real estate – even a new capital”.
The Egyptian leader “hopes to reshape the country’s urban fabric”, said The Economic. But he is trying to achieve that goal “in a way that bespeaks a military man’s understanding of cities”.
According to the paper, the president does not see cities “as messy, organic places where people live”, but rather as “orderly and functional spaces populated by like-minded, and mostly prosperous, groups”.
But the reality is that his plans threaten “not only a historical monument where Egyptians still visit their ancestors and bury the newly deceased”, said The New York Times, “but also a lively neighbourhood”.
In the 1980s, Galila el-Kadi, “an architect who has studied the cemetery for decades”, estimated that the cemetery was home to “179,000 residents”, the paper added.
And destroying the tombs “has the added weight of severing emotional and social ties”, The National said.
“Losing this is losing a part of history,” said Dr Mostafa El Sadek, a physician and amateur historian who has documented the cemetery. “People think that the [cemetery] is an ugly place. No, it’s a place of beauty.”
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