Will Egypt back off from the demolition of Cairo's historic Islamic cemeteries?
CAIRO — For the past 10 years, Egyptian researcher Mostafa el-Sadek has been visiting the Islamic cemetery complex City of the Dead in Cairo, always discovering something new about Egyptian heritage from tombs that date back to the arrival of Islam in the seventh century and up to the early 20th century.
But everything has changed since 2020. That's when the Egyptian government began demolishing hundreds of these historic graves to widen highways to the new administrative capital 50 kilometers east of Cairo.
Sadek's visits have also changed. He joined volunteers fighting to save the historic area. They work in parallel with the diggers and bulldozers to rescue artifacts amid the rubble of tombs in the Imam al-Shafi'i and Sayyida Nafisa complexes.
"We feel incapable and frustrated. The government that should protect this heritage destroyed it with its bulldozers," Sadek told Al-Monitor.
First wave in 2020
The City of the Dead, which was first built with the inception of the Islamic capital in 642, covers six areas in the historic northern and southern Cairo, according to the Urban Regeneration Project for Historic Cairo report in 2010-2012.
In July 2020, the first wave of demolition targeted al-Qarafa al-Kobra in historic northern Cairo to link the area with the new administrative capital. Many tombs were demolished that housed famous figures from the 20th century, such as the first president of Cairo University, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed; writers Ihsan Abdel Quddous and Mohamed El-Tabii; engineer Abbud Pasha; and Princess Nazli Hanim Halim, Sadek said.
The government said in a statement that these tombs were not registered as Islamic or Coptic monuments and were modern graves.
Sadek, who is also an obstetrician at Cairo University, argued, "Yes, it is not registered. But some of these tombs are full of history, architecture and art."
A few months later, the government embarked on the second wave, which involved al-Qarafa al-Sughra (also called the Qarafa of Imam al-Shafi'i). The plan was to raze 2,760 tombs as part of the Salah Salem Road, to link the mosques and mausoleums that belong to the family of Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Cairo.
On Aug. 8, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated Sayyida Nafisa Mosque as part of the renovation of the Ahl al-Bayt shrines. Speaking at the inauguration, Sisi spoke of "the state's plan to revamp Historic Cairo."
But Sisi's plan has stirred public outcry and criticism from heritage researchers, archaeologists and architects. Distinguished architect Tarek el-Murri filed a lawsuit to stop the demolition of cemeteries, with the court set to decide the case on Sept. 21.
"The removal and demolition operations are a disdain to a part of Egypt's history and represent a danger to a significant area back to the seventh century A.D.," Murri told Al-Monitor.
In contrast, Sisi ordered that a committee be formed to "assess the situation and consider available alternatives" for the relocation of the Sayyida Nafissa and Imam Shafi'i cemeteries, even as the government implements its development plan in the two areas. He also directed that a cemetery be established to bury remnants of the great figures of Egypt. The cemetery would also include a museum for artifacts found in the current cemeteries.
"We had felt optimistic after the president's order, especially since the committee recommended to stop the demolition and [that there was] no need to build new roads in that heritage area," Sadek said.
The Association of Egyptian Architects called for the cemeteries of historic Cairo to be saved from demolition, according to a statement it published last Monday, signed by members of professional syndicates and scientific societies. The statement pointed out that the cemeteries are registered within Historic Cairo, which in turn is included in the World Heritage List, which is protected by international conventions.
Prominent tombs destroyed
A week after Sisi inaugurated the Sayyida Nafisa Mosque on Aug. 18, as part of the second wave bulldozers were at the Qarafa of Imam al-Shafi'i to demolish the aforementioned 2,760 tombs, including those of prominent Egyptians in the fields of culture, politics, religion and art, as well as members of the royal family.
"I had never been shocked like this time. The demolition was more violent and indiscriminate," Sadek said. "Even workers on bulldozers in the site felt sorry about that." He said workers helped rescue the artifacts from the tomb of Prince Ibrahim-Hilmy, son of Ismail, the Khedive of Egypt (1860-1927).
"The situation is so catastrophic," said Hossam Abdel-Azeem, founder of Egypt's Shawahid Misr initiative, which is tasked with preserving Egypt's lost heritage. Since December 2021, the initiative has rescued 25 artifacts and antiquities from the tombs, including tombstones dating from the Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century.
"All these landmarks are not registered under antiquities laws," Abdel-Azeem told Al-Monitor. But "the funeral monuments are a major factor in Egypt's history from ancient Egyptians to Islamic ages and modern history."
On Aug. 29, the Cairo governorate rejected reports that the tombs of poet Ahmed Shawqi and of Imam Warsh had been destroyed.
However, Sadek said that he did find debris close to poet Shawqi's tomb, and six graves of his family were destroyed.
Parliament member Maha Abdel Nasser sent several questions to Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly on the development plans in 2020, but she hasn't received any answers. She told Al-Monitor that five members pulled out of the Sisi's presidential committee of experts over the government's determination to demolish the graves.
"It is not clear what's behind the project and the government's determination to demolish the graves," she said. Murri said that the government's plan will replace these cemeteries with skyscrapers and green areas by 2030.
In a rare objection, Ayman Wanas, a government official who headed the Committee for the Survey of Buildings and Facilities of Distinguished Architectural Style, resigned on Thursday to protest the destruction of Cairo's historic tombs.
Wanas posted his handwritten resignation on Facebook: "The ongoing demolition of the heritage cemeteries is not only a loss of the historical cemetery buildings but a loss of a historical urban fabric of unique value in the world and an important part of the world heritage." Yet Wanas retracted his resignation the next day, saying, "My resignation has been used to criticize the government ... and I am sure that the development plan will be corrected."
World heritage site
Historic Cairo has been considered a world heritage site by UNESCO since 1979. "We sent letters to the organization, but it hasn't replied yet," Sadek said.
In 2021, UNESCO said that "no information on this project was sent beforehand to the World Heritage Center for evaluation. ... The World Heritage Center sent a letter in July 2020 to the Egyptian authorities requesting confirmation of this information and the provision of any relevant information, but neither of these has yet been provided," UNESCO said.
The organization added, "While these demolished tombs and mausolea may not have been protected/registered monuments, they are nevertheless important parts of the historic urban fabric, and the roads could channel yet more traffic into the property."
"Even UNESCO can't halt this mess," Murri said. Murri and Sadek still have a glimmer of hope that popular support might push the government to back off through talks, petitions, exhibitions and social media.
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