Cairo’s great cemeteries were developed at least a thousand years ago in the Fatimid era, if not before, at the time of the Arab Conquest. Egypt is of course well known for its burial traditions. After all, the pyramids up the road in Giza are arguably the most celebrated tombs ever created by man. Some believe that certain beliefs dating back to Pharaonic Egypt may have survived, most notably the way Egyptians perceive death. For many, death is not regarded as the end but the beginning, and cemeteries are not places to be avoided or dreaded, but visited and respected.
The tradition of travelling to a family grave on certain days during the calendar, and on Fridays, is a part of Egyptian culture, and in part it’s a reason that so many people live in the burial grounds. The tombs of the rich or powerful have always had guardians who attend to their families when they visit the deceased, and during the 40 days of mourning after a death. Many others look after the pilgrims who flock to the city’s Sufi shrines, and to the graves of members of the Prophet’s family.
Centuries ago when the cemeteries were first established, they were far from the medina of medieval Cairo. But as the city’s urban sprawl has raged forwards like wildfire, the City of the Dead finds itself remarkably central. Free from the press of tenement blocks, and choking traffic, the vast burial grounds are not such a bad place to live. It’s true that the plumbing is almost non-existent, and the lack of sewerage leads to the insufferable stench during the summer heat, but there is often electricity, and a few mod cons as well.
A fairly long article about the peculiar life lived by some Egyptians in the cemeteries of Cairo.