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HANDS ON Traditional Crafts at The City of the Dead in Cairo

The qarafa al-sharqiya (the Eastern Cemetery, also called the Northern Cemetery) is known as the sahara al-mamalik (the Desert of the Mamluks). It is a well-fitting name, because this section of the cemetery was first developed in the Bahri Mamluk period in the early 14th century, and flourished as the burial ground for sultans and dignitaries. The main road through the cemetery was part of the processional route taken on festive occasions by the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, and over time it became adorned with important architectural monuments. After the end of the Mamluk sultanate in 1517 the area lost its pre-eminence as the prestigious resting place of the rulers, but continued as a cemetery for prominent families. The late 19th and early 20th century saw a revival of the Eastern Cemetery as the location for tombs of the Egyptian royal family, starting with the mausoleum of Khedive Tewfiq of 1894. This attracted other wealthy families, who built ornate burial complexes, mostly in neo-Mamluk style.


Unlike tombs in cemeteries in the West, the mausolea of Mamluk sultans and princes were huge multifunctional religious complexes comprising mosques endowed as religious schools, Sufi convents, and various charities. As such, they permanently employed considerable numbers of people. The “City of the Dead” has always also been a city of the living. Typical funerary monuments were walled enclosures that contained family tombs together with rooms built to accommodate the descendants visiting the cemetery. The popular custom of visiting the graves continues today, while many of the enclosures have been turned into residential courtyards. Increasingly, multi-storey residential buildings are now being erected in the area.


The following is the list of all registered monuments and some unlisted historic buildings in the section of the Eastern Cemetery between the “Tomb of the Watchman” to the north (off Fardus roundabout) to the tomb of Amir Azrumuk to the south (across from the northern end of al-Azhar Park.)


Living with the Past in the City of the Dead

The mausoleum that now stands on a traffic island in the middle of a busy road is the only surviving part of a much larger complex. Its location at the northern end of the “Mamluks’ Desert” earned it a sobriquet Qubbat al-Ghafir, “Dome of the Watchman” (although there are Mamluk tombs located even further north.)

The complex, now much ruined, was typical of the religious foundations built by the sultans in the cemetery. It comprised numerous structures, including a mosque designed as a cruciform madrasa with its minaret, a khanqa: a huge Sufi convent with its attendant service facilities, a sabil distributing drinking water as charity (this is a rare example of a sabil as a free-standing structure), and the domed tomb of the founder.

One of the largest funerary complexes in Cairo, that built for Amir Kebir Qurqumas includes a mosque in the form of a cruciform madrasa with a minaret and an attached sabil-kuttab, the domed mausoleum of the amir, and a huge palatial hall for the use of the founder and his descendants which is built over an arcade that opened onto a courtyard used for burials of the amir’s retainers.

These two tombs of women of the royal family located across the modern street from the complexes of Amir Kebir Qurqumas and Sultan Inal are examples of how the form of a Mamluk domed mausoleum was re-interpreted in the mid-20th century.

Built for an unknown amir, this tomb is known as the “Tomb of the Sparrow” probably because of its minute size. It is built of stone, with the dome sitting on a scrolled zone-of-transition and decorated with geometric patterns. Although the building is small, its stone-carving is of very good craftsmanship. There are remnants of a sabil adjacent to the tomb. It is currently inaccessible.

The roughly rectangular enclosure of stone walls with the founder’s domed tomb in a corner, an arcade along the wall facing Mecca, and some other rooms along the perimeter wall, including an ornate gate and an entrance hall is a typical example of what many tombs in the cemetery looked like, including the original complex of Sultan Inal.

t is not known for whom this tomb was built, nor who the Seven Maidens in its popular name were. The tomb chamber and zone-of-transition are stone-built, and covered with a plain plastered brick dome.The cornices of muqarnas niches at the tops of the walls and over the zone-of-transition are a rare feature in Cairo. 

This building is quite different in appearance from other Mamluk domed mausolea in the Cemetery. A huge and squat stone-built chamber and a plain stepped zone-of-transition are covered with a plain plastered brick dome braced with a double iron ring. The construction of the dome is unusual (but not unique in Cairo), where arches spanning two windows in each corner provide the transition from square to octagon.

The name under which this monument is known suggests that it was built for the mother of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay, who is buried nearby. There is no inscription on the building to give its exact date. Its style suggests that it was built about 1430, but it includes traditional features found in earlier tombs. Of these, the plain, stepped zone-of-transition built of bricks, and the one-over-two keel-arch windows in it are similar to early Mamluk tombs at the Cemetery (like the tomb of Anas).

This huge structure was reportedly a palace originally built by Khedive Isma’il for his mother Khushiyar, and then acquired and re-built by the al-Waqqad family in the 1870s. The large stone-built complex blends neo-Mamluk motifs with European designs. The grand façade on Sultan Ahmad Street is of Classical composition overall.

This huge multifunctional religious complex was founded by Sultan Farag Ibn Barquq (reigned 1399-1405 and 1405-1412) in honour of his father, who at the end of his life expressed the desire to be buried in the Eastern Cemetery and is interred here. Farag himself, who ascended the throne when he was ten, was killed in Syria aged twenty-three and was buried there.

The tomb stands in the garden at the back of the complex of Sultan Farag Ibn Barquq. To reach it one enters through the gate in the iron fence to the left of the entrance to that mosque and proceeds along the façade (noticing the impressively large size of the stone masonry blocks!) to the back.

This stone- built domed mausoleum stands next to the north-western corner of the huge funerary enclosure of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay. Ganibak was a favourite mamluk of Barsbay, and was given the high office of dawadar (secretary) in recognition of his long-standing loyalty. He was renowned for his generosity and his knowledge of Islamic law.

The plain stone-built domed mausoleum originally stood next to the mosque of the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim beside the Bab al-Futuh gate in the north walls of Cairo. When the Bohra, a sect of Isma’ili Shi’ites who claim direct spiritual descent from the Fatimid Caliphs, restored the mosque of al-Hakim in 1980-81, the tomb of Quiqumas was transferred to its present location within the funerary enclosure of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay.

Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay, originally a mamluk of Sultan Barquq, also built a mosque/madrasa with a tomb on the Qasaba (Muizz l’id-Din Allah Street) in Fatimid Cairo. The complex in the Eastern Cemetery, built of stone, comprises a mosque with a minaret, a khanqa, and the sultan’s tomb.

This complex was built probably towards the end of the 15th/9th century by a member of the ‘ulama’. It is known under the name takiya, an Ottoman term for a Sufi convent (called khanqa in Mamluk times,) indicating that it remained in use after the Turkish conquest of 1517. Although the façade was restored by the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe, it is again decaying, and the rest of the building is in ruins. 

This is the northernmost surviving part of the enormous religious complex founded by Sultan Qaitbey, who turned the area into a “royal suburb” spread around the mosque/madrasa in its centre.

The charities providing drinking water to animals (hawd) were not as numerous in Cairo as those serving people (sabil), but quite a number have been preserved. Sultan Qaitbey built at least three in the city. The present look of the stone-built structure is mostly the result of the late 19th century work of the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe.

Sultan Qaitbey was one of the few Mamluk rulers who died of natural causes at an old age, and throughout his long reign he was a great patron of architecture. Along with other buildings he erected in Cairo, this complex is among the most important and artistically significant in the city. Its basic plan is that of a small cruciform madrasa with a covered central courtyard, typical of late Burgi Mamluk architecture in Cairo.

The sabil with two large rectangular windows covered with flat arches with elaborate joggled voissoirs adjoins an arcade of two pointed arches – possibly another hawd (drinking-trough for animals) within the funerary complex, in addition to the one north of the mosque. A more ornate sabil is placed at the corner of the mosque. 

The tomb is believed to have been built for Qaytbay before he became sultan, and later incorporated into his larger complex. The present name comes from an Ottoman period Sufi shaykh (apparently a different person from Shaykh al-Gulshayni who is buried in a takiya near Bab Zuwayla). 

This was once part of a huge palace built by Sultan Qaitbey next to his tomb. A maq‘ad (literally, a sitting-place) was part of every wealthy house in Cairo in Mamluk, and later in Ottoman times. It was a loggia raised over storerooms that were located on the ground floor. It opened on the inner courtyard, the central space of every household, with an arcade of arches supported on stone columns.

This was originally part of the complex of Sultan Qaitbey, subsequently adapted for later tombs. Only the façade is listed as a monument. The façade features windows set in muqarnas-topped niches. It was originally crowned with fleur-de-lys crenellations, now mostly missing. The stonemasonry dates from Qaytbay’s time and is of excellent quality.

The pointed-arch stone gate, simple and unadorned, was the southern entrance to the huge complex of Sultan Qaitbey’s “Royal Suburb”. Its significance lies primarily in indicating the scale of Sultan Qaytbay’s complex, which extended at least all the way to the rab‘a more than 250 meters to the north of the gate.

The royal mausoleum called Qubbat Afandina, (Tomb of Our Master) is the resting place of Khedive Tewfiq (1852-1892) and other members of the royal family descended from Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha. It includes the tomb of Pembe Khadin, who was wife of Ahmed Tusun Pasha (1793-1816) and mother of the Pasha of Egypt ‘Abbas Hilmi I (1813-1854).

Sulayman Pasha held different posts, including master of the Arsenal with the title ‘al-Silahdar’. He was part of the centralised administration that Muhammad `Ali Pasha, who ruled Egypt from 1805, established after ruthlessly eliminating the powerful Mamluk elite in 1811. Sulayman amassed a huge fortune and built two large commercial establishments in Cairo, as well as a marble-clad mosque on the Qasaba, the main street of the medieval city.

The tomb was built for a civilian amir who served under three sultans (Barquq, Abdel Aziz, and Farag) but died before reaching 30. The tomb was incorporated into the premises of Sultan Qaytbey’s complex when it was built about 70 years later. The burial chamber is built of stone, and was completely re-faced by the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe in the late 19th century.

The venerated Shaykh Abdallah al-Menufi died in a.d.1348/748 a.h. The present tomb was built either in ’s times in 1470s, or perhaps in the first half of the 15th/9th century.


The brick-and-stone built tomb is unusual in Cairo for being not a square domed mausoleum, but an iwan (a hall with no front wall opening onto a courtyard) covered with a pointed barrel vault. It is flanked by two lower iwans opening on the central one. The central iwan once faced a courtyard, which it is now mostly built-up.

Tashtimur was known under a nickname Hummus Akhdar, or ‘green chickpeas’. Similar monikers were not unusual among the Mamluks (for example, Sultan Barquq’s name means ‘plum’.) Amir Tashtimur was the saqi, or Cup-Bearer of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad. After the Sultan’s death, his two sons were installed on the throne successively within a year, the second only six years old.

The mausoleum has the tomb chamber and the simple geometric zone-of-transition built of stone, and a plain plastered dome on a tall drum, all of which are built of bricks. Remnants of a sabil and a small mosque are also preserved from the once larger complex. Locally, the tomb is known under the name al-Zumr, apparently a corruption of the amir’s name into a word meaning an oboe-like musical instrument.

The tomb of Guzal (or Kuzal) is locally known as Sidi Karkar due to a mistaken reading of the inscription on it. The tomb chamber is built of stone. The stepped zone-of-transition with one-over-two keel arch windows and the dome with a rib-and-fillet decorative pattern are built of bricks and are completely in the style of early Mamluk domes built nearby in the reign of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad.

Tughay was the mother of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalaun’s eldest and favourite son, Anuk. She had been al-Nasir Muhammad’s slave before he freed and married her. Known for her beauty and piety, she was the Sultan’s favourite wife, and an influential and wealthy figure. She enjoyed a respectable position at the court after her husband’s passing in 1341 until she died of plague eight years later.

Although there is some confusion regarding her identity, Khawand (Princess) Tulbay, sometimes spelled Tulbiya, was according to most accounts the wife of Sultan Hasan, the builder of the magnificent mosque at the foot of the Citadel of Cairo. She died in 1364.

The main structure, now barely visible behind later additions, is an open canopy with a pyramidal roof built of stone. Only a handful of similar structures now survive in the cemetery. In late Ottoman times, they were apparently the most popular form for tombs. The Description de l’Egypte, which shows the cemeteries as they looked around the year 1800, includes plates that show exclusively numerous such canopies.

The Amir’s nickname, literally meaning ‘pot of honey’, refers to a type of melon. It was not unusual for the Mamluks to have monikers referring to edible items, such as Amir Tashtimur ‘green chickpeas’, whose mausoleum is not far away. Nasrallah was a civilian amir who died during the reign of Sultan Gaqmaq, during whose long reign many fine buildings were erected in Cairo.

This is a very late-Mamluk tomb, built by a man who was ‘Amir of One Hundred’ under Sultan Qansuh al Ghuri, meaning that he served under the orders of this Sultan’s Commander of the Armies, Amir Kebir Qurqumas, whose grand funerary complex stands some 1,500 metres away at the other end of the Northern Cemetery.

In addition to the listed monuments, there are hundreds of tombs not officially listed as historic buildings in the Mamluks’ Desert area of the cemetery. Many of them are of much historical significance, of high artistic value and great aesthetic appeal. A careful visitor will spot mediaeval and Ottoman remnants not included in official records, re-used antique architectural pieces, and Ottoman-period canopied structures that have now become rare, but which at the time of the Napoleonic expedition at the close of the eighteenth century were plentiful in the cemeteries of Cairo.

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