People who are not familiar with Egypt are often startled when they hear how many people live in Cairo’s “City of the Dead”, and tend to imagine the cemetery inhabitants as a band of outcasts engaging in sinister activities while squatting among the graves. This is very far from true. The people of the cemetery are just another community in the varied social mosaic of Cairo, living their everyday lives and celebrating festive occasions, working, trading, shopping, raising children. Unlike cemeteries in Western countries, the City of the Dead was always intended to be also a part of the city of the living. Rulers and dignitaries who were buried there attached to their tombs mosques endowed as teaching institutions, Sufi convents, and different charities, and erected residential buildings for the numerous people who worked in them.
The cemeteries, including the Qaitbey area in the Desert of the Mamluks, were once located in the open desert outside the city. Now they have been engulfed by the ever-growing metropolis. Still, the City of the Dead has a distinctive character. Just across the road, cars packed bumper-to-bumper are honking madly, every inch of the sidewalk feels crowded, and the very idea of stillness and calm seems alien. Here, the pace of life is different. The wind-swept, quiet streets and vast empty spaces still sometimes have an almost desert-like air. Every Thursday and Friday black-clad women sell colourful flowers to people who come to visit their family tombs.
Yet life finds its way in. Some people live in funerary enclosures turned into residential courtyards, some in former guards’ rooms and historic buildings, and some in hastily erected new houses that have proliferated especially after 2011. Everybody knows everyone else in the close-knit communities. Groceries are sold at the marketplace, craftsmen work in their workshops and sometimes right on the streets, people hang out their laundry and do their everyday chores. Boys play football in empty alleys, children run around flying kites, crowds gather to celebrate annual mulids, the colourful festivals in honour of venerated shaykhs buried here.
People who live here cannot afford luxurious dwellings, but they care about their homes. Houses are colourfully painted or decorated with wall-tiles, many small gardens are lovingly tended, the tall wooden dovecotes for homing pigeons are amazing feats of home-grown engineering ingenuity. With people going about their everyday lives in the shadow of splendid mediaeval monuments as they have for more than 700 years, Cairo’s City of the Dead is definitely undead.