CAIRO — Who was being buried in Cairo’s oldest cemetery on a recent afternoon was of some importance. Sleek SUVs lined the dusty streets around an ancient mausoleum draped in black and gold; designer sunglasses hid the tears of the mourners.
The cemetery’s chief undertaker, Ashraf Zaher, 48, stopped by to examine the funeral, another completed job. But he didn’t stop for long. On the same street, his daughter was about to be married. Hundreds of his neighbors, who like him also live in the cemetery, were gathering outside his house, a few mausoleums away.
As part of the celebration, men and boys were already updating a traditional sword dance with new break-dancing moves. The women were serving celebratory couscous. They had laid out on long tables the belongings the bride would take to her new home, a mixture of abundance against the austere century-old tombs where she had grown up: pots and plates; a furry red basket; a mattress made as if it were for the wedding night, its frilly white bedspread topped with a stuffed panda.
Since the Arabs conquered Cairo in the 7th century, the Cairenes have buried their dead beneath the cliffs of Mokattam that tower over the city’s historic centre, burying politicians, poets, heroes and royalty in marble-clad tombs amid verdant walled gardens. .
In the mid-20th century, the City of the Dead was also home to the living: tomb caretakers, undertakers, gravediggers and their families, along with tens of thousands of poor Cairenes who found shelter within and among the great mausoleums.
Much of that will soon disappear.
The Egyptian government is demolishing large areas of the historic cemetery, paving the way for a bridge that will link downtown Cairo to the New Administrative Capital, Egypt’s grandiose new seat of government, which President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is building in the desert some 45 kilometers east of Cairo. The destruction and construction is part of his campaign to modernize Egypt. But its costs are rarely mentioned.
“You’re looking at Cairo’s family tree. The headstones say who was married to whom, what they did, how they died,” said Mostafa el-Sadek, an amateur historian who documented the cemetery. “You will destroy history, you will destroy art.”
“And for what?” said Seif Zulficar, whose great-aunt, Queen Farida, first wife of King Farouk of Egypt, was buried here in one of the mausoleums slated for destruction. “Are you going to have a bridge?”
Big cities are always cannibalizing their past to build their future, and Cairo is a notorious recycler. Medieval conqueror Saladin tore down ancient buildings to build his massive citadel, now one of the main landmarks of the city he dominates. In the 1800s, one of Egypt’s rulers ripped stones from the pyramids to build new mosques (although as far as pharaonic plunder was concerned, European visitors were more greedy).
Cairo is also not the only metropolis to pave cemeteries for public infrastructure, as New York did to establish some of its best-known parks. But, conservationists say, Cairo’s City of the Dead is different: What will disappear is not just a historic monument where Egyptians still visit their ancestors and bury the recently deceased, but also a lively neighborhood.
Parts of the cemetery have been demolished in the last couple of years, and some mausoleums are little more than rubble, their ancient carved wooden doors gone and their marble gone.
“It is against religion to remove the bones of dead people,” said Nabuweya, 50, a tomb resident who asked that her surname not be published for fear of government reprisals. “You are not comfortable when you are living. You are not at ease even when you are dead.”
The cemetery is different from a typical western one. Each family has a walled plot, in which a garden of palm and fruit trees surrounds an airy mausoleum. The marble tombs are carved with golden Arabic calligraphy. In the larger lots, the annexes already housed living relatives who came on anniversaries and important holidays to spend the night, honoring the dead with parties and charity alms.
The rest of the year, caretakers maintained the mausoleums. This is how 67-year-old Fathy, who also declined to have her surname publicized, his wife, Mona, 56, and their three children came to live next to the tomb of Neshedil Qadin, consort of 19th-century ruler Khedive Ismail, considered the founder of modern Egypt. Fathy’s father and grandfather took care of the royal mausoleum, raising their children there before passing on their jobs and homes.
After the Egyptian revolution of 1952 deposed the king and drove most of the Egyptian aristocracy to flight, the government allowed commoners to buy graves inside the old family mausoleums and stopped paying to maintain the tombs. The custom of relatives staying overnight disappeared.
Fathy received his last salary from the government in 2013. But he built a decent living: saving money, the family renovated their rooms, installed electricity and running water. They enjoyed what amounted to a private garden, drying their clothes on clotheslines that passed through half a dozen graves.
The government plans to move residents to furnished public housing in the desert. But, critics say, few will have the wherewithal to cover the down payment of around $3,800 or the $22 monthly rent, especially after their livelihoods — jobs at the cemetery or nearby business districts — disappear along with the graves. .
The dead will also go to the desert. The government offered new graves for families south of Cairo, uniform brick mausoleums much smaller than the originals. They are free, although families must pay for the transfer.
Fathy’s parents were buried near Neshedil’s grave. But he was worried about where the princess, as he called her, would go. “My grandfather, father and I spent our lives living here with her,” he said.
Egyptian officials have pondered destroying the cemetery and moving its inhabitants to the desert for years, in part to modernize the city and improve living standards, in part, critics accused, because private developers had their eye on the land in that it was.
In the early 1980s, Galila el-Kadi, an architect who has studied the cemetery for decades, found about 179,000 residents, the last known count. She said many more moved after Egypt’s 2011 revolution, when a power vacuum loosened security.
“They never dealt with the relationship between the city of the living and the city of the dead,” el-Kadi said of the authorities. “It was a disgrace to the government. And in Egypt, when there is a problem that seems insoluble, or very difficult to solve, the solution is simply to exclude it.”
The mausoleums registered as landmarks will be preserved, according to Khaled el-Husseiny, a spokesman for the Administrative Capital for Urban Development, the state-owned company developing the new capital. Other graves to be spared include that of a relative of el-Sisi, according to preservationists, who said the government’s plans for the cemetery had changed to prevent the destruction of his relative’s grave.
But only a small part of the total has the landmark designation, which will leave them isolated among new construction, conservationists said.
Mr. Zaher, the chief mortician, is moving into the new cemetery along with the homeless dead. He’s not wasting time on nostalgia. There are many cemeteries who are happy to exchange shabby houses for new apartments, he said.
“Instead of living in a cemetery,” Zaher said with a shrug, “they’re going to live in an apartment.”
He said the new flyover would also ease traffic, though it’s unclear whether that should matter to people who are largely car-free and rarely travel outside the neighborhood.
Many officials don’t seem to realize what the new bridge will replace.
While leading a visit to the new capital, Ahmad el-Helaly, an official at the development company, was concerned to learn that Queen Farida had been unearthed, her remains transferred to a nearby mosque with special permission from the government. Mr. el-Helaly named his daughter after the queen.
It was sad, he said. But after a moment, he got rid of it.
“What can I say?” he said. “Cairo is overcrowded. We have to do something to restore the glory of old Cairo, to restore the beauty of old Cairo.”
So much for the old. Then it was back to the tour, and the new one.
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.