Videos and photos showing the demolition of tombs to make room for a new highway in historic Cairo have spread on social media channels throughout Egypt since July 18. As construction began, criticism of the cemetery’s destruction came from Cairo residents with families buried in the tombs, as well as historians and architects who say that the buildings in the area should be preserved. Authorities in Cairo responded that they have not destroyed any registered Islamic monuments.
 
The video below shows the demolition of an exterior wall of a tomb on the street Qansuh Al Ghuri, in the Northern Cemetery of the Cairo Necropolis on July 18.


Videos and pictures showing the destruction of tombs precipitated anger and confusion online, as Egyptians criticised their government for threatening historically and culturally important monuments.

“The worst album of antiquities I have photographed in my life, and the worst pictures of the Necropolis of the Mamluks in your life. For documentation only,” this poster writes.
 
The Cairo Necropolis, or the City of the Dead, is a collection of vast cemeteries that date back to the 7th century. The cemeteries, mosques and monuments in these areas are a part of Historic Cairo, which is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Over the centuries, both historical rulers and elites, as well as common people, have been laid to rest there.
 
The Cairo Necropolis is made up of three main cemeteries. (Photo: Wikipedia.)
 
The Paradise Axis highway project aims to link Al Fardous Square (on the western edge of the Northern Cemetery) to the Tantawy Highway, effectively connecting Old and New Cairo. To build the newest section of highway, eight metres of land had to be taken from each side of Qansuh Al Ghuri, a street that runs across the Northern Cemetery.

This part of the cemetery is characterised by slightly newer buildings than other areas of the Necropolis, with many notable tombs dating back to the Mamluk period (the 13th to 16th century). Several mosques and mausoleums from this period are located near the construction site, including the Tomb of Al Zahir Qansuh, a Mamluk sultan.
 
The videomaker here shows the destruction of buildings on Qansuh Al Ghuri street in Historic Cairo while pointing out the surrounding historic monuments in the area. 

According to the head of the Islamic, Coptic and Judaic Antiquities Sector, none of the buildings demolished were registered historic buildings. The Cairo Governorate has also said that only outer walls of tombs were destroyed and that they will be replaced in a similar architectural style to preserve the cultural heritage of the area. 

Land from the Necropolis has been sequestered by the government for public works projects before. Development projects focused on increasing mobility in Cairo by building roads through the cemeteries have been ongoing since at least 2011. 

'They signify a nation's collective memory and architectural mosaic'

Dr Wael Salah Fahmi, professor of architecture and urban design at Helwan University in Cairo, described the character of the Northern Cemetery area:
 
The urban fabric in the cemeteries is characterised by the historic Middle-Age architectural heritage shrines from the Mamluk era, significant tombs of prominent political, religious and cultural figures, ahwash (one-story buildings with courtyards where the deceased were buried) owned by Cairene families across generations and finally the residential islands, which are mainly informal buildings occupying empty plots and pockets of land. The architectural and heritage values of these inner cities cemeteries are basically beyond debate. Besides being part of the UNESCO heritage site of Islamic Cairo, they signify a nation's collective memory and architectural mosaic.

Despite denying the destruction of any historically important buildings, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities has created a committee to inspect the remains of the demolition to decide if any decorated or inscribed debris should be displayed in museums. 

The site of the highway project runs through a row of family mausoleums that typically have multiple rooms where the deceased are buried and an exterior wall around. 

People who own land adjacent to the highway project in the Northern Cemetery were informed by Cairo authorities on June 15 that they must move the remains of their family members buried there before construction would begin in one month.

Letters from Cairo authorities say that landowners must relocate their gravesites before construction begins. 'We have gravesites in Al Gharif that we inherited from our ancestors. The delegation of the President’s advisor wants to confiscate our gravesites and literally dig up our dead to create the highway. They want a response in 48 hours. I have no words,' this poster says.  

“They are already dead, why don't they just leave them alone?”

On June 24, Adam (name changed for privacy) and his family learned that they were obliged to move some the remains of their deceased family members before buildings on the land would be demolished. Adam’s maternal grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as a cousin, are all buried in a family tomb structure on Qansuh Al Ghuri.

Documents shared by Adam show that he and his family have owned the land where the graves are located for more than 70 years. However, Egypt’s Constitution allows for the sequestering of private property in the case that it provides a public good.

Adam reported that his family was not compensated for their trouble nor were they provided with alternative gravesites:
 
My mother and my uncle tried to take legal action but they were told that will take time and probably they will never take any rights from the government. We also heard that they gave out alternative graves but we were told that we have no rights to them as they will take half of our land – not all of it. We still needed to move some of the remains. We asked for other new graves but they were too expensive. There are cheaper ones but we had to wait and we had no time. My uncle and my brother went and moved the remains of the women to be buried beside the men as they supposed that they needed the area where our women are buried, not the whole place.

After we moved them they demolished the other part of the wall on the graves. We felt awful. My mum didn't believe it at first but after then she was crying every day. She said, ‘They are already dead, why don't they just leave them alone?’
 
This isn’t the first time that gravesites have been moved for public projects. In 2019, 76 families were compensated for government relocation of graves in the Ain Al Hayat district in southeast Cairo. 
 
'I feel like it's a betrayal'

The tombs and monuments in the Northern Cemetery were built before Cairo’s rapid expansion in the 1960s. But in recent decades, housing, roads and commercial spaces have all encroached on the City of the Dead. Urbanisation and development have driven up prices in Cairo and caused a demand for cheaper housing farther away from the city centre – pushing people into Historic Cairo. Some of Cairo’s poorest residents have even been forced to squat in empty tombs and mausoleums. 

But people like Adam, whose families have owned land in the cemetery for decades, feel that government repossessions for public projects are unfair. 
 
This area was like a desert when the graves were built, but the city was expanded until it reached the graves. It's not our fault – my grandparents took a legal licence from the government to be able to bury family. How could they take it from us? I don't feel safe for my family. I feel like it's a betrayal. I feel sad for my grandparents whom I love and we feel unable to do anything for them.

This article was written by Pariesa Young