Cairo masterplan threatens ancient City of the Dead

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Demolition nether  mode   with bulldozer seen successful  the background, men connected  extortion   of tomb successful  Sayyida Nafisa cemeteryImage source, Wael Hussein

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Graves are being demolished to marque mode for roads and bridges

By Wael Hussein & Yolande Knell

BBC News, successful Cairo and Jerusalem

In the aboriginal greeting haze, women dressed successful achromatic and men with grim expressions stitchery successful Cairo's centuries-old Sayyida Nafisa cemetery.

But they are not present to hide their relatives. They are present to exhume them.

"This is simply a treble trauma," says Iman, sobbing arsenic she directs proceedings.

"First my parent - my mentor - passed distant past year. Now I americium digging up her caller assemblage and my grandparents' remains, putting them successful sacks, and driving distant to rebury them successful caller graves successful the desert."

Image source, Wael Hussein

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Remains of a tomb successful Sayyida Nafisa cemetery, aft bodies were exhumed

Iman's communicative is not unusual. In the past 2 years, the locations of respective 1000 graves successful Historic Cairo, a Unesco World Heritage Site, person been razed. They see immoderate successful the celebrated City of the Dead.

The Egyptian authorities is clearing a wide country to marque mode for caller main roads and flyover bridges, which it says volition amended postulation travel successful the sprawling, congested megacity, location to astir 20 cardinal people.

These volition besides link the bosom of the superior with a caller administrative 1 being built 45km (28 miles) to the east, a flagship mega-project costing billions of dollars.

Image source, Mostafa El-Sadek

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A presumption of a historical cemetery successful Cairo with operation of a span successful the background

The developments are being pitched arsenic portion of an effort to modernise Egypt. Since President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi came to powerfulness successful 2014, authoritative figures amusement a full of 7,000km (4,350 miles) of roads and immoderate 900 bridges and tunnels person been built crossed the country, with subject contractors carrying retired overmuch of the work.

The authorities importune that nary of the galore registered monuments successful this aged portion of Cairo, immoderate dating backmost to the Arab Conquests successful the 7th Century, are being damaged and that owed respect is being shown to the astir important tombs.

"We can't bash thing to harm the graves of radical we respect oregon against monumental areas. We physique bridges to debar this," President Sisi has said. "We should not springiness an opening to those who privation to tarnish our efforts."

His officials accidental that the affected gravesites are mostly from the past period and that compensation is being given.

However, determination has been a nationalist outcry implicit the nonaccomplishment of invaluable architecture and a unsocial taste practice successful six historical cemeteries wherever Egypt's notables person agelong been buried, often successful fancy marble tombs engraved with Arabic calligraphy.

Image source, Mostafa El-Sadek

Royals, renowned Islamic scholars, poets, intellectuals and nationalist heroes person not been near to remainder successful peace.

With his achromatic hairsbreadth and nonrecreational camera, Dr Mostafa El-Sadek makes for a distinctive fig searching the rubble of the demolished graveyards with young volunteers. He is simply a distinguished obstetrician and assemblage prof who has turned tomb raider.

"I'm truthful atrocious to spot the graves of Historic Cairo being removed. We tin larn our past from graveyards," says Dr Sadek, who attempts to salvage headstones and different artefacts. "This is priceless. I judge these treasures should beryllium saved."

He recounts however this period helium caught a glimpse of a chromatic slab built into a demolished partition containing engravings successful Kufic script, an aboriginal benignant of Arabic calligraphy, portion searching successful Imam Shafei cemetery, crossed the thoroughfare from Sayyida Nafisa.

His radical cautiously removed the tombstone and recovered it had an inscription for a pistillate called Umamah, and dated backmost to the 9th Century.

Image source, Mostafa El-Sadek

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Dr Mostafa El-Sadek removing particulate from a 9th Century tombstone helium recovered by chance

"The chromatic was looking astatine maine and I was looking astatine it. It wanted maine to acceptable it escaped from the wall!" says Dr Sadek fancifully. The tombstone has present been handed implicit to the ministry of tourism and antiquities successful the anticipation it volition spell connected show successful a museum.

Under successive caliphates and Muslim dynasties, the dormant of Cairo person been buried successful this portion of the city, beneath the debased scope of the Muqattam Hills.

In the past, each well-off household had its ain walled crippled with a mausoleum acceptable successful a leafy garden. Outbuildings were sometimes added to accommodate visiting relatives and were different location to caretakers.

With morticians and gravediggers and their families, and later, tens of thousands of mediocre Egyptians, coming to unrecorded among the tombs, the City of the Dead successful particular, came to location an antithetic community, which is threatened by the construction.

Image source, Wael Hussein

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View of the City of the Dead, a bid of immense Islamic-era necropolises and cemeteries

Some residents person already taken up authorities offers to determination distant to rented apartments built connected the outskirts of Cairo.

"Unfortunately, Cairo volition suffer a precise precious heritage," says Galila el-Kadi, an designer who has studied the City of the Dead and its residents since the aboriginal 1980s, arsenic good arsenic the different historical cemeteries.

She does not bargain the arguments by authorities ministries astir a caller masterplan for Cairo.

"They don't cognize what is the meaning of heritage, what is the meaning of history," she complains. "This is an situation that each past rulers person conserved successful past times and modern times too."

Image source, Wael Hussein

Property developers person agelong eyed this premier existent property and, implicit the years, Ms Kadi has utilized her probe to organise conferences, lobby ministers and acceptable up petitions to effort to support the cemeteries.

This time, adjacent an attack to Unesco has been to nary avail, though the bureau has expressed interest that the demolitions of tombs and roadworthy operation could person "a large interaction connected the historical municipality fabric" of the area.

The remains of Queen Farida - the woman of King Farouk I, who was overthrown successful a 1952 coup - were moved to a mosque aft her tomb was destroyed.

Also pulled down was the sedate of Abdullah Zuhdi, the 19th Century calligrapher whose exquisite works adorn Islam's 2 astir revered mosques successful Mecca and Medina.

Image source, Mostafa El-Sadek

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Families person been offered different places to rebury their dead

There person been immoderate constricted victories, specified arsenic a caller run to prevention the tomb of the large 20th Century Egyptian novelist and intellectual, Taha Hussein, aft his sedate was marked with a reddish "x" for demolition.

However, preservationists constituent retired that the integrity of the country is being mislaid due to the fact that remaining tombs and monuments volition beryllium unsocial beneath oregon surrounded by caller roads.

"They are creating isolated islands, separated from each other," Ms Kadi says.

Now, she is devoting her efforts to gathering up a database of photographs and maps of the area.

"It's a precise atrocious feeling, but maine and my team, and each radical who attraction astir the heritage, each that we tin bash present is sphere the representation of these places," she goes on. "That's the lone mode to transmit it to aboriginal generations."

Back astatine Sayyida Nafisa cemetery, Iman remains distraught arsenic she disinters her relatives.

She describes however her household was sent a missive asking them to enactment rapidly aft the graves were listed for demolition.

"This is simply a desecration of the dead. I utilized to find bid of caput visiting my mum buried present with my grandparents," she says. "When I was sad, I'd travel present and speech to her. Plus it was my mum's last privation to beryllium buried present with her mum and dad."

The latest circular of operation affects 2,600 backstage graves. Besides the affectional strain, galore families kick that the compensation that they are being fixed does not lucifer the fiscal costs.

"My gramps chose to beryllium buried adjacent to this Muslim saint and paid $100,000 [£80,700] successful 2019 for this backstage burial abstraction by Sayyida Nafisa Mosque," says a pistillate astatine different graveside, who asks for her sanction not to beryllium used.

Her household has been fixed a caller 40 sq m (431 sq ft) burial spot of acold little value, astir 55km extracurricular Cairo.

She says that her feelings of sorrow and bitterness astir what is happening to her grandfather's crippled are overlaid with despair astatine the standard of the destruction.

"These graveyards are conscionable truthful affluent successful architecture and art," she adds, gesturing astir her. "The authorities should not beryllium demolishing them. It should beryllium turning them into unfastened aerial museums."

All photographs taxable to copyright.

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