- from the City of the Dead in Cairo, part 1/3Next > 2/3
"Shortcut?" asked the taxi driver while looking for a new cassette of the legendary Oum Kalthoum. I answered yes while the black cassette player threatened to eat the cassette he just had selected from his unorganized collection. Then, to the relief of both of us the song "Elf Leila wa leila" (thousand and one night) started to fill the taxi..
Between two autostradas was our "shortcut road" - and in the middle of this road a beautiful monument. A domed building standing proud in a city of exhaust, dreams and legends. Built in medieval times for a lovely woman from the ruling class - well she just had to have been beautiful to match such a monument?
Passed this monuments often on my way from Heliopolis to downdown, but next day I knew all would change somehow. The monument in the middle of the road would then turn into the entrance to nothing less than the "City of the Dead, Cairo"!
The City of the Dead or the Qarafa Cemetery has become famous through many newspaper and television reportages focusing on the people living here among tombs and monuments. But to understand the importance of this area of Cairo, let's give a short background:
When general Amr ibn al-As in 639 AD came to Egypt with his army and the teaching of Islam, it was seven years after the death of Prophet Mohamed. Ancient Egypt became part of the Islamic empire after having been ruled the last three hundred years by the East Roman Empire.
There was no Cairo as we know it, the ancient capital Memphis was located among pyramids on the west bank of the Nile and on the east bank was legendary On (Heliopolis).
Between Memphis and On, directly on the east side of the Nilebank at a strategic junction between the Nile Valley and the Delta the Roman fortress Babylon was located. After the Romans were defeated the Arabs put up their garrison city Al-Fustat (the Entrenched Camp) just north of Babylon.
An area close to Muqattam Hills (north of today's Citadel) was chosen as cemetery for Al-Fustat and it soon covered an area that was over six kilometres long. When the Fatmids came to Egypt in year 969 they established the fortified royal enclosure Al-Qahira (the Subduer or the Victorious) that was the start of what is Cairo today.
Later important Sufi orders choose the area outside Al-Qahira for their spiritual seeking and when important Sufi Sheikhs was buried close to the settlement these tombs became places for pilgrimages.
Mamluks in Arabic mean "possessed" and the Mamluks was slave soldiers coming from Turkey and Black Sea area brought to Egypt as young boys. Then raised in the household of the sultan. When they reached maturity they were freed and remained the sultans loyal advisors and lifeguards, a kind of elite army so to say.
The last Ayyubid sultan died when the Sixth Crusade invaded Egypt, and his wife Shaggarat El Dorr took control and the Mamluks captured the French king in 1250. Shaggarat El Dorr marry later the Mamluk leader As-Salih and becomes the first (and only) Muslim Sultana. Her story could fill books, but important here is that from her death Egypt starts to be ruled by Mamluks. It's a strong area in Egypt's long history with its unique Mamluk architecture and the City of the Dead is maybe the best place to witness the remains of this period.
Monuments in the City of the Dead Cairo is not accessible for tourist busses, and it's not advisable to go her without someone who know the City of the Dead well. The only real option through Qarafa is a walking tour together with a professional guide - so read the second part of this article and see more photo's of monument to understand what one can miss if one only follows the main tourist stream while in Cairo.