El’Arafa – the City of the Dead


During our visit to Cairo we tried to visit the City of the Dead, an Islamic necropolis below the Mokattam Hills in southeastern Cairo. The people of Cairo call it el’arafa – meaning ‘the cemetery’. It is somewhere within these 4 miles of dense grids of tomb and mausoleum structures, that Lucie Duff Gordon is believed to be buried.

Her daughter Janet Ross wrote, after Lucie’s death in Cairo on July 14, 1869:

‘Her desire had been to be among her ‘own people’ at Thebes, but when she felt she would never see Luxor again, she gave orders to be buried as quietly as possible in the cemetery at Cairo.’

Unfortunately, our driver did not deem it safe for us to walk amid the tombs and mausoleums which are home to millions of people who live and work amongst the dead. There are coffee shops, a post office and several schools within this sprawling necropolis but also in recent years, drug dens and organised crime has begun to flourish; hence our driver’s reticence to let me wander. Many reside here to be near ancestors, of recent to ancient lineage. Others live here after losing their homes to urbanisation within the city.

Its roots lie in the Caliphate era of the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 642 AD, when the Muslim Arab commander ‘Amr ibn al-‘As founded the first Islamic Egyptian capital, the city of Al Fustat, and established his family’s graveyard at the foot of the hill known as al Mokattam. By the sixteenth century ‘an urban and heterogeneous community populated el Arafa’ and the necropolis became home to the affluent dead and their families, many of which became the custodians to the graves. There were also staff in charge of the burial services and other residents included the Sufi mystics in their khawaniq (Sufi colleges) and during the Fatamid era pilgrims who came to visit the Ahl al Bayt (Prophet’s family) shrines.  The necropolis became a spiritual draw for those in search of baraka (blessing) and it soon expanded to include an extraordinary mix of tombs, Sufi colleges, and madrasas (educational institution for religious or secular teachings)

In later years the sprawling urbanisation of Cairo, increased poverty and economic downturn throughout Egypt contributed to an increase in the amount of people forced to live within the cemetery and nearby slums.

I would have loved to have tracked down Lucie’s grave but considering the vast nature of this hauntingly beautiful but increasingly desolate place, sadly it was not possible.

Lucie once said:

‘The people have been hospitable to me alive and they will not cease if I die, but give me a tomb among the Arabs.’  One old man said, “May I not see thy day, oh Lady, and indeed thou shouldest be buried as a daughter of the Arabs, but we should fear the anger of thy Consul and thy family, but thou knowest that wherever thou art buried thou wilt assuredly lie in a Muslim grave”.’


Photo by Michal Huniewicz – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:City_of_the_Dead_Cairo.jpg#/media/File:City_of_the_Dead_Cairo.jpg

All other photos copyright – Philippa Faulks 2016






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