CAIRO • Egyptian mother of three Menna said she was caught off guard when a bulldozer clearing space for a controversial highway flattened much of a mausoleum that doubled as her home in a sprawling cemetery.
“The earth mover suddenly hit the wall and we found ourselves throwing our things in a panic” outside, she told Agence France-Presse. Surrounded by rubble and dust in the Unesco-listed world heritage site, she added: “They kicked us out on the street.”
Ms Menna’s parents and grandparents had made their home among the graves of the City of the Dead, the oldest necropolis in the Muslim world.
For the thousands unable to afford prohibitively high rents in Egypt’s capital, the burial chambers provide shelter. Many built extensions to the original mausoleums, eking out a largely tranquil, if bizarre, existence side by side with dead sultans, singers and saints in the sprawling cemetery.
Ms Menna has sought refuge with neighbours in a part of the cemetery that is not in the demolition area.
Dozens of bodies were displaced by construction work in the second half of last month, said local media, to make way for the 17.5km Al-Ferdaous, or Paradise, highway. Connecting major Cairo road arteries, it is the latest instalment of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s urban vision.
He aims to transfer the centre of political power to a new capital, about 45km east of Cairo – a mega project in the desert overseen by the military’s engineering arm.
It is not just residents of the City of the Dead who are upset by the demolition work undertaken there.
Ms Galila El Kadi, a Marseille-based veteran architect and urban researcher, said the site is “an important component” of the capital’s urban history.
A final resting place for illustrious figures and ordinary Egyptians, the Islamic necropolis founded in the 7th century stretches over 6.5km. It is full of ornately designed domes with chiselled Quranic verses that have been the object of fascination for orientalist painters and historians.
Ms Kadi, who authored a book on the City of the Dead, said the demolition had reached a historic perimeter where luminaries are buried, including Sultan Abu Sa’id Qansuh of the Mamluk dynasty in the 15th century. She said the demolitions would result in a loss of Cairo’s “visual identity and its memory”.
IN A PANIC
The earth mover suddenly hit the wall and we found ourselves throwing our things in a panic.
MS MENNA, a mother of three living among the graves of the City of the Dead, as her parents and grandparents did.
They reveal the “blind and arbitrary” character of a haphazard urban planning vision, driven by a “bulldozer policy”, Ms Kadi alleged.
Unesco told AFP that it was “neither informed nor consulted” about the demolition work undertaken last month. It added: “The World Heritage Centre is following up with the Egyptian authorities to review the matter and assess any potential impacts on the outstanding universal value, authenticity and integrity of the property.”
Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities has defended the work undertaken in the cemetery last month and said “there was no destruction of monuments”. Only “recent graves” were moved, it said.