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Millennial Letters

A Visit to Cairo's 'City of the Dead'

“There’s a dead body inside our kitchen table” said Ahmed, a bright-eyed boy about 7 years old. “It’s OK though—it’s normal” he said with a smirk. “On what planet is this normal?” I asked my father, who had spent the summer in Egypt during college. Ahmed is one of an estimated half-million people living in Egypt’s ghoulish “City of the Dead,” one of two massive inhabited cemeteries in Cairo. Ahmed’s home is in the Southern Cemetery, not far from the famous Mohammed Ali Mosque, near the Muqattam Hills.

Ahmed and the other children were kind enough to spend most of the day showing me around their neighborhood, and proudly introducing me to their tomb-dwelling parents and friends who were surprisingly gracious but understandably perplexed at our visit. As cemeteries go—I found it to be a pretty lively place! It was teaming with dusty but generally healthy-looking children, many of whom came out to see the 16 year old student from America who had wandered into their world. It occurred to me that these children have no idea how unusual their living situation is; to them it’s just “home.” Like his friends, Ahmed’s house was in fact, a repurposed mausoleum, with four stone walls, a roof, and yes, a raised stone casket enclosure at the center of the single room that was being used as the kitchen table. I will take him at his word about what (or whom) was inside.

This intriguing and ancient cemetery, also known as “Qarafa” has roots reaching back to Mamluk times (1250-1517), and the subsequent Ottoman period. Traditionally, families in Cairo would maintain a mausoleum to entomb their deceased, which they would periodically visit to pay their respects. Today, cemeteries ironically provide a housing alternative to the living, I believe due to severe economic and population pressure.

Population in greater Cairo has surged from 12 million in 1996 to over 20 million in 2016. At the same time, with the 2011 uprising ousting President Mubarak, and a military coup d’état just two years later, it’s not surprising that tourism (12% of the economy) has plummeted. The published statistics show that in 2010, pre-revolution Egypt welcomed over 14.7 million tourists, falling 35% to 9.6 million in 2014. On my recent visit to Cairo however, the Pyramids of Giza complex was eerily vacant of nearly all tourists. Besides two Germans, I was entirely alone inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. It seemed like more than a 35% decline in tourism to me.  

It is certainly reasonable to conclude that Cairo’s dramatic increase in population coupled with the rapid decline in tourism-related jobs due to political instability has driven more of Cairo’s poor into these alternative housing arrangements. With a long enough period of stability in Egypt, tourism and economic prosperity will surely return, hopefully allowing Ahmed and his family to return to the world of the living.

 

Jainam Giaimo is a senior at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, California

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