Egypt's 'City of the Dead' brought back to life - GulfToday

Egypt's 'City of the Dead' brought back to life

Egypt-heritage 1

Men sit at a cafe by the 15th century Sultan Qaitbay mosque complex in the "Desert of the Mamluks."

Since 2014, a series of projects financed by the European Union has changed the Egypt's "City of the Dead", turning a corner of the vast historical cemetery into a vibrant neighbourhood full of life.


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In the east of the capital Cairo, wood, leather and jewellery workshops have joined those of glassblowers and others near the 15th-Century mosque of Sultan Qaitbay.

From the Mamluk period, the celebrated structure featured on Egypt's one-pound notes is surrounded by monumental tombs, dusty alleys and informal housing.

Egypt-heritage 2 A glassblower sculpts a vessel at a workshop. AFP

Authorities began construction on a major road in July a short distance from the Qaitbay mosque, drawing strong criticism online for the resulting demolitions and evictions of residents of the "City of the Dead".

A final resting place for illustrious figures, including singer Farid al-Atrash and writer Ihsan Abdel Kouddous as well as ordinary Egyptians, the Islamic necropolis founded in the seventh century stretches over 6.5 kilometres (four miles).

Products made in the impoverished neighbourhood are now sold in elegant booths under restored stone arches and even online.

Social development

The renovation efforts started six years ago with the refurbishment of a drinking trough for animals, and then, the reception area of a residential complex of the sultan.

Egypt-heritage 3 A man drives a motorcycle cart loaded with butane gas cylinders near the 15th century Sultan Qaitbay mosque. AFP

The EU contributed nearly a million euros ($1.1 million) toward the latest project, "The Heritage for the Living, in the 'City of the Dead'", which launched in 2018 and focuses on social development.

The project coordinator, architect Agnieszka Dobrowolska, was a linchpin to the area's metamorphosis.

"When we first came here, our main object was to conserve the monuments," she said.

"And we quickly realised that we cannot simply conserve the monuments, in disrespect to the people who live and work in the area," added Dobrowolska, founder of Archinos Architecture, which has worked on numerous conservation projects in Cairo.

Egypt-heritage 4 A glassblower sculpts a vessel at a workshop. AFP

Work in the ateliers was interrupted for several weeks due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but now the workshops are again up and running, with some 50 women making leather products and jewellery, all stamped with the local brand Mishka.

Hundreds of women and children in the neighbourhood have benefited from courses and workshops on subjects as diverse as science and technology, English language and sports.

Object of superstition

For the EU, the primary donor to the project due to end in 2021 the social elements of the programme were key, said Christian Berger, head of the EU delegation in Egypt.

"Our intention is to support this type of project that benefits immediately vulnerable groups and disadvantaged groups, projects that have a broader socio-economic impact," Berger said.\

Egypt-heritage 5 Local residents walk past strewn trash along an alley near the 15th century Sultan Qaitbay mosque. AFP

The neighbourhood has hosted concerts, from jazz to folk and traditional Egyptian music, and visual artists from Egypt and abroad have come to show their work.

Another hope of the project in transforming the neighbourhood is to draw in tourists.

The "City of the Dead" is sometimes an object of superstition due to its status as a necropolis, and is not a usual stop on mainstream Cairo tours.

But it is the tourists who are looking for something out of the ordinary that Dobrowolska said the project is counting on.

"We seek to attract tourists who are off-track from the mass tourism destinations people who might appreciate and enjoy the unique urban character of the necropolis," she said.


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