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General view of the City of the Dead

The City of the Dead, or Cairo Necropolis (Arabic: القرافة‎, romanizedal-Qarafa), is a series of vast Islamic-era necropolises and cemeteries on the edges of historic Cairo, in Egypt. They are named al-Qarafa after Banu Qarafa ibn Ghusn ibn Wali clan, a Yemeni clan descended from Banu Ma'afir tribe.[1] They extend to the north and to the south of the Cairo Citadel, below the Mokattam Hills, covering an area roughly 4 miles long.

The necropolis is separated roughly into two regions: the Northern Cemetery to the north of the Citadel (also called the Eastern Cemetery or qarafat ash-sharq in Arabic, because it is east of the old city walls), and the Southern Cemetery to the south of the Citadel. There is also another, relatively smaller, cemetery north of Bab al-Nasr.[2] To the east of the Northern Cemetery is Manshiyat Naser, also known as "Garbage City", a poor neighborhood inhabited by the Zabbaleen, who make a living by processing and recycling Cairo's garbage.[3]

The necropolis that makes up "the City of the Dead" has been developed over many centuries and contains both the graves of the Cairo's common population as well as the elaborate mausoleums of many of its historical rulers and elites. It started with the early city of Fustat (founded in 642 CE) and arguably reached its apogee, in terms of prestige, during the Mamluk era (13th-15th centuries). Throughout their history, the necropolises were home to various types of living inhabitants as well. These included the workers whose professions were tied to the cemeteries (e.g. gravediggers, tomb guardians, etc), the sufis and religious scholars residing or studying in the religious complexes built by sultans and other wealthy patrons, and the regular inhabitants of small urban settlements and villages.[2] This population grew and shrank according to the rising or falling importance of the necropolises themselves in different eras. In the later 20th century, however, the pressure of Cairo's intensive urbanisation and its ensuing housing shortage led to a large increase in the number of people living in the necropolis districts, including some squatting among the tombs themselves (though these were a small portion of the overall population).[2][3] This phenomenon has led to much commentary and popular imagination about the condition of those living in the necropolises, linking it directly or symbolically to Cairo's much-discussed overpopulation problems and sometimes leading to exaggerated estimates of the number of people squatting in the tombs.[3] The population of the City of the Dead was estimated to have peaked in the 1980s, when it was nearly 180,000 (based on the 1986 census).[2]



Caliphate eraEdit

Sahara, a cemetery to the north for Mamluk Sultans, circa 1860.

The founding dates back to the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 642 CE. 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. The other families buried their dead within the living quarters. The following Islamic dynasties built their own political citadel to the north, founding a new graveyard. The commander’s family cemetery, the Great Qarafa and the Lesser Qarafa, have been inhabited since the first centuries after the conquest. Its first resident nucleus consisted of the custodians to nobles' graves and the staff in charge of the burial service as well as the Sufi mystics in their khawaniq (Sufi colleges).

During the Fatimid Caliphate, because of their Shi’ite faith, the sovereigns supported pilgrimages to Ahl al Bayt (Prophet’s family) shrines here. These pilgrimages increased the cemetery’s development to provide pilgrims’ needs. The following sultan, Salah el Din, in order to unify all the four capitals within a surrounding wall, included both cemeteries in a unique urban space.

Next, the Mamluk Sultanate rulers originally freed slaves forming a military caste, and founded a new graveyard named Sahara, because of its desert environment, outside the city at its north-eastern border. It was also a place for military parades, such as tournaments and investiture ceremonies, as well as for processions, at which sultan and nobles took part during the religious celebrations. Some built their palaces on the main road of the cemetery in order to assist the spectacles.

Ottoman eraEdit

City of the Dead, the Cairo necropolis, in 1904 by Eduard Spelterini.

With the Ottoman Empire (1517–1802), Egypt became a province of a vast empire with Constantinople (Istanbul) as the capital. During the following three centuries Egypt was ruled by pashas, the sultans' representatives selected among their closest circle because of the importance of the province for agricultural and financial support. Because of the short terms of the rulers’ office, only a few of one hundred and ten pashas who administrated Ottoman Egypt had tombs here. The Cairenes were contrary to their burial abroad.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century an urban and heterogeneous community populated Al Qarafa. The economic improvements affected the urban territory of Islamic Cairo with the birth of new neighbourhoods which caused a reduction in the utilization of the old cemetery. However, since the funerary monuments were symbols of self-glorification for the upper classes in order to perpetuate own memory, their tombs were garlanded with gilded decorations with festoons, based on nature, flowers and fruits.

The necropolis, because a site of extraordinary concentration of awalya’s tombs, Sufi colleges, and madrasas, attracted many people in search of baraka (blessing). During the following centuries the Egyptian population's impoverished numbers increased. The lower stratum of middle class collapsed and moved to other peripheral zones, the fellahin, the Egyptian peasants and farmers, emigrated to the capital. Both of them crowded the poorest fringe zones as well as the City of the Dead. The newcomers changed Al Qarafa’s face from an urban district to a hybrid community of rurals and citizens.

Recent historyEdit

During Nasser's presidency in the 1960s, rapid urbanization and the modernization of industries in and around Cairo lead to a massive migration that the city was ill-equipped to handle.[4] Recently, living conditions have improved as many graves now have running water and electricity. In addition to that, some parts have apartment blocks, a medical center and a post office. Two schools have also been built during Hosni Mubarak's rule. Many believe that living besides the shrines of the deceased is a blessing that will bring a divine reward, while others wish to be close to their ancestors.

A City of the Dead tomb structure, adapted as a residence.

Following the 1992 Cairo earthquake, many people were forced to move into family tombs thus adding to the number of people already living in the City of the Dead.[5]

The neighborhood has been characterized as a slum. Its current population may exceed half a million people.[6][7]

Following the January 25 revolution, there has reportedly been a rise in criminal activities in the poorly maintained streets connecting the tombs. Residents of the City of the Dead say that the crime rate there has increased, with drug trafficking taking place inside some of the mausoleums.

Historic toursEdit

City of the Dead Tomb, Cairo, Egypt
Grand Tomb inside the City of the Dead in Cairo

The City of the Dead has been frequented by visitors throughout history. Ibn Battuta is among the notable travelers visited, giving a brief description of the City of the Dead in his travelogue.

List of prominent shrinesEdit

1) Al Husayn: Muhammad's grandson.

2) Sayyida Zaynab: Cairo's second most popular saint, the sister of the martyred al-Husayn.

3) Sheikh Ali: a sheikh with a reputation for miracles.

4) Al- Salih Ayyub: the last of the major Ayyubid sultans.

5) Shagar al- Durr: the widow of Al- Salih Ayyub who played the role of the sultana at the start of the Mamuluk's era.

6) Other female shrines: the female saints; Nafisa, Ruqqaya, Atika and Sukayna.


Mawlid of Zaynab bint Ali.[8]

Traditional Sunnism has had a rich history of venerating saints, often referred to as awliya or "friends of God." Like the mawlid of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the birth of some of the saints are celebrated by people in the City of the Dead. Grand festivals are held with the purpose of celebrating the birth of these people as well as obtaining their Barakah or blessing. Zaynab bint Ali was one such figure.

Zaynab bint Ali was the granddaughter of the Muhammad by Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatima bint Muhammad as well as sister of Husayn ibn Ali. Due to her connection to both Muhammed and Husayn ibn Ali, her mawlid has elements of both Sunni and Shia traditions of Islam, as well as the music and dhikr of the Sufi tradition. On this night, called the Big Night (elleila elkebeera), different tents of color-patterned marquees are put up for the occasion.

In popular cultureEdit

Bestselling author Warren Adler's (The War of the Roses) historical thriller Mother Nile is set in the City of the Dead during the reign of King Farouk.



  1. ^ Kadi, Galila El; Bonnamy, Alain (2007). Architecture for the Dead : Cairo's Medieval Necropolis. American Univ in Cairo Press. p. 123. ISBN 9789774160745.
  2. ^ a b c d El Kadi, Galila; Bonnamy, Alain (2007 (English edition)). Architecture for the Dead: Cairo's Medieval Necropolis. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press. Check date values in: |year= (help)
  3. ^ a b c Sims, David (2010). Understanding Cairo: The logic of a city out of control. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press. pp. 20–24.
  4. ^ "Meet The Egyptian Families Who Live Among The Tombs In Cairo's Massive Cemetery". Retrieved 2015-04-22.
  5. ^ Tozzi Di Marco A. Il Giardino di Allah. Storia della necropoli musulmana del Cairo. Ananke edizioni 2008
  6. ^ Qarafa, City of the Dead, Cairo, Egypt - Things to Do Reviews | NileGuide
  7. ^ Mike Davis: Planet der Slums, Assoziation A, Berlin, 2007, p. 32
  8. ^ Rodenbeck, Max. Cairo: the city victorious. Vintage Departures.
  • Hamza, Hani. The Northern Cemetery of Cairo Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2001. ISBN 977-424-618-7.

External linksEdit