The City of the Dead

Friday is the first day of the weekend in Cairo and on a whim, Caity and I decided to leave our homework at home and go out to explore Cairo. We chose the tombs of the City of the Dead as our day’s destination.

Dating back to the time of the pharaohs, the people of Cairo have had a fascination with the dead, one that has continued until today. In fact, ancient Cairo was known for its parallel city filled with tombs constructed like houses with walls, gates, plants and occasionally elaborately carved domes. The city is filled with famous tombs and they were, in the late 1300s, the most popular tourist destination in Egypt, meriting numerous ancient guidebooks!

The dead have not remained the sole inhabitants of the tombs however. Estimates of the area’s current population range from 50,000 to 500,000, including families who have lived there as paid guardians for generations as well as those forced by poverty to move in. The area is much more of a neighborhood than a cemetery now, complete with electric lines, all manner of shops and multistory houses.

We took a taxi from the nearest metro stop, heading towards the complex built by the Sultan Barkuk in the middle of the City of the Dead. Stuck in traffic (which I might as well just call driving in Cairo) our driver kindly offered me a cigarette. I politely refused, and he responded, “Good, these things are terrible for you,” and then proceeded to light his own, blowing the smoke out the open window. He looked to be in his mid or late twenties and when I asked him how long he had be smoking, he smiled and told me “at least ten years.”

As we arrived at the complex and following a cultural norm, our driver insisted that we did not have to pay for the ride, telling us that we “illumine the city of Cairo.” This is odd to someone coming from New York, where if someone says that something is free, which rarely ever happens, they mean it and you don’t press any farther and get out of the car/shop, rejoicing at your good fortune. In Cairo however, we responded with, “no the city is illumined by its people” and “may God increase your fortune,” pushing the money into his hand despite his smiles and polite protests.

We then entered the complex itself and were quickly pounced on by three or four children smiling and asking us to take pictures of them. They were shooed away by and older man who, without being asked, offered us tea and then began to tell us about the history and architecture of the complex, which housed a mosque and used to be a center for the study of Islamic law. We asked him if anyone still lives here and he smiled and replied, “I do.” Jobs are very hard to come by in Cairo and it became apparent that he was a self-appointed tour guide of the complex and we paid him a small fee for his service when we left.

We then walked down a main street studded with shops and tombs, on our way to the Qaitbey Mosque, one of the other main attractions in the area. We stopped to watch a few of the local boys playing soccer in a side street and a couple came to talk with us, as we were obviously not from the area. They were surprised that we spoke Arabic and one asked us where we were from. A couple of years ago we might have responded “Canada,” ending our sentence with “aye” and hoping he didn’t press farther. After Obama was elected however, it has become much less of a bad thing in the Middle East to say that you are American, so we responded truthfully. “So you like Israel?” was his immediate response. It seems that a new president does not change everything.

Leaving the boys, we continued down the street until finally reaching the Qaitbey Mosque. We walked up to the entrance and saw a few tourists coming out, accompanied by a guard. When we asked if we could go in however, we were told that it was under renovation. The guard continued to stand in front of us, obviously waiting for a little baksheesh to guide us through the mosque. Disliking this practice, we turned back and found ourselves in front of a glass factory.

The aging owner was sitting out front in a plastic chair that looked as old as he was and we started speaking with his son, who also works blowing glass in the factory. He told us that this is one of the few factories remaining in the world where the glass is hand-blown and not made with machines. Unfortunately we could not see the process as Friday was the oven’s day off too but we bought a beautiful blue bowl and promised to return and watch him work.

We then slowly made our way out of the city and just caught the sunset over the lower half of the cemetery, lighting up the scattered domes and courtyards built for those who no long watch the sun set. We will come back to the City of the Dead, but next time to visit the living.


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