While the name ‘City of the Dead’ sounds ominous and conjures up images of graves and zombies, Cairo’s City of the Dead is actually a place of heritage and history – and is a city of the living just as much as it is a city of the dead. Cinematic name though, we have to admit.
So what exactly is Cairo’s City of the Dead?
The City of the Dead in Cairo (El Qarafa or El Arafa in Arabic) is a 6.4 km (4 mile) stretch of necropolises and cemeteries in the original core of the city, in an area known as Historic Cairo internationally, or Old Cairo (Masr El Adeema in Arabic) to locals.
But like we said, City of the Dead isn’t *just* about the dead – residential neighborhoods have been built alongside and throughout the necropolises, with all the regular hustle and bustle of any regular neighborhood. Cairo's City of the Dead is spread into two main cemeteries north and south of the Cairo Citadel, nestled under the Moqattam Hills to the east.
So what makes City of the Dead worth visiting?
So far what we’ve described sounds just like a bunch of cemeteries with regular neighborhoods interspersed, right? So… why is it worth visiting?
Because peppered throughout Cairo’s City of the Dead are some truly beautiful historic mosques, mausoleums and other medieval Islamic architecture. There are remnants dating back to the Arab conquest of Egypt back in the 7th century, and whole buildings still in their entirety dating back to the 12th-15th centuries!
Keep in mind that Cairo is a city over 1,000 years old, and the area of Historic Cairo where the City of the Dead is is one of Egypt’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Besides the City of the Dead, Historic Cairo is also home to:
Misconceptions about Cairo’s City of the Dead
The City of the Dead started to pick up traction as an interesting place to visit originally not because of its history and heritage, but because it began being known in Western media as a place where the extremely poor were forced to live in and around the graves and tombs; ‘tomb dwellers’ basically, living among the dead.
And while this is true in some swathes of City of the Dead, it’s not true for all of it. The majority of its population reside in regular (albeit shabby) housing, with shops, supermarkets, post offices, barbers, and the usual trappings of city life.
A little history of City of the Dead
We don’t want to get too rambly and turn into a Wikipedia page, so we’ll try to be as brief and concise as possible.
Ironically, Cairo’s City of the Dead is older than Cairo itself. When the Arabs conquered Egypt, their leader Amr Ibn El-As built their first Muslim capital in Egypt in 642 AD, called Fustat. Fustat is now a neighborhood in Historic Cairo (Cairo was built next to Fustat in 969 AD, and subsequently absorbed Fustat in its growth and expansion).
But back when Fustat was first founded in the 7th century, they built a necropolis in the empty desert outside the main city, and thus was the birth of City of the Dead. It continued to grow as the city grew, and became notable because it holds the mosques and mausoleums of some of Prophet Muhammad’s descendants who are believed to have emigrated to Egypt, such as Sayyida Aisha, Sayyida Nafisa and Sayyida Ruqayya.
Imam El Shafei, a very important religious scholar in Islam, was buried in the City of the Dead in the 9th century, and the mausoleum later constructed over his tomb (built in 1211 AD) is still one of the highlights there until now – more than 800 years later!
The most impressive mosques and mausoleums were built during the Mamluk era, in the medieval centuries spanning 1250 to 1517 AD, giving the City of the Dead's Northern Cemetery the local epithet of ‘Desert of the Mamluks’.
The cemeteries and necropolises of City of the Dead aren’t just dedicated to medieval tombs though; many modern Egyptian families still have their own family plots and burials there until now.
Problems facing City of the Dead
Cairo’s oldest cemetery has been getting a lot of buzz in the news lately, but unfortunately not for the best reasons. Areas of City of the Dead, including graves and tombs, are being cleared and relocated to make room for highways and bridges. The reason behind this is to both ease traffic in the dense area as well as connect Cairo to the new administrative capital (still under the name ‘New Capital’) 45 km to the east.
While the government has assured everyone that they’re not doing anything to the heritage mausoleums and medieval tombs, and that they’re only removing and relocating ‘modern’ graves (ie. not over 100 years old) and families will receive compensation, locals aren’t thrilled.
You can read more about it here on the New York Times.
But never fear! There’s still so much of City of the Dead to see, so don’t let this discourage you!
Best way to visit City of the Dead
So there’s several different ways of visiting City of the Dead, and we’ll go through them with you one by one:
a) On a guided walking tour.
This is our recommended way of visiting. There are different organizations that have regular City of the Dead walking tours that you can sign up for. These tours usually meet up at a specified place, then you walk through the neighborhood for a few hours with a knowledgeable guide to explain what you’re seeing and to answer questions. They also take care of the ‘tipping’ of the entrance guards to different mosques and mausoleums (the tipping is for you guys to be actually let in, considering these aren’t ticketed official tourist destinations).
Two recommended City of the Dead walking tour organizers:
Ma’qad of Sultan Qaitbey (MASQ). MASQ is a cultural center right in the City of the Dead, and they offer regular guided walking tours as well as photography walks through the Northern Cemetery (also known as the Eastern Cemetery, because it was originally east of the city walls). Their guided tours are usually on the weekends from fall through to spring. You can see their next upcoming tour here.
Walk Like An Egyptian. A local company that specializes in guided walking tours (along other off-the-beaten-track tours). They have two different walking tours for City of the Dead, one for the Northern Cemetery (similar to MASQ’s), and a separate one for the Southern Cemetery. You can find their schedule and more info on their website here.
b) You can visit with a travel agency (either a private tour or in a group).
If you’d like to go visit City of the Dead but not worry about meeting points or specific schedules, then you can arrange with a local travel agency to book a tour on whatever dates and times work for you. Simply google ‘Cairo City of the Dead tour’ and several different options will pop up; you can compare prices and reviews to see which tour agency works for you.
The benefits of going the tour agency route is that most will pick you up from your hotel and drop you back off, so you don’t have to worry about transportation. And like we said above, you don’t have to stick to a specific schedule if you’re doing a private tour. The con though is that these trips tend to run much more expensive than the guided walking tours mentioned above (and in either case, you’ll be walking).
c) You can visit City of the Dead solo.
While technically it’s doable to visit the City of the Dead on your own without a guide, we wouldn’t recommend it. For one, the area is crowded and confusing if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, and Google Maps doesn’t always label everything correctly. Secondly, you’d need to be able to speak Arabic to communicate with the gatekeepers of the different mosques and mausoleums to let you in. And even if you are an Arabic-speaking local (or with one), there are no signs or placards or anything to really explain what it is you’re looking at or why it’s important.
How to get there
If you’re going with a guided walking tour, then they’ll tell you the meeting place in City of the Dead, which most likely will be easily accessible by car. You can then plug in the destination in your Google Maps and either Uber or have a private car take you there.
If you’re going with a tour agency, then they will probably arrange for transportation to pick you up from your hotel or accommodation.
Best Things To See in City of the Dead
The City of the Dead is divided mainly into two large cemeteries, one on the north side of the Cairo Citadel and one on the southern side, aptly named the Northern Cemetery and the Southern Cemetery. Like we mentioned briefly above, the Northern Cemetery is also sometimes called the Eastern Cemetery, due to its being east of the city’s original walls, way before the Cairo Citadel was built. There’s also the smaller Bab El Nasr and Bab el Wazir cemeteries, but most guided tours take place in the North and South Cemeteries.
Best things to see in the Northern Cemetery (Eastern Cemetery, ‘Desert of the Mamluks’):
Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Qaitbay (1474 AD)
Khanqa of Sultan Farag Ibn Barquq (1389 - 1411 AD)
Funerary Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay (1432 AD)
Mausoleum of Khedive Tawfik, also known as Qubbat Afandina (1894 AD)
Mural art and graffiti (modern)
Best things to see in the Southern Cemetery:
Imam el Shafei Mausoleum and adjacent mosque (1211 AD)
Hosh El Basha (the family mausoleum of Muhammad Ali, governor and ruler of 19th century Egypt) (1854 AD)
Imam El Layth Bin Saad Mausoleum (first built in 1244 AD, then rebuilt in 1833 AD)
Mausoleum of Shajar El-Durr (1250 AD)
Seeing as you’ll be walking around a lot in the sun and none of the sites have ACs for any type of temporary respite, it’s best to visit City of the Dead in the cooler months (November through March)
You’ll be walking through a lot of local neighborhoods where the residents tend to be more on the conservative side, so we recommend women not wear anything too revealing or short
Most of the mosques you’ll visit don’t require women to cover their hair because they’re not working mosques, but it’s always better to have a scarf or shawl with you just in case
You’ll be required to take off your shoes before entering the mosques though, so it’s helpful to be wearing socks/have socks on you so you don’t need to go barefoot
There’ll be little kiosks and supermarkets throughout City of the Dead, so don’t worry about getting thirsty – there’s plenty of spots to buy water
Wish we could say the same about bathrooms though; we recommend you empty your bladders before your City of the Dead tour, because we can’t guarantee any clean bathrooms :D
Other than that, have fun and enjoy the incredibly unique mix of medieval tombs, modern graves and the bustling local life that has grown and evolved all around them.