Centuries-old monuments, artisanal heritage in Egypt’s “City of the Dead” are being restored and revived. This is slowly turning the vast historical cemetery into a vibrant neighborhood full of life.
Various activities are going on near the 15th Century Mosque of Sudan Qaitbay, east of Egypt’s capital city. Different businesses such as wood, jewelry, and leather workshop have joined those of glassblowers.
The European Union Funds “City of the Dead.”
A series of projects financed by the European Union since 2014 has changed the face of this small section of the sprawling cemetery. It is home to many who cannot afford the high rent in the capital city.
The construction of a major road in July from the Qaitbay Mosque drew strong criticism online for the resulting demolitions and evictions of the residents of the “City of the Dead.”
The “City of the Dead” is the final resting place for illustrious figures such as writer Ihsan Abdel Koiddous and singer Farid al-Atrash. The place wasn’t set aside for extraordinary individuals, but it included ordinary Egyptians too. Islamic cemetery was founded in the seventh century and stretches over 6.5 Kilometres.
“Before the projects, there was rubbish all over the streets,” said 57-year-old Issem Abou Rami, who owns a small business in the area.
“Now, a truck comes every day to collect it.“
Products made in this neighborhood are sold online and even in elegant booths under stone arches.
The renovation efforts started with the refurbishment of a drinking trough for animals, then the reception area of the sultan’s residential complex six years ago.
The EU contributed $1.1 million towards the latest project. This started in 2018 and focuses on social development in “The Living’s heritage, in the ‘City of the Dead’_.”
Architect Agnieszka Dobrowolska, the project coordinator, was a kingpin to the area’s transformation.
She did a lot, including supervising the renovation of the workshop and their signage and restoration of the monuments, and designed leather products inspired by the Mamluk motif and jewelry.
“When we first came here, our main objective was to conserve the monuments,” she told AFP.
“And we quickly realized that we could not simply conserve the monuments, in disrespect to the people who live and work in the area,” adds Dobrowolska, founder of Archinos Architecture.
COVID-19 interrupted work in the ateliers for several months. However, the workshop is up and running again, with 50 women making leather products and jewelry branded Mishka.
Aida Hassan, who has been working in the leather workshop for three years, said she is happy to be earning “1,500 pounds ($96) a month—and sometimes more.”
“This project has helped improve my income,” added the 45-year-old woman. She had gone on to train other women in leatherwork.
Object of superstition
Christian Berger, head of the EU delegation in Egypt, said that the program’s social elements, whose primary donor is the EU, was key. The program is due in 2021.
“We intend to support this type of project that benefits immediately vulnerable groups and disadvantaged groups, projects that have a broader socio-economic impact,” Berger said.
The neighborhood has hosted various people to show their work. It has hosted traditional Egyptian music, jazz to folk, and visual artists from abroad and local have come to show their work.
The aim is to bring “contemporary art and culture here to enhance the diversity of cultural expression (and) artistic expression, to build bridges between east and west,” said Dobrowolska.
The project also aims at transforming the neighborhood to draw in tourists.
Though the “City of the Dead” isn’t a usual stopping spot for the mainstream Cairo tours, Dobrowolska says it is for the tourist looking for something out of the ordinary.
“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