‘City of the Dead’: mesmerizing forgotten place in heart of Cairo 

Passant Mohamed
9 Min Read

Although there are many well-known historical spots in Cairo, The City of the Dead remains an ancient necropolis that almost no one knows about. This city has several places to visit and many stories to tell. Nonetheless, knowing these stories face an obstacle, having a tour guide while visiting the place as it is hard to reach.

The Desert of the Mamluks or the Cairo Necropolis is an Islamic necropolis below the Mokattam Hills in south-eastern Cairo, Egypt. That area was from the Cairo Citadel to the Abbassia district.

This place has many graves dating back to the Mamluks and Khedive Tawfiq family.

Egyptians call it “el’arafa”, (which in Arabic means cemetery—a name that is usually disliked or not digested peacefully by Egyptians). However, the place is not named for the graves it has, it was actually named after the tribe of “Banu Qarafa”, one of the first tribes to come with Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah and lived in that area, the tour guide explained.

The city consists of several touristic spots, each belonging to different people who all lived in the same era.

Kobet Afendina

It is the second largest and most beautiful grave in the world after the Taj Mahal. The royal graves, the place where the graves are built, is surrounded by gardens, followed by a big gate, then a garden with pomegranate trees. Then there is a huge four-column dome surrounded by four small domes.

The graves inside are more like etemples rather than graves. It is like one of the reception rooms in a place. It is built according to the Mamluk architecture designs. The walls and floors are made of marble and embellished with golden decorations, as well as it has stained-glass windows. There is also a sofa, which was designed on the occasion of  the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

Emina Ilhamy, the wife of Khedive Tawfiq and the mother of Khedive Abbas Helmi II, ordered the construction of the grave according to the Mamluk style in 1870. 

There you find the graves of Khedive Tawfiq, his wife Emina Ilhamy and their sons, Abbas Helmy II and his brother Prince Mohammed Ali Tawfiq.

There are also the graves of the son and daughter of Khediwi Abbas Helmi II, the Prince Mohamed Abdel Moneim and Princess Fathia.

Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Qaytbay

Qaytbay’s complex, which was built in 1474, includes several facilities, such as a mosque, school, dome, sabil (water tab for passerby to drink from for free), tub (drinking trough for animals), and rab’ (an old name for the local markets in which people trade take place).

Unlike what is commonly said that what remained from that complex is only the mosque, tour guides assure that what remains today from all of that is actually the school. The common cultural mistake is corrected by studies, which proved that the architecture design of the place was built as the school-style design of that era. The school is attached to the grave of Qaytbay and his sons. The school is not very big it has four Iwans, (an Iwan is a hall or space, walled on three sides, with one end entirely facing the courtyard).

The school is under a renovation process right now, but it is remarkable that there are stained-glass windows.

Other than the school, there is also a tub and a rab’. At one point it was also described to have had large gardens. The tub is next to the school, and still exists in its original state and the rab’ is also in the same state. At one point it was also described to have had large gardens.

The grave has the third biggest Quran holder in the Islamic monuments. It also has two stones with footprints of the Prophet Muhammad.

Qaytbay was the 18th Burji Mamluk Sultan of Egypt. Burji Mamluk was a Circassian Mamluk dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 1382 until 1517. The Burji Mamluk rulers’ era can be described as an era with short-lived sultans, as the political power-plays often became important when designating a new sultan. In Arabic, “Burji” means the tower, referring to them as they ruled from the Citadel east of Cairo, which was the highest tower of the city back then.

The Mamluk in Egypt had two reigns. The first reign was the Bahri Mamluks ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1382. The term Bahri refers to “river” which surround al-Rawdah island in Cairo, where the Mamluks lived and it was built by Sultan Ayyub.

The second reign was Burji Mamluk it was a Circassian Mamluk dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 1382 until 1517. That era can be described as an era with short-lived sultans, as the political power-plays often became important in designating a new sultan. Their name means (the tower), referring to them ruling from the Citadel east of Cairo.

Al-Ashraf Barsbay mosque

The small mosque includes Barsbay’s grave inside. Due to the low economy, Al-Ashraf Barsbay built his mosque with two Iwans instead of four Iwans.

Al-Ashraf Sayf-al-Din Barsbay was the ninth Burji Mamluk sultan of Egypt. During the ruler Barsbay’s (lion), era the Egyptian economy was not strong, people mixed copper with gold in the currency industry, which led to the devaluation of the Egyptian currency and people began using the currency of Venice, hence he collected all the currency available and re-manufactured them in the form of the Egyptian currency, which restored the value of the Egyptian currency.

Nasir-ad-Din Faraj complex

Nasir-ad-Din Faraj ruled after his father Sayf-ad-Din Barquq to become the second Sultan of the Burji of the Mamluk of Egypt.

The complex was built based on the will of Faraj’s father, who requested to keep his memory and story alive after his death.

Faraj’s father was named Barquq, an Arabic meaning that has the synonym of starring. Known with it for the rest of his life. Before being a ruler, at the slavery time, he was always called that for starring all the time. The real name of Faraj’s father was never identified. Hundreds of years later, he is still being called “Barquq”.

Faraj was born in 1386, in the same year his father was deposed and was imprisoned in Karak in Jordan, therefore Barquq considered his son as bad luck and named him Belgack (disaster in Tatar language). Then the next year his father was brought back to power, hence he changed his son’s name to Faraj (relief).

Faraj’s complex is a school, sabil and the kotab (elementary school).

Faraj’s school is the largest school in Islamic architecture, while the Madrasa (school) of Sultan Hassan is the tallest. Inside the school, there are the grave of Nasir-ad-Din Fara, his father and his family.

The place is built with the well-known Mamluk architecture design. With large open-door spacious places, giant dome. The place follows the same style of Sultan Hassan Mosque. )

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