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Dead, living evicted as tombs expropriated to build highway in historic Cairo

By Samar Ezzat and Francesca Cicardi

Cairo, Jul 27 (efe-epa).- The dead have had to be moved from the tombs at al-Ghafir cemetery, while the living, mostly poor people who take shelter inside the mausoleum and who help maintain it, have been evicted after the Egyptian authorities began demolishing parts of old cemeteries in the heart of Cairo as part of the contractions of a highway.

Um Ahlam is one of the lucky few, as only a part of the building she and her family call home inside the cemetery in Islamic Cairo, recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site, will be demolished.

“I have lived here for 40 years (…) we are 13 brothers and sisters,” she tells Efe as she sits on the patio floor that will be reduced by half after the excavators leave.

“They (…) told us that we have 48 hours (to leave); when we said it wasn’t long enough, they replied by giving us 24 hours,” she says.

“Our priority is to protect the dead,” she adds. They have moved the remains of a woman that died a couple of years ago from the area dedicated to women, located in the part that will be demolished, to the interior part of the grave.

A relative, Osama, does not know where he and his four children will go if they destroy the part of the mausoleum that provides them shelter.

“If they kick me out, they won’t give me an apartment or compensation, they only give it to the owners” of the tombs, some of which belong to aristocrat families from the first half of the 20th century.

Another resident of the cemetery, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells Efe that her family has been living there for 110 years and that she followed in the footsteps of her grandfather to become a gravedigger.

She says she doesn’t know where she will live if the authorities demolish the tombs, where she says more bodies have been recently buried which will also need to be dug up and relocated.

But the demolitions have also taken the owners of the cemeteries by surprise, as they were not notified of the decision by the authorities, Sharif Abdul Kouddous, one of the proprietors tells Efe.

“We have not received an official notice. We were notified by the people living there who take care of our plot,” he explains.

His father took care of moving the remains of his dead relatives, including Sherif’s maternal grandfather, writer Ihsan Abdul Kouddous, and great-grandfather, artist Mohamed Abdul Kouddous.

“There are prominent figures buried there. They are desecrating holy ground! In addition there is a community that has lived on it for generations,” Sharif laments.

Despite complaints and outrage by the cemetery’s owners and residents alike, construction work continues on Salah Salem Avenue, an old congested artery in Cairo that the new, high-rise highway will connect to a ring road network being built in the megalopolis.

The project has also been criticized by historians and archeologists because the cemetery is a historic site that features tombs that date back to the Mamluk Sultanate (14th and 15th centuries).

The authorities, however, say that the historic tombs will not be affected.

“Al Fordus road is far from the Islamic monuments of the Mamluk cemetery,” the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities said in a statement in response to the outcry on social media.

The demolished buildings are recently built tombs that are not on the list of Islamic antiquities, the statement added.

According to the authorities, the al-Fordus road will improve traffic through Cairo which, with its over 20 million inhabitants and an obsolete infrastructure network, suffers from a serious traffic problem. EFE-EPA

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