el’arafa – the city of dead
el'arafa - city of dead
A number of years ago I went for a wee wander to Egypt and met a fascinating man in Cairo called Yasser.
Yasser was a little bit down on his luck, sleeping rough and hustling for a crust in an unforgiving City with almost 8 million inhabitants. We made a deal that he’d help me out during my visit, and I employed him to translate. Yasser did a lot more than that – I really, really liked him but we sadly lost contact during the Arab Spring. Anyway I was intrigued to see The City of Dead in Cairo and then we travelled up to Alexandria to see his family. Bizarrely we ended up staying in the top floor of an empty hotel there as his old school friend, a security guard, had the keys.
It was off season, freezing and without any bedding. After a long night of talking, eating the most amazing baked fish and a never ending hookah Yasser suggested I take the bedroom and he and his friends would bed down in the living room. I can remember waking up freezing in the early hours with the sound of someone coming into my room. I kept my eyes closed tightly and hoped for the best. It was Yasser. He made sure that my window was shut, threw a rug over me and kissed my forehead and then headed back to the floor in the living room. And I’m sure the hookah.
The City of Dead is a cemetery – known as “el’arafa” It’s a very dense network of tombs and mausoleums where some people live and work amongst the dead.
El’arafa dates back to the muslim conquest of egypt in 642 AD and was the family graveyard of the muslim commander Amir ibn al-As. The history is really interesting and you can read more here and see a short video at this link.
From what I can gather the inhabitants are a mixture of economic migrants from Cairo, employees to tend for the tombs and graves and those that choose to live close to their ancestors. I was surprised to read that some are living there to be close to ancestors – and certainly all of the families Yasser and I met were there because they had no other viable options. Either way it is a truly remarkable place and I was made to feel very welcome.