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Cairo's Historic Cemetery of al-Suyuti Conflicting Claims.

Pre Ayyubid Period

The history of this section of the cemetery cannot be told without reference to the history of the cemetery as a whole, which in turn, is inextricably linked to the history of the city of Cairo. The southern cemetery of Cairo, of which the cemetery currently called Sayyidi Jalal constitutes the north-eastern section, is the oldest Islamic cemetery in Egypt. It came to being with the inception of al-Fustat, Egypt’s first Islamic capital. The first cemetery lay east of the settlement of al-Fustat and with the establishment of al-‘Askar under the ‘Abbasids, then al-Qata’i' by Ahmad ibn Tulun (r. 254/868-270/884), the city extended northward, as did the cemetery. The period during which al-‘Askar was the seat of rule is linked with the appearance of the cemetery of al-Sayyida Nafisa (d. 210/825) the granddaughter of the grandson of the prophet, which gradually grew around the grave she is said to have dug for herself in her home. Al-Sayyida Nafisa Cemetery is still a functioning cemetery and her grave is the site of one of Cairo’s foremost shrines. It lies northwest of the Sayyidi Jalal al-Suyuti Cemetery, yet the two burial sites now lie on different sides of the Salah Salim Highway which was established in the 1970s. The busy congested Sayyida ‘A’isha square accentuates the rupture as does the flyover also named after al-Sayyida ‘A’isha. This is in addition to two walls, one on each side of the road. The first is the city wall that was built by Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (r. 564/1169-589/1193), then restored and rebuilt a number of times in both the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. The second wall is a more recent addition, one of a number of walls built in the last 20 years to block the cemetery from view, an issue that will be discussed below in detail. What is important to state at this point is that this severe disconnection was not always the case.

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Al-Sayyida Nafisa Cemetery expanded south and east of the shrine to connect with the existing al-Qarafa. It could not spread to the north or the west because of the establishment of the city of al-Qata’i’ by Ahmad ibn Tulun as a new seat of rule for its first autonomous Islamic ruler. The centre of al-Qata’i’ was the mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun, which still exists and is the oldest of Cairo’s current mosques to have retained its original plan and fabric. Connected to it and arguably of equal importance was the palace of Ahmad ibn Tulun which lay south of the mosque and could be accessed via a gate in its qibla wall. The city is said to have extended eastwards to the foot of the outcrop of al-Muqattam Hill called al-Sharaf, on which the Citadel of Salah al-Din would later be built. In addition to the cemetery of al-Sayyida Nafisa, a second cemetery came into being south-east of the city, on the hill itself and south of it. This is the first moment in the history of our site where it is recorded to have been used as a burial ground. In fact, according to the ziyara sources, this is where Ahmad ibn Tulun himself was buried. Ibn al-Zayyat, in his Kawakib,  describes it as “the small turba close to Bab al-Qarafa”.  Yet the graves seemed to have been located primarily in the northern section of the site south of which were kawms.The virgin state of this site was what rendered it a perfect location for the sports field that would be established there in the Bahri Mamluk period.

One can therefore imagine that at the time of Ibn Tulun the site was fairly empty with a scattering of tombs that spread northward to connect to the cemetery on the hill and westward, possible in a continuum with the cemetery of al-Sayyida Nafisa. To the northwest was a maydan (the first in a series of maydans that culminated in the current Maydan al-Qal’a and its southern extension all the way down to current Maydan al-Sayyida ‘A’isha) and gardens, the most famous of which would have been that of Khumarawayh (r. 270/884-282/896) the son of Ahmad ibn Tulun. His garden is said to have housed the most exotic trees and plants. It also contained the infamous “lake of mercury” that Khumarawyah, notorious for his eccentricities, had dug and filled with mercury because that particular rocking motion was the only thing that put him to sleep.

The Fatimid period saw the establishment of new cemeteries north and south of the new city of al-Qahira, which in continuation of a now established pattern, was built north of al-Qata’i’. The walled city, which was almost square-shaped and had a a number of gates, the most important of which were Bab al-Nasr and Bab al-Futuh in the north and Bab Zuwayla in the south. The cemetery of Bab al-Nasr grew around the grave of Badr al-Jamali , who brought stability to Egypt after the Mustansiri crisis and rebuilt the walls and gates of al-Qahira in stone between 48/1087 and 485/1092. Another cemetery grew south of Bab Zuwayla and extended in a south-easterly direction possibly extending as far as the cemetery of al-Sharaf. These new cemeteries did not limit the popularity of the older cemeteries which continued to grow. We know for certain that by then, the cemeteries of al-Qarafa and al-Sayyida Nafisa had connected and that the cemetery of al-Sharaf acquired a number of graves of cultic value, the most famous of which was the mashhad ru’ya of Sariya b. Zunaym al-Kinani, one of the companions of the prophet on which the Fatimid governor of Alexandria, Abu Mansur Qista al-Armani, erected a shrine part of which was incorporated within the later Ottoman mosque of Sulayman Pasha (also known as Sariyat al-Jabal) and is still extant. We also know that the street leading south from al-Qahira to the cemetery of al-Sayyida Nafisa had acquired an impressive string of shrines to ahl al-bayt, such as al-Sayyida Ruqayya, thus earning the new name of al-Mashahid. This was not an isolated case. Although the Fatimids had established their own royal cemetery for al-Za’faran within the walls of al-Qahira, they also were active builders of shrines and mosques in the cemetery, particularly over the graves of ahl al-bayt. They also had a second cemetery in al-Qarafa to which they had transferred the bodies of their ancestors, brought over from the Maghreb. They also built a complex of buildings close to their Qarafa cemetery (in the vicinity of the modern informal settlements of ‘Azbat Khayrallah and Istabl ‘Antar) that comprised a congregational mosque, palace, bath, manzara, mastaba for sufis and bustan.


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