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

Ayyubid Period

The Ayyubids ruled Egypt for only eight decades, yet they managed to put in place a number of urban measures that were decisive in shaping the face of Cairo for the ensuing six centuries. Firstly they established their centre of rule on the hill of al-Sharaf and in doing so broke the pattern of northward development.  They also took on the ambitious task of encircling all of Cairo within defensive walls. For the next six centuries, Cairo would mostly expand within these walls developing new suburbs in the pockets of undeveloped space inside. The cemeteries would mostly develop outside the walls with the city containing minor intra-mural cemeteries

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The walls cut through the cemeteries of al-Qarafa, al-Sayyida Nafisa and al-Sharaf, and in all, gates were inserted in the wall to allow passage. The sacrilegious nature of the act of digging through the cemetery and removing burials to build the wall is reflected in a number of ziyara stories.  For example, It is mentioned in Ibn al-Zayyat’s Kawakib that Abu’l-Ja’far al-Natiq (speaker) talked to Qaraqush, Salah al-Din’s wazir, from his grave to protest against the disinterment of graves for the construction of the wall. While the Citadel and city walls were ordered by Salah al-din al-Ayyubi, construction continued throughout the Ayyubid period with al-Malik al-Kamil introducing a new maydan south-west of the Citadel between it and the city wall (it was then that it came to be known as Maydan Taht al-Qal’a), and al-‘Adil Abu Bakr and al-Salih Najm al-Din adding to it. It is ironic that al-Salih was one of the contributors to this maydan, because he moved his residence (and that of his mamluks) from the Citadel of the mount (al-burj) to al-Rawda Island (al-bahr with reference to the Nile). It was the mamluks of al-Salih (the Bahris) who would establish the new oligarchy of the Mamluk sultanate.

The new centre of rule lay in the south-eastern end of the city as determined by its new borders. This necessitated the manipulation of the urban framework of the city to add weight and insert magnets to shift the city’s centre of gravity to this new location. Two processes were put into motion, both of bearing on the city’s cemeteries. The more immediate action was the establishment of the new maydan at the foot of the Citadel. The second process was more gradual and it involved the creation of an alternative thoroughfare between the northern section of the city (al-Qahira with Bayn al-Qasrayn at its heart) and the older section of what used to be al-Fustat and was by then called Misr al-‘Atiqa. The existing thoroughfare (al-Qasaba or al-Shari’ al-A’zam) stretched from north to south, then veered westward through al-Saliba towards al-Fustat. A new, alternative route, turned eastward outside Bab Zuwayla through what used to be cemetery and would then develop into al-Darb al-Ahmar down to the Citadel maydan, and only there would it connect with al-Saliba. The Bahri Mamluk developments around this new route would gradually replace the pre-existing Fatimid cemetery, and there would be impressive structures of monumental scale. This, however, would not diminish the importance of the southern section of al-Shari’ al-A’zam or al-Mashahid which in the Ayyubid period acquired the mausoleum of Shajar al-Durr, then the turbas of al-Malik al-Ashraf Khalil and of Umm al-Salih the wife of al-Mansur Qalawun, in the early Bahri period. This succession of shrines and turbas were strung along the processional path down to al-Sayyida Nafisa which continued to flourish as is seen from the series of restorations and extensions to the shrine from the Fatimid period onwards. This was coupled with the appearance of a new monument to quasi-religious figures, a graveyard dedicated to the ‘Abbasid Caliphs, who were established by al-Zahir Baybars in Cairo to give legitimacy to the Mamluks after the fall of Baghdad in 656/1258.

The new gate leading south into the cemetery would have a double function as the cemetery gateway (Bab al-Qarafa) and as one of the main gates to Upper Egypt. Similarly, the main street that started to develop through that gate southwards would function both as one of the main streets of the cemetery and as one of the main roads down to the southern provinces.

It should also be noted that in 575/1180, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi established a madrasa next to the shrine of al-Imam al-Shafi’i, the founder of the school of Sunni Islam to which the Ayyubids adhered. This madrasa was then followed by the establishment of a shrine-cum-royal mausoleum on the grave of al-Shafi’i in 608/1211. The wooden dome, which still exists, housed the shrine of al-Shafi’i and the graves of the founder al-Malik al-Kamil, and members of his family. These two acts of royal patronage, combined with the Citadel developments, the Qarafa gate and the road leading to Upper Egypt, led to a shift in importance from the previous cemetery centre (arguably around the Fatimid Qarafa Mosque) to al-Shafi’i. According to al-Maqrizi, this was when the cemetery came to be divided into two distinct zones; al-Qarafa al-Kubra in the south-western area with Jami’ Al-Qarafa at its centre and al-Qarafa al-Sughra in the north-western section with al-Imam al-Shafi’i at its centre. It should also be noted that the late Ayyubid period witnessed a number of burials of religious importance at the foot of al-Muqattam, notably Abu’l-Qasim al-Shatbi (d. 590/1194),  al-Qadi al-Fadil al-Bisani (d. 596/1200), Abu’l-‘Abbas al-Basir (d. 623/1226), ‘Umar ibn al-Farid (d. 632/1235) and Abu’l-Su’ud ibn Abi’l-‘Asha’ir (d. 644/1247). These burials, running along the lower extension of al-Muqattam south-east of our study zone, would also have contributed to the rise in significance of the eastern sections of the cemetery. The fact that al-Muqattam Hill was believed to be a blessed spot where the “seedlings of heaven” to be found (interpreted in the legend as the bodies of the Muslim dead) must have had a hand in the popularity of this strip.


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