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

Muhammad Ali Period

The French occupation was short lived and with the rise of Muhammad ‘Ali, starting 1805, serious steps were taken to modernise Egypt in general and the city of Cairo with it. For example, the aqueduct was restored by Muhammad ‘Ali only to become redundant in 1872 when water piping was introduced in Cairo. More importantly, in the mid 19th century, a railway was installed to access the quarries and lime kilns south of the southern cemetery which would in turn service the widespread construction projects of the 29th century. The first line circled the Southern Cemetery in a loop that ran from al-Rumayla and Qaramaydan southwards to the east of Bab al-Qarafa, then looped round the cemetery to run northwards parallel to the lake of ‘Ayn al-Sira in the west cutting through the Ghuri Aqueduct close to Zayn al-‘Abidin. A second line approached the cemetery from the north running east of the Citadel cutting through the `Umar b. al-Farid Cemetery and converging with the first line at a stop called al-Muwasala. It then forked off into a number of minor lines each servicing a group of lime kilns all the way down to Hulwan.  While it was mostly a baggage train, it must have also carried people especially after its line was extended to Hulwan. The most important morphological effect of this railroad was that it created borders that had not previously existed. There were suddenly two clear zones; one inside and the other outside the railway loop. Furthermore, the direction of the railway tracks was a new site determinant along which many of the new lots were oriented.

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This railway must have drawn even more people to the residential zone of `Arab Quraysh immediately south of Bab al-Qarafa. Around the 1880s, al-Kharta, a new planned settlement, arranged in blocks of buildings oriented parallel to the railway line, was introduced south of `Arab Quraysh and east of our study zone. The presence of lime kilns in its vicinity and its orientation parallel to the line shows that it was a development directly linked to the new facilities for the production of lime, stone and sand. According to El Kadi and Bonnamy (199?), this settlement was built by Khedive Tawfíq to house the quarry workers squatting illegally in a shanty-town in the same area. El Kadi and Bonnamy identify the reign of Isma’il as the beginning of a wave of migration into the cemetery, correcting Abu-Lughod’s tentative identification of World War I as the trigger of this phenomenon. (Abu-Lughod 1970). The victims of modifications to the fabric of the medieval city were left homeless, and the cemetery, with its new built-up family madfans and open unclaimed spaces on the periphery, was one of the places where they sought refuge. El Kadi and Bonnamy also point to the rise in number of a new type of inhabitant; the quarry worker, stone-cutter and mason. This must be linked to the quarry railroad and the increase in number of lime-kilns and quarries around it. While this new neighbourhood is outside the study zone, the settlement of a large number of residents so close to it must have contributed to the development of the commercial strip on the western border along al-Sikka al-Hadid Street.

The introduction of a tramline from Sayyida ‘A’isha down to al-Shafi’i in 1916, must have been added incentive for settling in the cemetery but this was not close enough to our study area to affect it. It should be noted that the study zone already had a limited community of families some of whose names appear in the archival sources as early as the 18th century. For example an entry dating to 1206/1791 in the oldest ledger held in the archival type Taqarir al-Nazr in Dar al-Watha’iq al-Qawmiyya mentions a Shaykh ‘Ali Abu Sibha al-Suruji who held the position of nazir of the waqf of Sudun (Taqarir al-Nazr 1, Dar al-Watha’iq al-Qawmiyya, p. 11, entry 106).

This, along with other historical records, shows that the families seem to have made a living as beneficiaries of the area’s waqfs (inheriting parts of wazifas that had degenerated into a source of income with no duties attached), working as caretakers (turabis) and gravediggers (haffars), with some of them involved in the construction business. The names of the families are linked to the names acquired by some of the study area’s sites although it is not clear which preceded which. Thus the mausoleum of Sudun, mentioned above, was also known as Abu Sibha. Was Abu Sibha a religious figure buried there and the family named after him or did the mausoleum come to be known after the family in charge of the mausoleum? To complicate matters further, another  subsection of the study zone is called Awlad Abu Sibha, and the Qusun dome is sometimes called the turba of Awlad Abu Sibha in the early 20th century sources (Comité  XI, 1894, p. 69).

The eastern and western borders of our study area as we know it were thus set in the late 19th century. The southern border of Shari’ no. 1 would appear later in the 1910s, in the course of the reorganization of the cemetery which culminated in the establishment of the Cemeteries Committee in 1929, while the northern border, though a street as early as the establishment of the Masih Complex in the 16th century, would only take on its current form in the 1970s with the establishment of the Salah Salem Highway, Maydan al-Sayyida and the flyover.

The work of the Cemeteries Committee will be dealt with in detail below, but before that the Comité de Conservation, established in 1881 for the protection of Islamic architecture merits a discussion. It should be noted that by that time, the study area was a popular tourist destination that featured in many of the Western guidebooks under the name Tombs of the Mamluks (with the second zone of concentrated funerary structures between Barquq and Qaytbay in the Eastern Cemetery called Tombs of the Caliphs).  Lamplough (1909, p. 117), writing at the turn of the 20th century, describes walking along this line to get a better view of the Citadel from the south, “To attain this you should go to the old Midan station, once the starting point of the line to Helouan, and you should then walk along the track. It is still used in a desultory fashion for stone traffic and its sidings and platforms are haunted by stones, large flat white tiles … You pass out of this station and between dirty broken-down huts, where are grovelling children, half-clad men and women and goats chewing garbage. After this is a region of small mosque-like buildings and low houses that seem to be of the tombs, and its houses are the last dwelling-places of the dead. After you have passed the last tomb-enclosure and ruinate saint’s resting place, the desert is before you … in front of you is the solitary line of single track that leads to the small station called Moasla”.

It is the “region of small mosque-like buildings and low houses that seem to be of the tombs” that was the subject of the first wave of conservation in the 1890s by the Comité . Efforts started with basic attempts at identification of names, ownership and guardianship, then proceeded to issues of conservation with minor efforts of expropriation around some of the monuments (HYPERLINK – QARAFI - MASIH).

The second wave of work, which came about in the 1930s, was more ambitious, involving reconstruction of missing elements and architectural features. The Comité also initiated another system of organization for the cemetery in which it listed the historic clusters within what were considered protection zones and suggested different procedures for preserving them. A general division into cemeteries north and south of the Citadel was subdivided into 31 zones in the south and 12 zones in the east. A 32nd zone was added in the 1950s. Zone 1 was called al-Suyuti and included the monuments of Al-Sultaniyya, the Northern Minaret, al-Suyuti Mausoleum (although there is no evidence that this was ever listed), the khanqah of Qusun, the Middle Minaret, the mausoleum of ‘Ali Badr al-Din al-Qarafi, the Southern Minaret, the mausoleum of Jaliq, the mausoleum of al-Sawabi, the  mausoleum of Sudun Amir Majlis (Abu Sibha), Iwan Fayruz (i.e. Nawruz).

The third wave would come much later in conjunction with the roadworks of Salah Salem, the maydan and the flyover in the 1970s, and it involved dismantling Bab al-Qarafa and setting it back to widen the road, rebuilding the Sayyida ‘Aisha Mosque, and extensive restoration of Masih in 1992. In the course of this work the Comité developed a love-hate relationship with the turabi families. On the one hand it acknowledged their hereditary right to guard the monuments and held them responsible for their preservation. On the other hand, the turabis themselves were the primary encroachers on the monuments whether in constructing funerary structures or in living in or around the monuments.  The Comité was not the turabis’ only problem. They were perceived as a nuisance and stigmatized by society as will be explained below.

Of equal bearing on the urban fabric was the establishment of Cemeteries Committee in 1929. This was preceded by a series of legislative measures starting with the Cemeteries Law of 1922 and followed by the List of Cemetery zones in 1926. The cemeteries under the jurisdiction of Qism al-Khalifa included: The cemeteries of al-Sayyida Nafisa, al-Imam al-Shafi’i, Sayyidi Jalal (al-Suyuti), al-Imam al-Layth, al-Adhra’í, al-Zumur (i.e. around the mosque of Azdumur south of the Qarafa aqueduct), Al-Juyushi, Sayyidi Abu’l-Wafa and part of Bab al-Wazir.

The concern of the Cemeteries Committee was the regulation of burial practice and structures in the cemetery. Its approach was the complete separation of life and death with burial inside the city and living inside the cemetery both prohibited. It was not always successful in implementing its rules but it certainly had a hand in organising the roads and plots of the cemetery.

The urban face of the cemetery started to change due to the combined efforts of these two committees. The Comité de Conservation concentrated on delineating monument zones with no encroachments and with clear buffer areas around the monuments, while the Cemetery Committee was more concerned with the introduction of new roads, such as Shari’ 1 and the division of the unoccupied areas into new allotments for burial plots. Plots with hawshs from this period were also initiated along al-Qarafa al-Kubra Road, Road no. 1 and on the eastern border overlooking the railway. Further south, a new zone of burial plots was delineated around the shrine of Abu Rummana or ‘Isa al-Jilani.

This period also saw the appearance of the area’s only 20th century shrine, the shrine of Hasan ‘Abata (. 1939), a sufi and founder of a Rifa’iyya bayt whose shrine is one of the more popular in the area still under the care of his descendants. (HYPERLINK ABATA)

The continued establishment of shrines all over the cemetery takes place against a backdrop of mounting disapproval of these unorthodox practices and also of the phenomena of building and living in the cemetery. Efforts to stifle these activities had a variety of motivations. State affiliated westernised organisations such as the Comité and the Cemeteries Committee were not concerned with religious arguments although they did not hesitate to use them for their purposes. The Comité wished to prevent further encroachment on the monuments whether physically or visually while the Cemeteries Committee was concerned with general health and organisational issues, one of its main aims being the separation of activities of life from those of death.

This attitude was backed by a burgeoning religious trend, the neo-salafist reformist movement spearheaded by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani.  Al-Manar, the mouthpiece of his student Rashid Rida, preached against the un-Islamic nature of these practices. It did not ban visitation although it disapproved of the excessive funerary rites practiced by the Muslims. It also advocated a return to the burial practices of orthodox Islam which did not include the elaborate structures below or above ground built in Cairo. It kept its most stringent criticism, however, for shrine visitation.  In the first volume of al-Manar a passing reference to tawassul as a backward practice that would undermine the potential “happiness of the nation”, sparked a debate that spanned a number of issues where the line of al-Manar was, whereas no-one could deny the karamas of walis, and that visiting shrines for baraka was acceptable, this should not be combined with practices such as circumbulation, kissing graves, or praying to walis for intercession (tawassul).

The Muhammad ‘Ali period was thus an immensely rich section in the history of the cemetery in general and our study zone in particular. It witnessed its physical transformation into the fabric and urban landscape we have today. It also saw its current borders and urban gateways being set. Most of the area’s hawshs and cenotaphs date from this period and even the later ones are a more modern version of the same morphological formula. The rise of the two administrative bodies most responsible for shaping it the Comte de Conservation and the Cemeteries Committee (which would later become Idarat al-Jabbanat) also happened in this period and along with it their most significant work.  It also saw a new, and more effective, wave of transformation of public opinion against the multi-functional built-up nature of the cemetery as well as its unorthodox religious practices. This trend was translated into legislative attempts to control this phenomenon as well as religious campaigns to against it.


Abu-Lughod, Janet. Cairo: 1001 years of the City Victorious. ( Princeton University Press, 1971)

Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe, Fascicules I  to XXXX (French) + Kurrasa 41 (Arabic), Exercices 1882-3 to 1946-53 (French) + 1954-6 (Arabic). (Cairo, 1892-1963) [Online:]

Description de l'Egypte : ou, Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Egypte pendant l'expédition de l'armée française / publié par les ordres de Sa Majesté l'empereur Napoléon le Grand (Paris, 1809-1828).

El-Kadi, Galila & Bonnamy, Alain, La Cité des Morts: Le Caire (Paris, 199?).

Lamplough, Augustus O., Egypt and How to See it (London & New York, 1909).

Mubarak, ‘Ali. Al-khitat al-tawfiqiyya al-jadida li-Misr wa’l-Qahira, (Bulaq, 1305H).

Rida, Rashid, al-Manar, Vol. I (Cairo, 1898).

Raymond, André, Cairo: City of History (American University in Cairo  Press, 2000).