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

Modern Period

The changes in the City of Cairo in general and the urban fabric of the area between the Citadel and our study zone in particular resulted in a paradoxical situation whereby al-Suyuti Cemetery became detached from surroundings which, in turn, were becoming more and more centralised. Developments in the south (al-Ma’adi and al-Basatin), the north-east (Heliopolis and Madinat Nasr), the east (Manshiyyat Nasir and al-Muqattam) necessitated the establishment of two major thoroughfares, Salah Salim Street and the Autostrade. These two thoroughfares converge around our area, in the process creating a traffic hub between the cemetery and the Citadel; al-Sayyida ‘Aisha Square with the overpass above it. The fast traffic in the highways and crowds and congestion in the maydan render the minarets and domes of al-Suyuti Cemetery incongruous, almost invisible. Its access streets are almost hidden and seen from the passing traffic and past the din of people and buses it is a dream-like mirage – unexplained, inaccessible. Furthermore, with the exception of the streets of al-Qarafa al-Kubra and Nimra Wahid, and the possible exception of the Sayyidi Jalal Road, the area does not have a clear street network and is very difficult for the visitor to negotiate.

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The process which resulted in this sharp cemetery-city division had started as early as the Ayyubid period when the city wall was built, continued with the establishment of the railway in the 19th century and accelerated in the last 50 years, when the street running west-east north of Masih acquired added importance due to the urban developments introduced by the Republic after the 1952 Revolution. In the west and north, public housing was built and this was in addition to an idea to create a forested zone close to Zayn al-‘Abidin that was never fully realised. More importantly, the road ran east to the newly established Muqattam City up on the hill and correspondence in the Comité archives shows that this road was described as touristic and the restoration of all the monuments on it was highly recommended.

In the 1970s, this road became part of a larger schema when it connected to the north-south Highway of Salah Salim. It was widened and a square was created in front of the Sayyida A’isha Mosque. This combined with the previous removal of the Qaramaydan prison to create a monumental space that ran from Maydan al-Qal’a in the north to Maydan al-Sayyida ‘A’isha. This space was soon cut by the overpass introduced in the 1980s which created the chaotic zone under the bridge that is now used as an informal station for private buses to Cairo’s different neighbourhoods and beyond. A strip of multi-storey residential buildings with commercial activities on the ground floor developed west of Masih overlooking the new Sayyida ‘Aisha Maydan and giving their back to the cemetery.

The railway tracks in the west were removed around that time and the train was discontinued.  Yet in the east, the Autostrade continued to maintain the division between al-Suyuti Cemetery and the eastern-most cemetery strip at the foot of al-Muqattam, now the host of another public housing scheme that replaced the former cemetery settlement  of al-Abajiyya. Immediately west, the road, still called al-Sikka al-Hadid after the railway, became a major commercial area with the result that the cemetery strip overlooking it transformed into a multi-use zone of shops and workshops hiding the cemetery from view.

The current cemeteries law was ratified in 1966. It builds on the previous laws, declaring any land that is currently used for burial, or set up for this purpose by the authorities a public cemetery (jabbana  ‘amma). The governmental authority in charge of setting up new public cemeteries, according to this law, is the local city council (majlis mahallí), which is also in charge of issuing permits for turabis and hanutis. Permission for establishing a private cemetery can only be obtained from the Minister of Internal Administration (idara maaalliya). Cemetery land is considered public property (amwal ‘amma) and remains thus for 10 years after burial is discontinued in it. Only then can it be dug up and used for other purposes. The Ministry of Health was charged with preparing the regulatory by-laws for this law (la’iha tanfidhiyya). ( Al-Jarída al-Rasmiyya 89, 21 April 1966).

This law continues to uphold the injunction against cemetery habitation, yet it has proven even less effective than its fore-runners. The population explosion and urban expansion of the city of Cairo has resulted in even more pressure on the cemetery to provide cheap residential spaces not just for its original residents and their off-spring, but also for the rural immigrants and urban homeless. Yet al-Suyuti, in spite of its convenient location immediately south of the Sayyida ‘A’isha traffic hub, is much less crowded than one would expect. The residential high-rises of its northern periphery (around Masih Mosque) and the commercial shops on its western periphery account for the bulk of its inhabitants and trade. The fabric of the area with its proliferation of listed monuments within open burial spaces and dearth of hawshs with residential facilities combined with the proximity of the purely residential settlement of al-Kharta saved it from excessive settlement. It continues to retain the picturesque lost-in time quality of the images and postcards of the turn of the 20th century that earned it the romantic epithet; “The Tombs of the Mamluks”.


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:]

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

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