City of the Dead, Cairo: Coping and Responses to Infrastructure Gaps

By Lauren Himiak

Living in a City of the Dead

After 1973, government policy in Egypt shifted from a socialist, public-sector economy to an open-door, policy, creating rapid urban development within the capital ‘ Cairo (Yousry, 1997). Between 1981 and 1991, rural poverty doubled while urban poverty increased more than 1.5 times in Cairo. Informal and illegal housing appeared in the 1980s to accommodate such a large population that was classified as “poor” or “ultra-poor” (Bayat, 1997). It was estimated that in 1994, more than 4 million people were living in illegal settlements, such as Cairo’s el-Arafa necropolis, also known as the City of the Dead, .

This Egyptian slum sits atop what has been the main burial ground for the capital city since A.D. 640. It is located east of Cairo’s downtown area and at the base of the Mokottam Hills area. The Salah Salim Highway cuts the City of the Dead in half, with one section running along an ancient aqueduct that once carried water from the Nile. There are five main cemeteries that make up the area: the Cemetery of the Great, the Southern Cemetery, the Northern Cemetery, the Bab al-Nasr Cemetery, and the Bab al-Wazir Cemetery (Nedoroscik, 1997). Burial sites consist of permanent structures, one to two stories high, built on top of large, underground tombs. The area has a population density of 12,000 inhabitants per square mile (Ibrahim, 2002) and it has been estimated that between 250,000 and 1 million people live within the slum (Nedoroscik, 1997).

Living in illegal settlements has become the primary method of coping for poor Egyptians. While new cities have been built in areas surrounding the desert, many Cairo workers have moved into the City of the Dead to stay close to employment. For majority of residents, there is no electricity or running water. Some rely on cables brought in from neighboring buildings to provide power, and most people carry in water in buckets or jugs from the streets (Nedoroscik, 1997). In order to sustain life within the City of the Dead, residents must rely on assistance ‘ particularly relatives who bring food, blankets and gifts. Others use the few services previously built by the government, such as limited electricity or water taps to make ends meet (Myllyl?§, 1995). There are some nonprofit organizations working to improve living conditions in the City of the Dead, such as Linvinslums, which recently delivered seeds, turf and a soil substitute to increase urban farming opportunities (Laylin, 2011).

Improving living conditions for households in the City of the Dead is difficult, as the government does not recognize the slum as an official residence. Of the many policy changes needed, one policy recommendation is to improve access to basic services, such as water and sanitation. It is crucial residents have water and that there is an effective system for collection and off-site disposal of wastes. A second policy recommendation is that residents be encouraged to migrate to peri-urban settlements with affordable public transportation for community workers. This would allow for improved living conditions without the loss of employment.

This article is a product of Professor Shagun Mehrotra’s Global Urban Environmental Policy class. Views expressed are entirely those of the individual author


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