A state of shock, astonishment and anger struck the Egyptian street after the Egyptian authorities demolished parts of the ancient Mamluk tombs located in eastern Cairo. Activists on social media expressed their anger and shock at the removal of tombs that contain many Islamic monuments dating back five centuries ago and where many historical figures have been buried. The government began to remove them to establish a road, the so-called “axis of paradise.” The photos and videos showed bulldozers crushing ancient graves and buildings spread in the al-Ghafir Tombs area, which is classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
The demolition of the Mamluk tombs to create a new bridge renewed discussion over the continuous destruction of Islamic monuments in Egypt through demolition, thefts, and deliberate neglect, while activists cautioned against obliterating the historical identity of Cairo and the loss of its heritage and architectural features.
The Mamluk cemetery is the oldest Islamic cemetery in Egypt, and it is located in a vast area along Salah Salem Road in Nasser facility, east of the capital, Cairo. In the first half of the eighth century, the kings and princes of Egypt began constructing mosques and gorges in this area and attached burial sites to them. They also set up architectural groups that included schools and hospitals.
The region currently contains a huge group of rare archeological mosques, more than 30, most of which are of a unique style, the most famous of which is Qaitbay – Barsbay – Grand Mosque – Qurqmas Mosque – Ibn Barquq Mosque – Mosque and the Dome of Imam Al-Shafi’i.
The archaeological site and its distinctive architectural nature made activists bemoan the scenes of demolition, removal and erasing history with bulldozers, confirming that the decision-maker and his advisors have badly used the expropriation law for the public benefit issued in 1990, which gives the right to expropriate any citizen’s property in response to the public benefit.
Amidst this widespread discontent, government statements came out to justify the removals in the Mamluk cemetery area. The Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said, in media statements, that the necropolis is private property and not registered as an antiquity. He claimed that what was removed from cemeteries and mosques were not registered as antiquities.
Almost the same statement was issued by Major General Ibrahim Abdel Hadi, Deputy Governor of Cairo, who added an explanation that families affected by the removal of their graves will be compensated with alternative graves in the Nahda and May 15 regions. But all of these statements were rejected and met by Tweets stressing that all of ancient Islamic Cairo including al-Fustat, the tombs of Imam al-Shafi’i, the Mamluk tombs, the tombs and shrines of the saints and the tombs of historians such as al-Jabarti, al-Maqrizi, the Shweikar dome, and mosques such as al-Maqdisi and Fakhr Al-Din al-Zayla’I, Ibn al-Hajj al-Fassi, who were buried in those cemeteries, also Malak Hifni Nasif (Died: October 17, 1918) were registered as Islamic monuments since 1979.
Other activists asked about the prohibition of demolishing the graves as the authorities had rushed to demolish the graves without giving any opportunity to transfer their remains.
Observers confirm that the demolition of the Mamluk tombs to establish the paradise axis sheds light on the situation of Islamic antiquities in Egypt which suffer from demolition, theft, and misappropriation. Every time, accusations arise between state institutions to shirk responsibility. In February last year, citizens and archaeologists were surprised by a campaign to demolish the historic building No. 88, known as the Anabari Agency, which is located in the historic al-Moez Dine Allah al-Fatimi Street area.
The Anabari Agency dates back 900 years, as the Fatimids built it to be a prison under the name “imprisonment of aid.” During the Mamluk era, the prison was converted into an agency for the trade of Ambergris at the hands of Sultan Qalawun in 1281. Since this time, it is a place dedicated to selling perfumes, as the Egyptians called it the Anabari Agency (Ambergris), and trade flourished during the Ottoman era. At that time, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities denied its responsibility for the demolition, considering that the building is not registered as an antiquity.
The ministry threw the responsibility on the civil coordination authority at the Ministry of Culture, while it was circulated among the owners of the shops on al-Moez Street, that one of the famous businessmen bought the land on which the agency was built, and agreed with the government to demolish the property.
Continuous demolition policy
Mamluk cemeteries are not the first victim, according to previous statements by Samir Gharib, the former head of the civil coordination body. Egypt lost 75 per cent of its heritage and historical buildings, the most important of which was the demolition of the house of the historical engineer, in the arms market street, in December 2014. In January 2018, the Continental Hotel, one of the Khedive buildings in central Cairo, which witnessed the arrival of European kings and queens during the opening of the Suez Canal in 1866, was partially demolished. Several archaeological areas and mosques have turned into garbage dumps and dens for drug use because they are not guarded, as happened with the Ahmed bin Tulun Mosque. The Qaitbay Archaeological Agency was also maimed and destroyed due to the unprofessional restoration work, by replacing the ancient stones with new ones, whose shelf life does not exceed ten years.
Egyptian journalist Mohamed Badawi wrote on his Facebook page that during renewing the Metro stations in Washington DC, they considered that anything more than 70-years-old is an antique that must be preserved, and it is forbidden to touch it, and they put it behind glass to preserve it and it is unfortunate to see such beautiful objects being demolished in such a terrible way.