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cairo's city of the dead

The Living City of the Dead

Cairo is the most populous city in Africa and its population continues to grow at one of the fastest rates in the world. In the midst of all the traffic, noise, pollution and general chaos that gives Cairo its unique character, exists one of the most unusual and dramatic human habitats anywhere. Westerners call it the "City of the Dead"; but Egyptians refer to it only as the "arafa" or cemetery, a city within the city.

Located on the eastern edge of Cairo, this bizarre and other-worldly district is where the rich and famous, as well as the common man, have buried their dead for centuries. Today this district is anything but dead and over half a million people live there. Decades of migration from EgyptÕs many poor villages and CairoÕs crowded city center have created bustling alleyways and streets filled with everything from tea shops, video stores and auto mechanics to vegetable markets, small industries and even factories. By day, groups of children in their school uniforms fill the crowded streets on their way to schools in the cemetery, while at night, ear-piercing wedding celebrations fill the air around the tombs.

This kaleidoscope of activity, though common in any Middle Eastern city, revolves around people living in or next to mausoleums. Huts are built around tombstones between which laundry is hung to dry, and as many as 50,000 people live in dwellings built amongst the grand burial sites of famous religious and political figures of EgyptÕs rich past.

I originally went there in 1992 while on assignment for National Geographic to do a story on water problems in the Middle East. What I discovered in this sacred and profane place captured my imagination and left an indelible imprint on my image-obsessed mind. This surprising ghetto, where even middle class Egyptians intentionally move to escape the noise and crowds of central Cairo, lured me back a year later to devote more time to explore the subtle layers that I imagined existed there.

City of the Dead is unique in the Islamic world, where living among the dead is considered a sacrilege. To the authorities this situation has become something of a national embarrassment. When I approached the Ministry of Information for permission to photograph in the cemeteryÕs schools and health clinics, they were unwilling to cooperate. They feared yet another negative story about Egypt, and although my intention was to honor their ingenious spirit and sense of survival, they clearly did not share my feelings. The City of the Dead has become an emblem of one of CairoÕs less glorious accomplishments. In a city where millions live in slums or one-room apartments, in shanties built on rooftops or in the rooms once reserved for the guardians of the tombs, upward of a million apartments stand empty.

Overpopulation is one of the most pressing problems facing our world today. With the earthÕs resources being assaulted by overuse and abuse, growing population rates only add to this apocalyptic course. Cairo represents one of the more blatant cases of human civilization gone astray, a vortex of disorder where too many people are going simultaneously in different directions that seem to lead nowhere. The City of the Dead has grown into a strange oasis of calm and quiet in this whirl of activity.

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