Inside the Cairo mausoleum of the great Dramali family, seven richly decorated marble tombs are decorated with gilded floral designs and intricate carved verses from the Koran.
The Dramalis, long part of the Egyptian elite, trace their ancestry to an Ottoman prime minister of Turkey whose sons moved to Egypt in the 19th century. But now the 150-year-old mausoleum, and its vivid part of Egyptian history, is facing demolition.
Although protected by the World Heritage Organization Unesco, authorities are planning a major highway that will cut through Cairo’s oldest and largest necropolis to help ease traffic in the notoriously congested capital of 20 million people.
The city’s two main cemeteries radiate north and south from a central citadel and are known as the City of Death. Surrounded by urban sprawl, the construction of the new highway will involve the removal of thousands of family graves, including those of historical figures from Egyptian art, literature and politics. Some mausoleums date back to the Arab conquest, 14 centuries ago.
“Everyone in my family feels broken by this,” said Wahid Mardenly, a businessman and descendant of the Dramali family. “Our whole family is buried here. These are people who served Egypt. My great-grandfather built the first port for agricultural products on the Nile in Cairo and he helped. . . to establish the textile industry. ”
Egypt undergoes massive infrastructure drives under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former general who ousted his elected Islamic predecessor in a popular-backed coup in 2013.
The military has since overseen a large list of projects that include bridges, utilities, real estate – even a new capital. By 2024, about $ 70 billion will be spent on transportation alone, the transportation minister said. said.
Many of the businesses respond to real needs after decades of underinvestment. But some have raised concerns about losing heritage or destroying Cairo’s already scarce green spaces. The process is also characterized by a top-down decision-making process and a lack of public consultation.
Sometimes the authorities heeded public concerns. Last year, they canceled the construction of a bridge that would have disfigured a main square, dominated by a basilica, in the posh neighborhood of Heliopolis. But the district has already been transformed by series of street extensions, new bridges and the bulldozer of trees and green areas to create wide freeways with fast traffic that are dangerous to pedestrians.
Hany Eissa al-Fekky, the engineer who designed the Heliopolis road extensions and the planned traffic artery by the City of the Dead, said Cairo is an old and overcrowded metropolis with limited options for urban planners who want to ease its traffic jams.
“Cars are increasing at an abnormal rate in this city, so we are trying to expand and build roads and create new axles to connect Cairo with the new cities being built. [outside it], ”Al-Fekky said.
More than 2,000 family cemeteries of little architectural importance will be demolished to make way for the new highway, al-Fekky said. He argued that it would “better frame” the cemetery’s listed monuments.
Yet while a 2014 World Bank report estimating that Cairo’s traffic congestion costs Egypt 4 per cent of lost economic output per year, it also warned that building new roads “simply will not solve the problem.”
Conservationists also fear that the new highway will fragment the cemetery, preparing it for its eventual disappearance.
Galila al-Kadi, Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning and author of a book on Cairo’s historic cemeteries, argues that both listed and unlisted buildings on the site are protected by the agreement with Unesco.
“The whole site is historic,” she said. “It is now the target of a fierce attack and many treasures will be lost,” she said.
That threat is already a partial reality. Cairo’s historic world heritage sites have “reached a critical point,” UNESCO warned last year after many tombs and family mausoleums from the early 20th century were pushed to build a road through the northern cemetery.
The city’s historic sites are “cumulatively damaged by. . . functional decay, demolition and major infrastructure development, ”added Unesco, and“ can quickly reach an irreversible situation if urgent action is not taken ”.
Guardians and families, who have proposed tunneling the new highway under the cemetery, called on the president to save the area, arguing that its destruction would lead “to the loss of parts of the Egyptian nation’s historical memory” . “
Mohamed Yakan, a grandson of Adly Yakan Pasha, a 1920s prime minister whose family mausoleum is now being demolished, has complained he has not received any official communication on what could happen, or when.
“It’s all oral information. . . That way we can not contest the demolition in the courts, ”he said. “If every generation is removed [the traces] of his predecessors, we will have nothing to bequeath to future generations. ”