A TNT Travel Writing Awards 2009

Author: Narelle Galligan


“Please take us to the City of the Dead.”

The walled fortress of the ancient citadel fades behind us, the spires of the Mohammed Ali Mosque still visible against the smoggy sky.  The air conditioned car is a welcome contrast to the beating heat outside. 

“You are in old Cairo now.”

The contrast is not immediate.  All of Cairo carries the past with it, but somehow as we drive slowly along the dusty road, the years slip away and we are in another time.  Rows and rows of clay pots stacked impossibly high line the street.  A bustling market appears, we pause to let a herd of goats cross in front of the car.  Men sit at a table almost on the road, playing cards and smoking their shisa pipe, taking advantage of the shade offered by an overhanging tree.  A woman strolls with a wooden crate balancing perfectly on her head.  A minute before, the man walking next to her had handed it to her so he could walk unencumbered.  She had taken it without protest.  Children are playing and laughing, weaving between the cars and the stalls. 

Back on the Salah Salem Highway, Atef, our guide, stops the car.  He tells us that from here we will have the best view of all that is the City of the Dead.   From our high point, as far as we can see is the ancient burial ground used by many of Cairo’s oldest leaders.  The view is fascinating and beautiful – jutted with the domes and spires of olden mosques and tombs.  I shiver thinking of all of the bodies buried in the mausoleums below.

Making a sharp right onto a dirt street, we enter the City.  No one speaks as we crawl along.  Crumbling walls of old tombs on the right and on the left.   A woman in black sits silently on the doorstep to one of the tombs, her home.  Next to her an old man wearing a white taqiyah smiles a toothless smile.  In front of us is a faded mosque, the doors and windows are blocked with bricks and iron bars.  No one prays here anymore.  We wind through the streets – so many tombs, so many homes.  Rubbish is piled high on every corner, the smell of lingering sewage assaults the senses and it seems even hotter here than in the citadel.  One, two, ten broken cars lie abandoned on this street – or maybe they just look that way.  The city is busy.  5 million people make their homes amongst the tombs here.  Sleeping on top of graves, tombstones for their tables, gravestones hold their washing line. 

“Can I get out?” 

“Not here.” says Atef.  He pulls out a 1 Egyptian pound note and points to the picture on the note, “I will take you to this famous mosque.”

More streets, this one appears to be the high street.  Faded coke and fanta cans, some packets of cigarettes, a case of mangos – the local shop.  A worn pair of sandals and two pairs of dirty black shoes sit atop an overturned bucket and some old cases. On either side are piles of rubbish and rotting food – the shoe shop.  A handsome, young man in a bright red shirt leans against a doorway smoking; I see a barber’s chair and a mirror on a dirt floor in the room behind.  His shirt shines against the dirty brown background of his shop – the hair salon.  Business is quiet today.

We come to an opening and the grand mosque appears.

The Sultan Qaitbay Mosque dates from the 9th Century.  It is beautiful and stirring to stand in front of it.  The simple decorative paint now faded, would have once been vibrant and inspiring.  The stone is dirty, so dirty it is almost black.  Part of the wall on the right is crumbling and the iron gate leans dangerously.  The decorative spire is a beacon reaching proudly, far into the sky.  Somehow this mosque is more charming than others I have seen.  It evokes memories of all that has passed.  When first built, wealthy leaders would have prayed here when they came to bury or visit their dead.  It stands as a relic of prosperous times under the rich Mumlek king who built it.  Qaitbay, the king who rose from the rank of slave to rule for almost thirty years.   The people here would know the history; does it inspire them that the ruler who built this famous mosque was once poor and destitute as they are?  Or are they happy here amongst the dead.  I watch the children playing on the stairs of the mosque, their clothes are clean and they smile and laugh.  It is prayer time. The men walk briskly, deep in thought.  A disabled man drags himself on his hands and feet.   I am covered from head to toe yet am conscious of my appearance but the eyes that peer at me are not with judgement or mistrust, just surprise.

We are approached eagerly by a poor man who is holding a tattered Egypt history book.  He is showing us a faded black and white photo of a man painting.  It was his grandfather, a famous papyrus painter and teacher; he wants to show us how his grandfather taught him to paint.  Time does not allow us to watch this man and his precious craft.  His shining eyes dim as Atef tells him we cannot come but he still smiles at me and waves goodbye.

We drive under a low archway, precariously sloping on one side.  I am surprised that it is still standing.  Graffiti, posters and rubbish mar this once grand gate over five centuries old.  It is not the entrance to the City of the Dead, but it seems a fitting marker.  A gate into an ancient time, a little world forgotten and ignored by the rulers of Cairo and rarely seen by the hordes of tourists who flock to Egypt and the land of the Great Pyramids.