El-Arafa | Where the living share space with the dead

Not your average “tourist destination” – not when you have come to Egypt to see those iconic Pyramids and museums, but the less-talked about and uncommon “twin cities” are a curious attraction. The strangeness of it even attracted the famous traveler Ibn Batutua to El-Arafa or City of the Dead and finds a mention is his travelogues. El-Arafa is where the living share space with the dead!


The City of the Dead is a strange sight indeed.  Located some distance away from the Cairo, towards its southeastern side, this place is actually a cemetery which now houses living people!

I have seen some strange and weird places in all my travels, but this one was by far the weirdest – not in the way that it was haunted or such like, but for the reality that was stranger than fiction. It was hard to fathom the living amongst the dead – but here they not only lived, they thrived. The “city” comprises of five main cemeteries –  Bab el Nasr Cemetery, Northern Cemetery, Southern Cemetery, el Wazir Cemetery and Cemetery of the Great. Most of the residents also make a living out of being the tomb keeper.

Cairo Necropolis is as strange as it gets! The densely packed tombs and mausoleum structure are shelters for the  people have set up houses and tea-shops, no less! Kids here play in between the tombs – unafraid. Of course, the tombs are not “just a tomb” but some tombs are inset into ornate rooms – which house the living as well as the dead!

city of the dead in Cairo

A view of the City of the Dead housing over 50,000 of the poorest people in the area.

city of the dead in cairo

city of the dead in cairo

The house with a “view” – fancy that!

city of the dead in cairo

Out of curiosity, I spoke to a few residents and all of them seem quite happy to live with the dead lying peacefully below! Some people have set up homes around the tombs – family inherited.  One woman, who lived all her life attending to the tombs claimed she often had to sleep on the tombstones for the lack of space!


Close to the City of the Dead is the “Garbage City” – so named because people use it as the dumping ground. Well, the strange thing is that the garbage is dumped on the rooftops for lack of disposal space. These two ‘cities’ have some of the poorest people living in it.

city of the dead in cairo

 The majority of people who live here, however are Muslims and few, Christians.

It is believed that over 500,000 people live amongst the tombs some of which date back to 600 A.D. Electricity and sanitation facilities are limited and while the government has considered moving the population away from these two “cities” non-availability of land has become the biggest obstacle.

While these 2 Cities are not exactly a tourist destination, it is a good idea to see beyond the gleaming Cairo or the Giza Pyramids into the reality that faces Egypt’s Capital City.

One comment

  1. One of the places I always wanted to visit

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