It’s thought that at least five hundred thousand Cairenes live amid the Cities of the Dead, two vast cemeteries that stretch away from the Citadel to merge with newer shantytowns below the Muqattam. The Southern Cemetery, sprawling to the southeast of Ibn Tulun’s Mosque, is only visible from the Muqattam, or at close quarters. The Northern Cemetery, by contrast, is an unforgettably eerie sight, with dozens of mausoleums rising from a sea of dwellings along the road from Cairo Airport.
Although tourists generally – and understandably – feel uneasy about viewing the cemeteries’ splendid funerary architecture with squatters living all around or in the tombs, few natives regard the Cities of the Dead as forbidding places. Egyptians have a long tradition of building “houses” near their ancestral graves and picnicking or even staying there overnight; other families have simply occupied them. By Cairene standards these are poor but decent neighbourhoods, with shops, schools and electricity, maybe even piped water and sewers. The saints buried here provide a moral touchstone and baraka for their communities, who honour them with moulids.
Though these are generally not dangerous quarters, it’s best to exercise some caution when visiting. Don’t flaunt money or costly possessions, and be sure to dress modestly; women should have a male escort, and will seem more respectable if wearing a headscarf. You’ll be marginally less conspicuous on Fridays, when many Cairenes visit their family plots; but remember that mosques can’t be entered during midday prayers. At all events, leave the cemeteries before dark, if only to avoid getting lost in their labyrinthine alleys – and don’t stray to the east into the inchoate (and far riskier) slums around the foothills of the Muqattam.