Cairo is an overcrowded, densely populated city of almost 20 million residents. It’s nearly impossible to find a quiet, empty street in the middle of the day. But there’s at least one area where quiet streets are common; a place known as the “City of the Dead.” This four-mile stretch of land is a network of old Islamic tombs and mausoleums on narrow, often unpaved streets. The necropolis is not deserted, though: many families live here. Some inhabit houses they have built next to a tomb, or live in the tombs themselves.
This practice of “living among the dead” started when the owners of the tombs hired guards to protect their family mausoleums after repeated incidents of burglary. A guard was traditionally a young male from a rural area looking for work and accompanied by his wife. Years would pass, and the guards would die and be buried within the same tombs they had protected. The tombs, therefore, witnessed the birth and blossoming of new generations that considered this strange place home. In addition to guards and their families, others have been forced into the necropolis because of the pressures of overcrowding and the high cost of Cairo living.