By Khaled Diab
Egyptians' lavish burial spaces offer comfort to relatives – while 1.5 million less fortunate Cairenes live among the dead.
Sunday 6 February 2011
To highlight the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, an Egyptian newspaper recently ran an article on what it described as “five-star tombs” (see one example here).
Echoing the grandeur of the ancient Egyptian nobility, one of the luxury tombs in Cairo's upmarket Bab el-Wazir cemetery belongs to an unnamed celebrity and is said to have cost more than 3 million Egyptian pounds (around $500,000) – an astronomical amount in a country where per capita GDP stands at just under $6,000.
The opulent, marble-faced tomb is surrounded by greenery and a large courtyard. Inside, it is equally well appointed, with a ‘living room' quite literally to die for and a sumptuous bathroom. But why, the uninformed may ask, would dead people, even stars whose names may outlive them, need these places?
In ancient Egypt, people did believe that they could take their wealth and status with them, that the afterlife was simply an extension of this one in a different dimension. But that is no longer the case today.
Actually, these spaces are truly living rooms, i.e. rooms for the living. They are meant to provide family members with the comfort and space to relax and make a day of it when visiting their dead relatives at the weekend or during religious festivals.
Egyptians show little interest in the minimalist funeral rites favoured, for example, by the Saudis. No unmarked grave or simple marker would suffice the Egyptian appetite for honouring the dead. Instead, any family with enough money owns a tomb that, to foreign eyes, would appear to be a house.
These lavish burial requirements, combined with the shortage of land, especially in the capital, mean that the country's housing crisis plagues poorer Egyptians both in life and in death. The situation has become so acute that a number of affordable burial projects have been established and many cemeteries, like the cities they serve, have low-cost popular quarters.
Though space is becoming increasingly tight for the dead, the living are profiting from Egypt's burial traditions. According to government statistics quoted by al-Dustour newspaper, around 1.5 million people who cannot find housing elsewhere live among the dead in Cairo's cemeteries, renting or squatting in the tombs.
The idea of living in a cemetery might seem a macabre choice. However, there is very little of the Edgar Allan Poe about Egyptian cemeteries. Cairo's oldest functioning cemetery, colourfully known in English as the City of the Dead, could easily be mistaken for just another overcrowded district in the city's poorer quarters – the main sign of its intended function being the memorial plaques everywhere.
House-like tombs and tombs as homes are likely to reinforce the prevalent idea that Egyptians, throughout their long history, have had a unique, even morbid fascination with death. But is this truly so?
The archaeological evidence might suggest it is. After all, the vast majority of ancient Egyptian monuments and artefacts are somehow related to death, or presumed to be so: the pyramids, the valleys of the kings and the queens, the mummies, etc. – as are many of the grandest monuments of the Greco-Roman, Christian and Islamic periods.
But the apparent plethora of physical evidence can be misleading. “This has more to do with geography (ancient remains were preserved well in the Egyptian desert) and the availability of materials,” explains Ilona Regulski, a Belgian Egyptologist who is currently lecturing at Yale University.
Indeed, although Egyptians buried their dead in the dry desert, they lived on the wet banks of the Nile where millions of tonnes of Ethiopian silt were deposited each year. Nevertheless, what evidence there is suggests that they lived lives remarkably similar to our own today and even had a highly developed sense of humour and irony.
Similar attitudes to death were also quite common in the ancient world. “There were a lot of similarities with other ancient cultures with regard to the whole afterlife thing and how to get there and what it looks like,” Regulski notes.
Even in more modern times and settings, preoccupation with death is all around: for example, church art is replete with gory images of the crucified Christ, as is Renaissance art.
Though Egyptians have lost the inclination to honour their dead leaders with monoliths, the tradition lives on elsewhere. Washington, the capital city of today's most powerful empire, is like some kind of modern Valley of the Kings, with its grand Washington monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and the Arlington cemetery for the heroes and ‘nobility'.
This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 23 January 2011. Read the full discussion here.