The Egyptian government on Monday denied claims circulating on social media that ancient Islamic cemeteries and artifacts were being destroyed to make way for a bridge-building project.
Antiquities dating back five centuries in Cairo’s City of the Dead were among treasured items online posters said had been wrecked.
However, in a statement, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Judaic Antiquities Sector, Osama Talaat, said that the rumors were “completely untrue” and images of tombs that had appeared on social networking sites were not historic registered monuments.
He added that although the pictured tombs were from more recent times, the secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities had still ordered the formation of a scientific technical committee to examine the tombstones and look into the possibility of displaying some of them in museums.
An online campaign, launched on Facebook, has been critical of the scheme to build a bridge through the Mamluk Desert Cemetery.
Activist and journalist Khaled Abdel-Hadi said that the Mamluk tombs were part of Egypt’s world-famous Islamic architecture and destroying them would be to erase key aspects of the country’s history.
Archaeologist Hisham Auf pointed out that the cemeteries being demolished to make way for the bridge were in an archaeological site registered since 2009 and as such it was against the law to damage them.
He said the cemeteries dated back to the 1920s and contained the bodies of pashas, former Egyptian prime ministers, and members of the Egyptian intelligentsia who fought during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 against British occupation.
This, he noted, “made the area a part of modern history as well as ancient history. The region as a whole went through changes, all of which were against the law as this tampered with Egyptian history and Egypt’s international pledge to UNESCO.
“It is true that during the construction of the Salah Salem Road during the time of (Egyptian) President Gamal Abdel Nasser parts of graves were removed, but this does not legitimize what is happening now and does not mean anything in the debate about the graves.”
Auf added: “We were informed only 10 days ago of the decision to demolish. It was an official report and was conducted by the person responsible for my mother’s family tombs in El-Ghafir, in which its two-room reception and large vacant space will be destroyed.
“As the tombs are on a side street, the cemeteries themselves are still safe. I don’t know if we have to move the remains of the dead. The state did not provide us with alternate graves.”
He said some people had been able to arrange for remains to be moved but others were struggling. “My great grandfather had bought a second cemetery in the same area, but he donated it. This second cemetery will most likely end up being destroyed and no one will move any of the bones located there.”
He said that to date there had been no offer of compensation.
“This is not a process of moving the graves. This is the demolition of the graves, which is untenable behavior. I am disgusted by the attempts to defend this sad day in the history of Cairo,” Auf added.