I actually had a great post I was going to finish writing for you today (Well, finish is a stretch; I’d barely started the writing part!) And I couldn’t. I mean I will, eventually, but today I’m just feeling a bit blah, because I’ve got a cold and a headache and am feeling a bit crap and it’s raining and while it’s not a sad post, it’s also not the happiest thing I’ll ever write. So I went looking for something cheerier to write about. And I found a cemetery in Egypt.
What? A cemetery?
Yep. I’ve mentioned before that I love cemeteries so they already automatically make me happy, and this one even more so, because it’s one of the coolest ones I’ve ever seen!
My traveling companion and I had decided to stop in El Minya on our way North from Luxor back to Cairo. Most people either fly or take the train and skip everything in between, but we’re both the kind of travelers who like to get off the beaten path now and then, and we’d quite frankly had about enough of the major tourist sites in Egypt by this time.
El Minya is in the area that the Egyptian authorities don’t want tourists to go. That whole area along the Nile between Luxor and Cairo is a bit out of bounds for foreigners, due to Islamic insurgencies in the 1990s. Although things have calmed down now and nobody stopped us from going, I’m quite certain that the police were keeping pretty close track of us.
When we arrived we set off to find the hotel we’d booked, which was actually on a boat. We were wandering around in the dark on the waterfront looking for it when we got mobbed by a group of young women, chattering away in Arabic and random bits of English, colourful headscarves flying in every direction. They were so excited to see us, but more and more girls joined the crowd, until they were actually overwhelming me to the point where I had to start yelling at them to back off!
But El Minya is a friendly and charming city. There are lovely park areas to walk in by the riverside, and smiles and hellos are abundant. People did not try to rip us off here as they did elsewhere in Egypt, and requests for baksheesh were not nearly as frequent!
We only stayed one night, and happily spent our time wandering the streets and stopping in tea shops to sit and watch the world go by. The one major thing we did was visit Zawiyyet al-Mayyiteen cemetery, otherwise known as the City of the Dead.
Zawiyyet al-Mayyiteen is 7km away from town and we weren’t sure how to get there, so we went back to the train station to see if there was some tourist information. We found an office, which wasn’t exactly an information centre but possibly more of an administration or security office, and the man there quizzed us about where we were going, how long we would be there, which hotel we were staying in, how long we were staying in town, how we were planning to leave, did we have our tickets booked, and just about anything else he could think of. Finally, he produced a driver for us, who was happy to take us to the cemetery for a small fee. Yay!
This place is incredible. For miles in either direction and up the hillside, all you can see is a sea of white clay domes, each covering a tomb. It is said to be the largest burial ground in the world.
If you look closely, you can see that not all the domes are the same. Some are smooth clay, some staggered brick. Some have holes in the top while others don’t, and a few have clay ‘bars’ crossing over the hole. Some are built atop an exposed brick building, but other buildings are smoothed over with clay or even painted bright colours. Most are crammed tightly together, sharing walls, but a few have a sort of yard attached.
Lanes wind in among the graves, and it would be easy to get lost in here, if it wasn’t for the cliff at the back and the blazing sun giving directions. We wandered up one of the main alleys to the hillside for a better look.
It’s still a working cemetery, for both Muslims and Christians, so there are plenty of people around. They go visit their deceased relatives and have a picnic in the tomb, hang out for the day, and occasionally people might even live there if they have nowhere else to go. Unlike some cemeteries, it’s actually quite a cheerful place!
As cemeteries go, Zawiyet al-Mayyiteen was pretty cool, and our visit to El Minya was short but definitely a highlight of our trip to Egypt. If you ever find yourself in Egypt traveling between Cairo and Luxor, this place is definitely worth a stop!