The Historical Junkyards of Cairo

By Shehab Ismail

The city of Cairo was surrounded by human-made mounds composed of rubbish and debris that had been piling up on the same spots for centuries. This blog post narrates how the author encountered the rubbish mounds during his research on the history of sanitation in Cairo. It explores two materials that were commonly found in the city’s dumpsters: archeological finds and organic fertilizers. Archeology suggests an approach to these historical sites as material archives of refuse that should be explored next to other archives and sources. Fertilizers on the other hand suggest a complementary approach to the mounds as sites of labor, energy, and urban metabolism.

Historical Cairo was surrounded by dumpsites of various sizes on the city’s outskirts. According to the Mamluk-era historian al-Maqrizi (1364–1442), one of the largest of these dumpsites originated soon after the founding of the city in 969, when the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996-1021) ordered the inhabitants to throw trash and rubble outside of the city’s eastern wall. The decree aimed to prevent heavy rainfall coming down the nearby Muqattam Hills from flooding the city.[1] Waste of all kinds piled up outside of the wall: household trash, organic refuse from markets, junk from various industries, animal waste and carcasses, and the rubble of centuries worth of construction and demolition. Arabic sources call them Kiman (sing. kom) or Tulul (sing. tell) al-Barqiya, meaning the mounds or hills behind al-Barqiya gate. Indeed, by the end of the eighteenth century, the dumpsters had become geological features composed of rubbish. By the beginning of the twentieth century, al-Barqiya Mounds had reached a height of forty-two meters, well above the buildings at the opposite side of the city wall. During the rest of the century, the government removed much of the eastern mounds and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture transformed the remaining part into al-Azhar Park.

Above: Panoramic view of Cairo from al-Barqiya Mounds (circa 1877). Photograph by Henri Béchard (British Library). For the image in higher resolution visit here. Left: Kiman Al-Barqiya in the French expedition map of 1809 (New York Public Library). For the complete map visit here. Right: The mounds from a hot air balloon in 1904. Extract from a photograph by Eduard Spelterini (Scheidegger & Spiess). For the image in higher resolution and Spelterini’s other aerial photos of his Cairo visit here.

I learned about the mounds incidentally, as they kept creeping into my archival and primary sources. My research is on engineering sanitary infrastructures in Cairo. Everywhere I looked, I saw the mounds.

For instance, they appeared in the annual report of the Public Works Ministry for the year 1918-1919. The section titled ‘New Areas’ describes the efforts of the Cairo City Service in removing parts of the eastern rubbish mounds in order to make room for urban expansion. It states that:

The rubbish hills are gradually being removed with the help of the Arabic Museum; the screenings from their digging operations for relics of Arab art combined with removal of the remaining sebakh enables the Department to fill up low-lying areas at little cost simultaneously with the removal of the hills.[2]

Oil lamp found during the 2004 Aga Khan Trust for Culture excavations in al-Barqiya Mounds at Burg al-Mahruq, one of the towers found along the eastern stretch of the Ayyubid Wall of Cairo. © Aga Khan Trust for Culture

The presence of large quantities of sebakh—organic fertilizer—on the rubbish mounds did not surprise me in the least for reasons that I will address below. What I initially found difficult to understand was why the Museum of Arab (now Islamic) Art would be interested in such a site at all. Since then, I have realized that rubbish mounds were, and had been for nearly a century, the quintessential sites for archaeological research in Egypt. Since the mounds were the final destination of the rubble of houses, mosques, and even entire cities, they were bound to contain artifacts of aesthetic value. In 1896, the first catalogue of the Museum of Arab Art states that “almost a history of the art [of pottery] could be traced by means of the numerous fragments, from the commonest domestic crockery to the finest decorative work, daily picked up among the rubbish mounds which mark the site of the old city of Fustat.”[3]

In 1912 Ali Bahgat, an Egyptian pioneer of Islamic archeology, conducted an excavation at the Ain al-Sira Mound south of Cairo, where he exposed and studied the ruins of al-Fustat. Founded by Amr Ibn al-As in 641, the city was the first site of Arab settlement in the area. However, it was abandoned and burnt to the ground in 1168 to prevent its occupation by the European Crusades. The city’s debris was gathered into a huge heap that came to be known as Kiman Misr or the Ain al-Sira Mound.[4]

Aerial photograph of the site of al-Fustat and the Ain al-Sira Mound (right). From Aly Bahgat Bey and Albert Gabriel, Fouilles d’al-Foustat (K. De Boccard, Paris, 1921)

The association between the rubbish mounds and the archeological past seems to be common knowledge for those who live and work close to what still remains from these sites. In 2019 I met Samir, who works at Hag Khalil’s auto repair shop in Sayyida Nafisa, immediately in front of an exposed bit of the once enormous Zeinhom Mound in the south of Cairo. Samir told me that people commonly find what seem to be ancient artifacts in the area. As we were speaking he excused himself for a moment, entered the repair shop, then came back with an Ottoman-era clay pipe that he found and kept as a souvenir.

Samir (front). Photo: Ahmad al-Ghoneimy

The mounds are a material archive of Cairo’s refuse, everything that the city cast off, consumed, discarded, broken, and lost.[5] Drawing on recent literature in anthropology, geography, and history, I want to pursue further this history of waste as consumed materiality.[6]

Waste is a quintessential byproduct of urban metabolism. It is an internally heterogeneous category that mixes inorganic and organic remains that have been worked and shaped by humans and animals. Among the various trades that transported and processed waste in Cairo those that dealt with human and animal refuse were central for understanding the mounds’ association with fertilizers.

Exposed part of Zeinhom Mound in 2019. Photo: Ahmad al-Ghoneimy

At the Egyptian National Archives I found the records of a commission that was formed by the British colonial government in 1885, two years after a devastating cholera epidemic had hit Egypt. Members of the Cairo Sanitary Commission discussed various problems of public hygiene including sewage disposal and regulations concerning inconvenient, unhealthy, and dangerous establishments. Cairo’s mounds were all over the discussions since they embodied an older system of sanitation that would gradually become outmoded over the course of the next decades.

Before the introduction of a sewage network in 1915, Cairo’s waste removal relied on cesspools and nightsoil men (sarabatiya), a euphemism for those who transported shit for a living. Cesspools were underground reservoirs or wells that were attached to toilets in private houses, mosques, and elsewhere. They were usually constructed with porous masonry and left unfloored in order to allow the surrounding subsoil to absorb most of the liquids, keeping only solid waste inside. This construction method decreased the frequency of having to empty the contents by relying on the porosity of Cairo’s soil and its absorptive qualities as well as the generally dry weather. Emptying cesspools was usually a messy and foul task done by nightsoil men who used sand, shovels, and buckets for transporting human waste to the mounds outside of the city, where it was subsequently harvested and sold as fertilizer. The commission members suggested various alternatives to reorganize the service including giving it to a private company and applying the latest technologies for transporting sewage and turning it into quality organic fertilizer.[7] This idea became a reality a year later when the Cairo Sewage Transport Company established its works close to the mounds of Old Cairo.

Cairo Sewage Transport Company wagon (Source: The Power Wagon, January 1908)

During another session of the Cairo Sanitary Commission, the members reviewed a recent government decree that required unhealthy and dangerous industries to be located away from places of residence. Such industries included slaughterhouses, tanneries, sewage reservoirs for making fertilizers, saltpeter (gunpowder) makers, match makers, brick and glass makers, and iron foundries. The members were aware of the government’s attempt to group unhealthy trades together around a few locations, including the mounds of Old Cairo. In line with this, they noted that gella should also be listed in the decree. Gella was a popular and cheap fuel made by composting dung from streets and animal markets into dry cakes. The sanitary commission recommended consolidating the gella trade and relocating it to the mounds of Old Cairo, where it would benefit from “well-ventilated courtyards, so as not to stink up the populated neighborhoods, but nevertheless not be absolutely far away from the houses of poor people who make a living from this industry.”[8]

Cairo’s rubbish mounds were sites of labor where industries that transported, processed, produced, and harvested wastes thrived. A history of the mounds must therefore provide an account of the geographic distribution of labor and the changing nature of work. It must also trace the conceptualization of waste in relation to various other categories such as work, value, productivity, fertility, and energy.[9]

Mohamed Abdel Meguid. Photo: Ahmad al-Ghoneimy

In 2019 I met Mohamed Abdel Meguid, an October (1973) War veteran who runs a metal welding workshop in an area close to Abbasiya where Kiman Sheykh Negm al-Din once stood. I asked him about the rubbish mounds. He smiled and told me that he remembered them very well. When he acquired a license from the government to use the land in 1986, it was under the condition that he removes the rubbish. He said that the area was known for drugs and was full of refuse (mokhallafat) that piled up very high. As he explained it, the area used to be a designated place for “tashween al-Qahira [Cairo].”

Abdel Meguid’s words rang in my ears. The verb tashween (from shona, meaning granary or silo) has a double meaning. It could be used to mean storing valuable commodities such as grain and cotton or to indicate the act of ditching miscellaneous materials in a confined location. Indeed, the mounds were the historical warehouses and junkyards of Cairo.

The author would like to thank Mai Taha, Mohamed El-Hajj, Nora Shalaby, Seif El Rashidi, Maged Zaher, and Waiel Ashry.


References

[1] Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn Ali al-Maqrizi, al-Mawaiz wa al-I’tibar bi dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar (al-Qahira: Madbouli, 1998), Vol. 2, 60.

وأما جهة القاهرة الشرقية، وهي ما بين السور والجبل، فإنه كان فضاء ثم أمر الحاكم بأمر الله أن تلقى أتربة القاهرة من وراء السور، لتمنع السيول أن تدخل إلى القاهرة، فصار منها الكيمان التي تعرف بكيمان البرقية، ولم تزل هذه الجهة خالية من العمارة إلى أن انقرضت الدولة الفاطمية، فسبحان الباقي بعد فناء خلقه.

[2] Ministry of Public Works, Egypt, Annual Report for 1918-1919 (Cairo: Government Press, 1922), 49.

[3] Max Herz Bey, Arab Museum: Catalogue of the National Museum of Arab Art (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1896), 64.

[4] al-Maqrizi, al-Khitat. Vol. 1, 925-935; Aly Bahgat Bey and Albert Gabriel, Fouilles d’al-Foustat, (K. De Boccard, Paris, 1921), 13-14.

[5] To paraphrase Baudelaire on the ragpicker: “Here we have a man whose job it is to pick up the day’s rubbish in the capital. He collects and catalogues everything that the great city has cast off, everything it has lost, and discarded, and broken. He goes through the archives of debauchery, and the jumbled array of refuse.” Quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 349-50 (Convolute J).

[6] Shannon Lee Dawdy, “Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity” Current Anthropology 51, 6 (2010), 767; Stephen Graham, “City Ground,” Places Journal, November 2016. Accessed 25 Oct 2020. https://doi.org/10.22269/161107; Sara Pritchard and Carl Zimring, Technology and the Environment in History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2020), Ch. 3.

[7] Dar al-Wathaiq al-Qawmiya [The Egyptian National Archives], Diwan al-Ashghal al-Umumiya (Public Works Ministry), file number 4003-037345 and 4003-033238.

[8] DWQ, Diwan al-Ashghal al-Umumiya (Public Works Ministry), file number 4003-037345.

[9] M. Norton Wise and Crosbie Smith, “Work and Waste: Political Economy and Natural Philosophy in Nineteenth Century Britain (I-III),” History of Science 27-8 (1989-1990); Dana Simmons, “Waste Not, Want Not: Excrement and Economy in Nineteenth-Century France,” Representations 96, 1 (2006); Timothy Cooper, “Peter Lund Simmonds and the Political Ecology of Waste Utilization in Victorian Britain,” Technology and Culture 52, 1 (2011).


Shehab Ismail is a historian of the modern Middle East who specializes in science and technology studies, urban history, and colonial history. Shehab received his PhD from Columbia University in 2017. Between 2017-2020, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. In March 2020, he launched the digital history project Al-Madaq: A Virtual Tour of Cairo’s History.


Citation: Shehab Ismail, The Historical Junkyards of Cairo, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.01.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26297.


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