Cairo’s Haven of Peace for War Dead

Mohammed El-Shamma

CAIRO: More than 100 years after it was established, the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Cairo has become a haven of peace honoring the victims of two of the 20th century’s most destructive conflicts.
However, the cemetery’s reputation as a place of quiet remembrance is no accident. Dedicated work and constant care across two continents ensure the site retains a sense of tranquility at odds with its surroundings in one of the most densely populated sections of old Cairo.
Fragrant flowers and manicured gardens greet visitors to the cemetery, which is home to almost 2,400 graves, mainly of soldiers who fought and died in the two world wars. The nationalities differ, but most are from Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Marble gravestones are inscribed with the names of troops, while another section has crosses and markers on the ground for civilians who died on Egyptian soil during the fighting.
According to caretaker Sayed Al-Shandawili, the cemetery is the “most cared for graveyard in Egypt.”
“Cleaning continues throughout the day and the workers are extremely diligent,” he said.
“Cleaning company workers can speak many languages in order to be able to deal with the foreigners who visit.”
The Cairo site was one of a number established by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission under a British charter in 1917 to commemorate the victims of war, which totalled about 1.7 million men and women.
The commission is a non-profit organization that supervises and maintains 2,500 cemeteries in 150 countries around the world. The names of all the soldiers buried in the graves are available on the commission’s records.
“In commemoration of the beginning of World War I each year, representatives of the countries of the citizens buried there, as well as guests from Egyptian political institutions, meet at the graves,” said Abdelmajid Ahmed, the official in charge of the Commonwealth cemeteries in Egypt.
“In the morning there are speeches for half an hour, followed by the laying of wreaths.”
Ahmed said that workers in the Cairo cemetery live nearby and have fixed work schedules.
There are conflicting opinions on whether any Muslims are buried in the cemetery.
History researcher Abdul Aziz Mahmoud said that some soldiers who fought in World War I in Egypt may have converted to Islam.
Officially, however, the graveyard is reserved for foreign soldiers, while other parts of the cemetery are for foreign Christians living in Egypt now.
A Commonwealth cemetery in Cairo’s Heliopolis region holds the remains of African soldiers killed in the fighting, including Muslims.
Egypt has 16 Commonwealth cemeteries around Cairo, Alexandria, Alamein, Salom, Port Said, Fayed and Aswan.

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