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Cairo’s City of the Dead, a vast cemetery that has been in use for more than a millennium, is being destroyed to clear space for new highways.

Authorities have already razed hundreds of tombs and mausoleums as they carry out plans to build a network of multi-lane roads in the areas.

The move has sparked outrage among conservationists who say the construction is destroying a unique part of Egypt’s heritage.

Major Islamic figures, prominent Egyptian politicians, artists and scholars are buried in the cemetery.

“It’s always felt like a very sacred space. We always thought that whatever happens in the rest of Cairo, the City of the Dead would be safe,” says Hussein Omar, a historian who is writing a 500-year history of Cairo as told through the necropolis. “As we see now, that’s not the case.”

The work is part of a mega-building campaign by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that is reshaping the city of some 20 million people.

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His government has built massive freeways and flyovers at a furious rate, tearing down several older neighbourhoods it considers slums in the process.

It has encouraged the growth of gated suburban compounds outside the city while building a giant new administrative capital in the desert.

Though many in Cairo support the roadwork to unclog congestion in the overcrowded city, the cemetery destruction has sparked an outcry that is unusual in a country where dissent has been quelled for years under el-Sisi.

Dozens of activists, public figures and non-governmental organisations signed a petition in August condemning the destruction.

Recommendations refused

Five members of a committee of experts formed by the government to study the cemeteries resigned in protest, saying authorities ignored its recommendations that demolitions be halted and alternatives to the routes be found.

The government’s project is destroying a “unique, architectural, historic fabric,” Ayman Wanas, an official with the government department that lists distinctive buildings, wrote in his resignation letter posted online. “It’s a waste of Egypt’s historical wealth “.

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