Hosh al-Basha in the Southern Cemetery of Cairo

Egypt Feature Story Hosh al-Basha in the Southern Cemetery of Cairo

by Lara Iskander

View of parts of the Southern Cemeteries also called city of the dead.

The great Southern Cemetery, also called the Qarafa stretches east of the Ibn Tulun mosque south of the Citadel and almost to the outskirts of Maadi (a Cairo suburb). This huge area contains many significant buildings and monuments worth visiting. One of them is Hosh al-Pasha. This is quite an important monument though it is rarely visited or mentioned in guide books, probably due to it's location and the relative difficulty in accessing it. Nevertheless, it is worth the effort to visit this monument for those who are interested in historic Islamic era monuments and their architecture.

View of Hosh al-Basha Funerary Complex from the inner courtyard.

Hosh al-Basha is an Arabic name meaning, courtyard of the Pasha, which was given to the Royal family graveyards and more specifically, the (many) descendents of Mohammed Alis family. The word Pasha is originally a Persian term meaning king and was associated with a high rank in the Ottoman Empires political system. It was typically granted to governors and officials, as well as to some army officers.

View of the complex from the inner courtyard with Imam al-Shafei dome in the background.

As an honorary title, Pasha is roughly equivalent to Sir, a word still used today in Egypt however, holding a vaguer meaning. The Tomb Complex was built in 1854 and in it are buried Mohammed Alis wives, children, the close and devoted servants, distinguished statesmen and counselors.

Though the complex might be hard to find it is worthwhile venturing through the cemeteries. A landmark next to it is the mausoleum and tomb of al-Imam al-Shafei dating back to the 12th century. From there, one cannot miss it as it lies immediately behind it on the right. It is also quite a famous complex for the local inhabitants of the cemetery area, so if you simply ask about the whereabouts of the Royal Tombs, you will be guided through the narrow alleys.

View of the main corridor and courtyardInterior view of the entrance corridor

Left: View of the main corridor and courtyard; Right: Interior view of the entrance corridor

The six-domed complex, though in somewhat deteriorated shape, still shows much of its original luxurious and rich state. The portal entrance leads to a large open courtyard which is now abandoned and dusty, but was once a lush garden with several water basins. The entrance leads one through a roofed axial corridor with columns on both sides from where you can also step down into the courtyard.

View of the entrance dome and the corridor leading to the five domed structure.

From each corner of the courtyard, one can get a different but fascinating view of the ribbed domes overlapping the courtyard. The facades are all carefully decorated with gypsum window openings that all reflect marvelous shades of light through the colored glass in the interior chambers, creating rainbows of diffused and subtle lighting.

The domed complex where lie the tombs of the royal family and descendents.

The interiors are so heavily decorated with inscriptions, precious marbles and amazingly detailed colorful paintings on the ceilings and walls that it takes a moment to absorb all the surrounding work. One must simply stand and gaze for a few minutes to take it all in.

The interior layout of the domed rooms is quite irregular. In one of the main central chambers, which is richly decorated in green and gold, lies Tousson, Ismail, and Ibrahim Pasha, the sons of Mohammed Ali by Amina. She was his first and favorite wife.

They are surrounded by their wives and children and faithful servants. The first memorial, upon entering one of the chambers is the towering white marble tomb of the mother of Khedive Tawfiq (1879-92). Under the dome next to Tousson are the cenotaphs of 'Abbas I, his son Ilhami Pasha, his wife, and Ahmad Rif'at, son of Ibrahim Pasha.

Interior of one of the domes

Interior of one of the domes

Interior View of Several of the Domes

Mohammed Ali, who ruled from 1805-1848, was to known to be very attentive to his family and in particular the education of his children. The glory and power he enjoyed did not prevent him from personally attending the examinations of his sons and grandsons in order to reassure himself of their skills in science and art and their dedication to their nation and their commitment to its love and defense.

Ibrahim Pasha, the eldest (adopted) son was born in 1789 in the village of Nasrtali, a village near Cavalla, currently located in the East Macedonia and Thrace periphery of Greece. This town was also native to his adoptive father. He and came to Egypt in 1805 and took up residence in the Citadel. When Mohammed Ali went to Arabia to prosecute the war against the Wahhabis in 1813, Ibrahim was left in command of Upper Egypt. He continued the war with the broken power of the Mamluks, whom he suppressed. Ibrahim advocated the use of means of Western civilization into Egypt.

Ahmed Tousson Pasha was Mohamed Ali's second son. He commanded the campaign against the Wahabis when only 16 and achieved several victories. After the Wahabis sued for a truce, Tousson returned to Egypt. His father then sent him to Berinbal near Rashid on a military mission; however, on the way he was stricken with a plague and died in 1815. His body was brought back to Cairo for burial.

Following the death of his brother Tossoun Pasha, Ibrahim was appointed commander of the Egyptian forces in the Hijaz campaign. He died on 10 November 1848.

From top to bottom, Amina Tousson, Ibrahim Pasha, Abbas I and  Mohammed Said

The third son, Ismail Kamel Pasha was born in Nasrtali. It was he who Mohammed Ali had chosen as his messenger to inform the sultan of the victory of the Egyptian forces in the al- Hijaz. After his return from Istanbul where he was accorded a grand reception, Mohamed Ali appointed him governor of the area of Boulaq, then general commander of the Sudanese campaign. In Sudan, King Nimr succeeded in luring the young general into a trap and he burned to death in a fire that was set to his home.

Abbas I (1813 -1854) was a son of Tousson Pasha and grandson of Mohammed Ali. As a young man, Abbas fought in Syria under Ibrahim Pasha. The death of Ibrahim made Abbas regent of Egypt. The following August of 1849, on the death of Mohammed Ali, Abbas succeeded to the pashalik, becoming the Pasha.

In July 1854 he was murdered in Benha Palace by two of his slaves, and was later succeeded by his uncle, Said Pasha.

Mohamed Said Pasha was the only son of Mohammed Ali who completed his studies and attained higher educational certificates. Mohamed Said joined the navy in which he rose to admiral of the Egyptian fleet.

He had a very strict upbringing. His father often scolded him for his obesity and punished him for his extravagance. When, one day, Mohamed Ali learned that Said had borrowed a considerable sum of money, he personally went and sold his son's furniture in order to pay off his debts. Following the peace treaty between Mohamed Ali and the sultan, Mohamed Said traveled to Istanbul where he was granted the ranks of admiral and pasha.

Mohamed Abdel-Halim Pasha was born in 1831 and educated by Ottoman and foreign instructors. He did not participate in the Egyptian revival. Rather, he traveled to Paris with Prince Mustafa Fadel and the Khedive Ismail to complete his studies.

Mohamed Ali junior was born in 1833 and died in 1861. He was the youngest of Mohammed Ali's sons. Mohamed Ali displayed a special affection for this son and enjoyed displaying his intelligence before foreign guests.

The cenotaphs are exuberantly carved with flowers, garlands, and fronds and are gilded and painted in bright colors. A stela at the head topped by a distinctive coiffure or head-covering indicates the rank and sex of the deceased. Men are identified by turbans or fezzes, women by coronets. The tombs of women are further classified by braids in relief denoting a royal mother; painted braids for a royal wife; and a coil of loosely caught hair, often sprinkled with golden tears, indicating a virgin princess.

A view of a family headstone within the monumentA view of a family headstone within the monument

Family Headstones within the Monument

These turbans, fezzes, tresses, and coronets give to the tombs a funereal reality that is quite emotional and sad. In an outer room, lie the Mamluks or retainers of Mohammed Ali, who is buried in his mosque at the Citadel.

A view of the domes

Mohammed Ali Descendants and Rulers

Viceroy Mohammed Aly 1805-1848

Viceroy Ibrahim 1848-1848

Viceroy Abbas I 1848-1854

Viceroy Saiid 1854-1863

Viceroy/Khedive Ismail 1863-1879

Khedive Tewfik 1879-1892

Khedive Abbas Hilmi II 1892-1914

Sultan Hussein Kamel 1914-1917

Sultan/King Fouad 1917-36

King Farouk 1936-52


Williams, Caroline. 2002. Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide. Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 126.