Inside the fight to save an American cemetery and the secrets it holds in a ancient city

Graves are seen in the American Cemetery in Cairo.

Courtesy of Jean Isteero

Cairo — Nestled amongst a number of different cemeteries in Old Cairo, sits the solely American Cemetery in Egypt’s ancient capital. The plots had been uncared for for years, overgrown and prone to falling aside, till a small group of “friends” set to work to save it.  

The Reverend Andrew Watson, an American missionary, requested Egypt’s ruler in 1874 for a piece of desert land in Old Cairo for an American cemetery, the place the lifeless of any nationality and any faith could possibly be interred. His request was accredited the following year, and he described the cemetery in his ebook, The American Mission in Egypt, revealed in 1904.

“Trees have been planted which give grateful shade from the burning sun, and some other improvements have also been made to make the place appear less desolate looking,” wrote Watson. He was buried there himself in 1916. 

A row of badly broken graves is seen in the American Cemetery in Cairo.

CBS News/Ahmad Shawkat

There are nonetheless timber, and the solar nonetheless bakes the floor underneath them, however in latest years the place had began wanting quite desolate.  

In the late Nineteen Sixties, when American missionaries and many different foreigners had been pressured out of Egypt due to home political modifications, the cemetery was turned over to the Evangelical Church of Egypt, which stays liable for sustaining it at present. 

But repairs has been missing. The cemetery fell into such disrepair that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo began advising American residents to bury their family members in the close by British cemetery. 

Like the German and Swiss cemeteries, that are additionally close by, the British website is extraordinarily tidy. A caretaker there ushered CBS News to “the Americans” at the website. Some of the headstones had been as latest as this year. The caretaker defined proudly that the Americans selected his cemetery as a result of their very own, “is no good, and too small.”  

The cemetery finds some pals

In 2011, retired missionary trainer Jean Isteero went to go to the grave of a buddy who had died that year in Cairo. The state of the cemetery upset her, so she determined to do one thing about it.

“I contacted some of the families and started raising some funds to get it cleaned and renovated,” she informed CBS News. She began a small group referred to as the “Friends of the American Cemetery.”  

Jean left Egypt for good earlier this year after spending most of the previous six a long time in the nation. But she’s stored her work up from her new residence in Baltimore.

“I am very persistent,” she mentioned. “I believe that individuals who devoted so many years of their lives for the good of the church and country should be buried in a lovely, peaceful setting which their relatives will be proud to visit.” 

Jean acknowledged that “some people are not interested in cemeteries,” however she discovered at the very least one different soul who shares her ardour. 

The Friends of the American Cemetery collect for a meeting in Cairo. From left to proper: Anne Shalaby, Diana Van Bogaert, Jean Isteero, Nazli Rizk and Greg Olson.


“The cemetery and the stories of the people buried there are a reflection of the involvement of Americans in Egypt over the past 150 years,” mentioned Greg Olson, a retired worldwide growth specialist. 

Mapping the previous 

Originally from Wisconsin, Olson has lived in Egypt for many of the final 45 years. He was recruited by Jean, who first requested him for assist with translations, and then to search for some info on the folks buried at the American Cemetery. He shortly grew to become a devoted member of the “friends” group.  

Olson has been working to build a digital map of the cemetery, which he hopes will ultimately allow anybody to simply seek for a identify, find the individual’s burial plot and find out about them. He’s photographed each single gravestone, and began monitoring down all the pieces he can on the folks beneath them. 

So far he is managed to compile brief biographies on about half of the folks buried there.

“I found a map of the cemetery made in 1925, and it shows who’s buried where, but I didn’t know anything about the ones after that,” mentioned Olson. “Then I found a list of all the people buried there through 1965, and now I am adding to that list.”

Some graves at the American Cemetery in Cairo are so badly broken that it has been not possible to decide whose stays they maintain.  

CBS News/Ahmad Shawkat

There are nonetheless about ten graves whose inhabitants stay a full thriller, however Olson is set to end his map. Already his work has granted him a distinctive glimpse at a few of the ancient city’s newer previous.

Pieces in a puzzle

He seen, as an illustration, that there are 5 Norwegians buried in the cemetery with the similar date of loss of life in 1959. That introduced an alluring thriller, so Olson began digging. 

“I searched the newspapers around that date. Didn’t find anything. I contacted the Norwegian Embassy, they didn’t know. I asked the oldest Norwegian in Egypt, she had no idea. I contacted a friend in Oslo, he had access to the archive of a leading daily newspaper, and he found the story,” Olson recounted. “They were seamen waiting in a convoy to go through the Suez Canal and they bought, illegally, some homemade alcohol from the locals, and were poisoned.”   

The graves of 5 Norwegian seamen, all of whom died on the similar date in 1959, are seen in the American Cemetery in Cairo, Egypt. 

CBS News/Ahmad Shawkat

Mystery solved, and as an surprising bonus, a family tree web site confirmed Olson that he had a familial hyperlink with one in all the sailors, and he managed to get in contact with the man’s niece to share the information. 

Behind each identify on a headstone at the cemetery, there’s a story about how the individual ended up there, removed from residence. As he led CBS News previous the graves, Olson’s ardour for uncovering these tales was clear to see. 

“For a long time, that guy was a mystery to me,” Olson mentioned, indicating a grave. “It turned out he was using a pseudonym. He was an anti-Vietnam war activist.”  

“This is Susie, she was a young girl who climbed the pyramids with some Marine soldiers and fell off and died on a Thursday evening in 1980,” he mentioned in entrance of one other grave. “I remember the news, I was in Cairo. Her family came to visit recently.”  

Greg Olson speaks with CBS News as he walks amongst the graves in the American Cemetery in Cairo. 

CBS News/Ahmad Shawkat

He factors at one other: “See the snakes on the grave? He was a herpetologist.” 

“She was a nurse who helped saving a lot of Armenian orphans from the genocide.” 

“This is George Reisner, a very famous archaeologist, anybody who’s an Egyptologist, they want to see his grave,” mentioned Olson.  

To Olson, the particular person graves are like puzzle items, and he desires to put all of them collectively. One gravestone tells the story of 1 individual, notes Olson, however all the headstones collectively will give a historical past of Americans in Egypt.  

New “friends” wanted

Isteero and Olson are hopeful that the U.S. Embassy and the American University in Cairo (AUC) will pitch in to assist preserve, and even enhance the cemetery going ahead. 

Headstones are seen inside a crypt in the American Cemetery in Old Cairo.

CBS News/Ahmad Shawkat

Olson has given each the former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and the president of the AUC  personal excursions of the website, hoping to get them concerned. He’s frightened that with out some exterior assist, the efforts of the six-member pals group will not be sustainable. 

So far, the cemetery hasn’t gained commitments from any new pals.  

In his ebook greater than a century in the past, the Reverend Watson quoted an Egyptian saying: “To honor the dead, bury them.”

Olson would not purchase into the finality of that, nevertheless. 

“To honor the dead, tell their stories, and keep their memories alive,” he informed CBS News.

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