Heliopolis War Cemetery: Cairo’s Salute to Fallen Soldiers of War
When we speak of sights in Cairo, our minds rarely move past the antiquities of Ancient Egypt. Though war has played a huge part in Egypt’s modern history, many fail to remember that Word War II touched the lives of many Egyptians. The war lasted for six merciless years – from 1939 to 1945 – in which time, millions of lives were lost.
In 1940, the Western Desert Campaign begun and the fighting spread to North Africa when Italy, and eventually Germany, invaded Egypt, battling against British and Commonwealth forces and attempting to take control of the Suez Canal. During this battle, thousands of men lost their lives on both sides; countless brothers, fathers, uncles and sons fought to the death in northern and western areas of Egypt.
Heliopolis War Cemetery was opened in October 1941 and sits unobtrusively on the quiet Nabil El Wakkard Street. It is one of many war cemeteries across the world commissioned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which was set up in 1917 with the duty of commemorating fallen soldiers of war. In 23,000 locations, across 153 countries, the commission follows the same set of principles for all of their memorials; each of the 1,140,000 headstones (to date) that they are responsible for are engraved with both the soldier’s name and regiment, and are permanent and uniform, so no distinction is made on account of a person’s army rank – reiterating that all soldiers should be respected equally. Each life lost is precious.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission also maintains a deep respect for fallen soldiers’ religion. Many graves display the Christian cross, as do some the Star of David. Muslim soldiers are buried together, in the rear left side of the cemetery, in the direction of Mecca.
Although not attached to the commission themselves, the commitment, care and dedication of the workers at the Heliopolis cemetery is evident for all to see. Designed by British architect, J. Hubert Worthington, the entrance is adorned with deep pink flowers, draping over the top of an impressive gateway with two pavilions on either side. The vast lawns at the front and back are well-kept and vibrant, whilst beautiful coloured flowers line the rows of gravestones. Immediately after entering, a large statue displays the words ‘their name liveth forever more’, adding to the eerie calm inside; the distant sounds of traffic and daily goings-on feel miles away, as you wonder slowly along each row of headstones.
Amongst many other nationalities, of the 1,830 graves in Heliopolis’ cemetery, 1,092 belong to British soldiers, 226 are South Africans and 138 are New Zealanders. Each headstone is indeed uniform, engraved with not only the fallen soldier’s name, their regiment’s badge and their age of death, but quite often their job title and a testimonial from their family.
The youngest we saw was P.J.McGrath from the Royal West Kent Regiment, aged just 19. One of the eldest was H.A.Thompson; an air gunner from the Green Howards Regiment, aged 37 years. Mr Thompson’s wife requested that ‘in loving memory of my husband Harry’ be engraved on the stone, whilst the mother of 23 year old T.R.Wood wrote ‘I have been waiting for you, and now you are waiting for me’.
Even those with no known resting place are remembered. The two impressive pavilions at the entrance of the cemetery house the Port Tewfik memorial, paying homage to nearly 4,000 men who died fighting alongside the Indian army during the First World War in Egypt and Palestine. The original memorial was moved after being destroyed in the Israeli-Egyptian combat of the 1970’s.
The stone bench areas around the graveyard are not only for sitting and reflecting, but the one at the rear of the burial ground represents the Aden Memorial which was destroyed in 1967. Gravestones have been erected at the rear right side of the cemetery, remembering the bravery of more than 600 Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in the defence of Aden during the First World War.
Heliopolis War Cemetery is a beautiful, peaceful resting place for hundreds who tragically lost their lives. Here we have another overlooked monument to Egypt’s significance in the wider context of world history; one that is as important as any sarcophagus.
Entry is free, although it is only open to the public from 7.30AM to 2.30PM. More information on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the work they do can be found at www.cwgc.org.