The graves are visible in the American Cemetery in Cairo.

Courtesy of Jean Ystereau

Cairo — Among several other cemeteries in Old Cairo is the only American cemetery in Egypt’s ancient capital. The site had been neglected for years, overgrown and in danger of collapsing until a small group of “friends” set out to save it.

Reverend Andrew Watson, an American missionary, in 1874 asked the ruler of Egypt for a piece of desert land in Old Cairo for an American cemetery where the dead of any nationality and any religion could be buried. The following year his request was approved and he described the cemetery in his book: American Mission in Egypt, published in 1904.

“Trees have been planted to provide appreciable shade from the scorching sun, and some other improvements have been made to make the place less desolate,” Watson wrote. He was buried there in 1916.

A row of badly damaged graves is seen at the American Cemetery in Cairo in 2011.

Courtesy of Greg Olson

There are still trees and the sun still bakes the ground beneath them, but in recent years the place has begun to look rather desolate.

In the late 1960s, when American missionaries and many other foreigners were forced to leave Egypt due to internal political changes, the cemetery was handed over to the Evangelical Church of Egypt, which is still responsible for its upkeep.

But the service was lacking. The cemetery fell into such disrepair that the US Embassy in Cairo began recommending that American citizens bury their loved ones in a nearby British cemetery.

Like the German and Swiss cemeteries, which are also nearby, the British site is extremely tidy. A caretaker took CBS News to “The Americans” at the site. Some of the headstones were made just this year. The caretaker proudly explained that the Americans had chosen his cemetery because their own was “unsuitable and too small.”

Graveyards find friends

In 2011, retired missionary teacher Jean Isteera went to visit the grave of a friend who died that year in Cairo. She was saddened by the state of the cemetery, and decided to do something about it.

“I contacted some of the families and started fundraising to get it cleaned up and repaired,” she told CBS News. She started a small group called Friends of American Cemeteries.

Jin left Egypt for good earlier this year, having spent most of the past six decades in the country. But she continued to work from her new home in Baltimore.

“I’m very persistent,” she said. “I believe that men who have devoted so many years of their lives to the benefit of church and country should be buried in a beautiful, peaceful setting that their relatives will be proud to visit.”

Jean admitted that “some people aren’t interested in cemeteries,” but she found at least one other soul who shares her passion.

Friends of the American Cemetery are gathering for a meeting in Cairo. From left to right: Anne Shalaby, Diana Van Bogaert, Jean Eastero, Nazli Rizk and Greg Olson.


“The cemetery and the stories of the people buried there reflect the American involvement in Egypt over the past 150 years,” said Greg Olson, a retired international development specialist.

A reflection of the past

Originally from Wisconsin, Olson has lived in Egypt for most of the past 45 years. He was recruited by Jean, who first asked him to help with translations and then to find information about people buried in the American Cemetery. He quickly became a loyal member of the group of “friends”.

Olson has been working to create a digital cemetery map that he hopes will eventually make it easy for anyone to search for a name, find a person’s burial place, and learn about them. He photographed each headstone and began tracking down everything he could about the people beneath them.

So far, he has managed to compile short biographies of about half of the people buried there.

“I found a map of the cemetery that was made in 1925 and it shows who is buried where, but I didn’t know anything about those buried after that,” Olson said. “Then I found a list of all the people buried there before 1965, and I’m now adding to that list.”

Some graves in the American Cemetery in Cairo are so badly damaged that it is impossible to determine whose remains they contain.

CBS News / Ahmad Shaukat

There are about ten other graves whose occupants remain a complete mystery, but Olson is determined to finish his map. His work has already allowed him a unique look into the recent past of the ancient city.

Pieces of the puzzle

He noticed, for example, that five Norwegians with the same date of death in 1959 are buried in the cemetery. This revealed a tantalizing mystery, so Olson began digging.

“I was looking in the papers around that date. Didn’t find anything. I contacted the Norwegian embassy, ​​they didn’t know. I asked an older Norwegian in Egypt, she had no idea. I contacted a friend in Oslo who had access to the archives of a leading daily newspaper and he found the story,” Olson said. “They were sailors waiting in a convoy to go through the Suez Canal and they illegally bought homemade alcohol from the locals and were poisoned.”

The graves of five Norwegian sailors, all of whom died on the same day in 1959, can be seen at the American Cemetery in Cairo, Egypt.

CBS News / Ahmad Shaukat

The mystery is solved, and as an unexpected bonus, a genealogy website revealed to Olson that he was related to one of the sailors, and he was able to contact the man’s niece to share the news.

Behind every name on a gravestone in a cemetery is a story about how a person ended up there, far from home. As he led CBS News past the graves, it was clear that Olson was eager to uncover these stories.

“This guy was a mystery to me for a long time,” Olson said, pointing to the grave. “It turned out that he used a pseudonym. He was a Vietnam War activist.”

“This is Susie, she was a young girl who was climbing the pyramids with some Marines and she fell and died on a Thursday night in 1980,” he said in front of another grave. “I remember the news, I was in Cairo. Her family recently came to visit.’

Greg Olson speaks with CBS News while walking among the graves at the American Cemetery in Cairo.

CBS News / Ahmad Shaukat

Points to another: “See the snakes on the grave? He was a herpetologist.”

“She was a nurse who helped save many Armenian orphans from the genocide.”

“This is George Reisner, a very famous archaeologist, anyone who is an Egyptologist wants to see his tomb,” Olson said.

To Olson, the individual graves are like pieces of a puzzle, and he wants to put them all together. One tombstone tells the story of one person, Olson notes, but all the tombstones together will tell the story of Americans in Egypt.

New “friends” are needed.

Isteera and Olson hope that the US Embassy and the American University in Cairo (AUC) will continue to help preserve and even improve the cemetery.

The headstones can be seen in the crypt at the American Cemetery in Old Cairo.

CBS News / Ahmad Shaukat

Olson gave personal tours of the site to the former US ambassador to Egypt and the AUC president, hoping to get them involved. He worries that without outside support, the six-member group of friends’ efforts won’t be sustainable.

So far, the cemetery has not received any commitments from new friends.

In his book more than a century ago, Reverend Watson quoted an Egyptian saying: “To honor the dead, bury them.”

However, Olson does not believe in the finality of this.

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