Scotsabroad's Weblog

February 20, 2010

A Rubbish Story

Filed under: Cairo — scotsabroad @ 12:53 pm


The Muqattam Hills can been seen from just about anywhere in Cairo. Today, the air was thick with pollution and that familiar smell of burning garbage as we drove along Salah Salim by the Citadel and cut off into the Zabaleen City. This is the city of the garbage collectors and at its heart is the Church of Saint Samaan. I just knew that there was a massive church carved into the cliffs that could hold thousands of people. Typically, we missed the turn off to the church and carried on driving in to the labyrinth. Not pleasant having to drive through such conditions and see families sifting through garbage bags, managing to recycle the majority of what we (the rich) throw away on a daily basis. The Zabaleen (predominantly Coptic Christians) have been cleaning up Cairo’s mess for centuries. Had the car a.c. on to prevent the flies (and the smell) getting in the car but had to wind down the window a few times to ask directions and satisfy curiosity. As always, everyone helpful and friendly. Beautiful children playing in heaps of rubbish. 

Through some more narrowing streets and we get to the entrance to the site. The place is quite busy with Egyptians taking photographs and hugging statues of Pope Shenouda. We entered the Church of Saint Samaan first, walking down a half-enclosed tunnel to the cathedral. The site has significant religious importance but the churches carved in to the rock faces are relatively recent. I bought a guidebook for 20LE not expecting to find some marvelous information on Samaan the Tanner and the Moqattam Cliffs.

This, I think, is the condensed story I eventually shared with the boys. The Muslim Caliph Al-Mu’iz ( AD 969 to 979) was an open-minded leader and initiated debate between Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious leaders. However, the Jewish leaders got upset by the acceptance and attention given to the Christian leaders so they devised a malicious plot that they hoped would destroy the Copts altogether. They searched the New Testament and noticed the verse that Jesus had said,  “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”  They demanded that the Copts prove it.  The Caliph thought, if the words of the New Testament are true then this would be a good opportunity for some quick town planning, removing a misplaced mountain to the East of his city. If they couldn’t move a mountain, this would be proof that their religion was wrong and should be done away with completely. His four alternatives were, fulfill the commandment and move the eastern part of the Mokattam, or accept Islam and abandon Christianity on the account that you can’t move mountains, or leave Egypt and live in another country, or be smitten by the sword altogether. I bet the Coptic Pope regretted getting in to a debate with the Caliph. Definately a wee bit stressed out by all this, so a visit by the Virgin Mary was timely and a blessed relief. The message was optimistic. A one-eyed man carrying a jar of water could be found at the gates to the market place. He’s the man who will get the miracle done. The Pope found the one-eyed man called Samaan the Tanner. Samaan did seem to be a man prone to literal interpretation of religious doctrine. When practicing his work as a shoemaker, a woman came to him to mend her shoes, and this woman was beautiful. It so happened that when she was taking off her shoes, her legs showed and he looked lustfully at her. At once he drove the awl into one of his eyes, thus plucking it out, in keeping with some commandment of the Lord. He also went around delivering water to the elderly. Definately bigger than a mustard seed. Anyway, the date is set and all the important players assemble at the foot of Moqattam Hill. Lots of prayers and chanting, an earthquake and the mountain splits. Samaan disappears. Mokattam is the Arabic for ‘cut-up’.  And they all live happily ever after. For a while. 

At the end of 1969 the governor of Cairo ordered all Zabbaleen to live on one of the hills of the Mokattam.  In the early 1970s  a trash collector tells a Coptic minister about Garbage City and invites him to visit. Minister resists until he gets a calling. When he gets there he wants somewhere quiet to pray.  He is taken to the highest place in the area where he finds a big gap under a huge rock.  He prays there for three weeks. But why is he called here? One day a big wind causes all the paper and garbage to be strewn everywhere. The minister picks up a random, scrap piece of paper . It just happens to be a page from Acts, where God speaks to Paul. The end of the verse saying, I have many people in this city. The area evangelised big time and the churches built and rediscovered. The Copts also believe they discovered Samaan’s body in 1991.  A part of his body in the church as well as a thousand-year old pot believed to be his. Now that was 20 LE well spent. Great story. Bizarrely there is nothing in the Rough Guide or in any of my guidebooks telling this story.

The church seating was extensive. They say it can accommodate 20,000, although judging by the bird poo and dust on the seats it has not been a sell out for a while.Other churches locked or in use today. One full of frankincense and Coptic chanting. Another underground church looking as if it could also hold thousands of worshippers. Disappointed we couldn’t see it. Will need to come back.



  1. Totally fascinating – wonderful story. what a find and you have all become so knowledgeable about Cairo. Great!

    Comment by ianandlinda — February 20, 2010 @ 4:52 pm | Reply

  2. Great story Andy, a totally unique place as are most places in Cairo. I can feel the vibes of the city from the photos. It’s a great country that can accomodate different religions so peacefully. Gordon

    Comment by Gordon — February 22, 2010 @ 11:17 pm | Reply

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