Medhat, my Arabic teacher, mentioned that he had once stayed for a couple of months in Mokattam, acting as an interpreter for some American students. I had heard of Mokattam and expressed an interest to see the place, so we decided to hold an Arabic lesson there.
Mokattam is the so-called Garbage City. In the late 60s those who collected Cairo’s rubbish were moved by President Nasser to this area, and they built makeshift accommodation. Almost all the rubbish collectors, called Zabbaleen, were Christian, and they were able to keep their pigs, which are of course unclean to Moslems. The village soon became established, though it didn’t have electricity or any facilities, not even a church. Nowadays, the population is around 60,000, but the road into the area is poor and muddy. However, ‘garbage’ is still the focus of life here. The rubbish is brought in from all around Cairo, and families go through it, dividing it into what is edible (and can therefore be given to livestock) and what can be recycled or sold. That is how people make their living, and it was fascinating watching vans loaded with rubbish negotiating the potholes on the road into the village and bringing in the people’s livelihood.
It is obviously still a poor area, with little infrastructure, and life can be difficult. A few years ago, for example, there was a cull of pigs by the government, for fear that they were spreading disease, and that affected the Zebbaleen adversely. However, Mokattam is the one place in Cairo where Christians can be upfront about their faith, and the shops are decorated with Christian symbols and pictures of saints. Also churches and NGOs are working in the neighbourhood with the most disadvantaged, and some of the houses have recently been brightly painted with murals. However, the area stands in sharp contrast to the glitzy shopping malls which now seem to surround Cairo.
Churches have since been established in the area, including a Presbyterian one, but the main one is the Coptic Cathedral, which is built into the mountain. In fact, it is more like an open air arena under the overhang of the mountain, seating 15,000 people. It is supposedly the biggest church in Egypt (and probably the Middle East)! Services are held there most days, but it is filled to capacity on Thursday evenings, when there are special healing services. There are other smaller meeting areas built in caves, and all are decorated with stone sculptures, mostly of biblical scenes. The sculptor is a Polish artist, Mario, who has lived in Cairo for many years.
It is a special area for Christians, as it is associated with a legend going back to the Middle Ages about how the Caliph challenged the Coptic Pope Abraham over the verse in Matthew 17:20 –‘if you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, move from here, and it will move’. So the Pope was challenged to move the mountain or else convert to Islam! With the help of a shoemaker called Simon (Simaan in Arabic), the mountain did move. While in the West we may see this as a nice story, it does sustain the Christian population here.
You can read more about this amazing church and community on their website: www. simaanchurch.com Also there is a good article on the Zabaleen in Wikipedia.