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Excavated churches hidden behind mountains of garbage

Garbage city

After leaving the citadel of Saladin behind us, we entered a neighborhood of dusty unpaved streets, full of holes, rubbish and burning fuel drums…


It was my third visit to Egypt. In my endless search for unusual places I had found “the garbage city” in Cairo. Although my hunger to explore moved me to go, it ended up very low on my priority list.

It was a beautiful day in March. I woke up in my apartment in Zamalek to the noise of street workers. Today I had planned to visit the monastery of St. Simon the Tanner and the church carved out the mountain of Mokattam that was dedicated to him. From there I would go to eat at the palace of an Egyptian prince located on one of the Islands in the Nile, which my friend Anni had organized for me.

Sitting in the back of a slightly dilapidated car, with the windows open because of the heat and the lack of air conditioning and, unable to engage in conversation with the driver, since he barely spoke English, I was engrossed in my thoughts. But the abrupt change of scenery brought me back to reality.

After leaving the citadel of Saladin behind us, we entered a neighborhood of dusty unpaved streets, full of holes, rubbish and burning fuel drums. The buildings, I would have thought were about to be demolished if it weren’t for the clothes hanging in the windowless gaps. I looked at the driver through the central mirror with mistrust but found that he was as surprised as I was.

Unintentionally, we had ended up crossing the city of the Zabbaleen or garbage collectors. This junk city is currently home to some 20,000 people, most of them Coptic Christians. There you are surrounded with decay. You can almost taste the dirt. But it was not always like this. There was a time when the Zabbaleen, (in the 40’s) were farmers from northern Egypt, who emigrated to the southeast of Cairo due to necessity. But the trash gave more money and they changed from being farmers to garbage collectors, hoping for a better life. However, they were not aware that this hope would be short-lived. Diseases such as tetanus began to end the lives of their children.

For me the desolate landscape, the turbulent route and the intense traffic, made the journey seem eternal. Only a stone arch, located in a hidden street, separated that unhealthy place from one of the largest Christian churches in the Middle East and place of pilgrimage.

And as soon as we arrived my intuition told me that it would not be easy for me to get out of there. Despite trying by all means to convince the young driver to wait for me for an hour, I do not know if it was the lack of understanding or the discouraging area itself that made him drive off terrified, leaving me to my fate.

The Monastery of San Simon the Tanner is a group of seven churches carved out of the mountain. Among them are the cathedral of the Virgin Mary and St. Samaan, the church of St. Marcus and the church of St. Bola. Of all of them, I would give a special mention to the impressive amphitheater of the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary, with its semicircular rows of seats, made of wooden and iron and large carvings hewn out of the walls of rock.

After visiting this scene of miraculous legends, I tried to return as I had come. I witnessed dumbfounded as one driver after another refused to pick me up when they discovered that they had to enter the little visited junk city. It was not until after 40 minutes of almost pleading with the only driver who seemed to speak English, I started back.

As far as touring Cairo in Uber I would say it is not always the most convenient, despite the fact of being my favorite mode of transport.

If you want to know more about my experiences or need advice to organize your event or trip to Egypt, just subscribe or ask me.

With the best of my smiles.



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