Confounded by Coptic community of Cairo

Having made several past visits to tourist areas of Egypt and the Sinai, on our March ’05 trip my husband and I decided to explore the Coptic aspect of Cairo.

The Copts are the only Egyptian Christians. They believe that St. Mark established their church at Alexandria. The official “birth” of the Coptic church was in A.D. 286. Their worship is still conducted in “Coptic,” now considered a dead language. St. Anthony (A.D. 250-350), the originator of Christian monarchism, was a Copt. Egypt has the largest Christian population in the Middle East.

The oldest part of Cairo is Coptic Cairo, located south of modern Cairo and ensconced behind walls. However, a particularly large concentration, approximately 50,000 Copts called Zabbahleen, live in the Muqattam Mountain area southeast of the Citadel. In 1969 the government decreed that all garbage collectors would live in this area.

As Muslims are forbidden any contact with pork, the Christian Copts, to escape their poverty, became the garbage collectors for Cairo. They separate out the food that can be given to the pigs. They also minutely extract and categorize other items of garbage (approximately 75% of the total trash) that can be recycled, sold or used.

Their dwellings are rudimentary huts called zaraayib, which means pigsties. Daily trucks as well as donkeys and carts start out collecting in the early morning and at dusk bring in Cairo’s tons of garbage to Muqattam. The vehicles and makeshift conveyances are piled with mountainous, gravity-defying loads. One or two boys usually accompany the adult male driver.

To visit Muqattam is an experience almost beyond belief. Groups of people, including very young children in filthy, ragged attire, stand knee-deep in the middle of huge piles of stinking garbage, busily sorting the debris while swarms of flies and dust from arriving trucks and donkey carts create a surreal aura.

The very narrow road through the village, unpaved and bumpy, would be a challenge for a NASCAR professional. The road was more busy than usual when we arrived, due to thousands of incongruously nicely dressed people walking downhill toward our approaching car. It was as if we were seeing an apparition. Our guide explained that they were returning from church, taking their turn away from their labors.

We were confounded by the clusters of sorters we passed, women and children who smiled and waved at us, seemingly happy in their chores without missing a beat in the rhythm of their unpleasant task. Among the people, pigs were scavenging on their own. The danger of injury and disease lurking everywhere cannot be overstated.

The Zabbahleen are viewed by Muslim Egyptians as the equivalent of the Untouchables in India. However, a great deal of pride emanates from this industrious community, and one can’t help but admire the impressive face they present to outsiders. These devout Christians with their extraordinary work ethic are an example of faith overcoming all odds in order to survive.

Proceeds from their labor have built schools and desperately needed clinics. The latter are now dispensing the much-needed prophylactic vaccine for Hepatitis A. They also have been able to add seats, altars and a public-address system to their church.

We arrived at the Church of the Cave and Saint Samaan (Simon), “the Tanner.” It was established in 1990 after the cave was discovered by the resident Coptic priest as he attempted to clear an area for a children’s playground. It appears at first sight as if you are nearing a church, but after a short walk beyond the facade you enter the awesome mouth of a gigantic cave that has a capacity for 5,000 people.

Inside and outside, the mountain cave is covered with beautiful carvings of familiar scenes of the Holy Family and others from the Bible, with verses in English and Arabic. Fakhir, our local guide, explained they were all produced by a Polish artist named Mario who came to Egypt as a young man. He started the carvings in 1986. He has also done magnificent mosaic domes at the other nearby cave churches, including Garbage Cathedral, with a capacity for 20,000.

Fakhir was devoted to the church and gave a detailed history of the founder and of the recent carvings. He also related recent miracles that had taken place in the church. Outside the cave there were many children playing. They were friendly, clean, nicely dressed and well behaved. Fakhir accepts no tips, but donations can be made to the church in lock boxes throughout the caves.

This enclave of Muqattam, a sanctuary for the Christian faithful who live there, is just a tiny part of the 15 million-plus population of Cairo who produce more than 10,000 tons of garbage daily. Sadly, the government is opting to replace the Zabbahleen with outside contractors. This will have a devastating effect on a community who on their own initiative conceived and executed a plan that benefits others while supporting themselves.

I defy the most jaded traveler not to see the beauty emanating from this noxious, odiferous spot on the Earth. It is worth the trip to discover a unique people experiencing a life of their own design as a means for survival. Hopefully, a people this inventive and productive will be capable of devising other means to make their living in the near future.

In Cairo, our superb guide/translator, Ronarosa, and driver, Gamel, were obtained via Internet from Min Travel (15a Ain Shams St., El Naam Sq., Cairo, Egypt; phone +202 63 25 917 or visit We paid $145 per person for four days and also gave both guide and driver a tip.

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