CAVE CHURCHES OF MOKATTAM, CAIRO by Sarah Shirley
On a recent visit to Egypt with my brother to visit my daughter, we had the opportunity to see the cave churches of Mokattam on the outskirts of Cairo
Below the Mokattam hills is the home of the Zabaleen people, the garbage collectors of Cairo, through which you have to pass to reach the caves. We were driven through the village by our tour guide, a very slow journey through the narrow bustling dirt streets piled high with bales of rubbish everywhere, trucks, donkey carts, children and people to negotiate. Glimpses through open doors revealed more piles stacked to the ceilings. It was a very humbling experience.
Blessed be Egypt, my people…. A Blessing in The Midst of the Earth Isaiah 19 v25
But first of all, how did the caves come about?
According to Coptic history, in the 10th Century, the Caliph Al Muizz who enjoyed literary debates and religious discussions challenged the Coptic Pope, Anba Abram, with the verse from the Bible where Jesus said in Matthew 17 v 20 – “if you have faith as small as mustard seed, you can say to the mountain, move from here to there, and it will move, nothing will be impossible for you” The Caliph demanded that this miracle be performed to prove that the Pope’s religion was real otherwise he and all the Copts would be killed. The patriarch was encouraged by a local man called Simon the Tanner who advised that all the Copts gather together, fasting and praying for 3 days The Caliph and his soldiers stood by. Then the people cried out “ O Lord have mercy” three times and each time making the sign of the cross over the mountain. And the mountain lifted up and the sun could be seen shining through.
The Caliph turned to Abram and said “O Patriarch, I have recognized the correctness of your faith.
And was this why the caves were so important to the Zebaleens?
The largest group of 20,000 Zabaleens (the word means garbage people) live in Mokattam village (Garbage City) at the foot of the mountains in a tight knit community. 90% of them are Coptic Christians. They collect Cairo’s rubbish, 15,000 tons with their donkey carts and trucks and recycle by hand 80% of the waste. (Compared with around 40% in the mechanized west) All the family is involved with the sorting.
They lived amongst the rubbish in makeshift tin huts with their pigs who fed on the organic waste, leaving the rest which was, and still is, sorted by hand, bundled up and sold. This system has worked since around 1900. I wondered if somewhere like this was where the Prodigal Son ended up when he reached rock bottom, before returning to his father.
Sadly in 2009, the government ordered the culling of the pigs for fear of the spread of the H1N1 virus, This has resulted in rotting waste left in piles in the streets as the Zabaleen had refused to collect now they had no pigs. But they do now live in basic brick buildings now instead of tin huts.
The community had grown by the 1960’s and their small church which housed a congregation of around 150 was too small. So began the building of the cave churches by the Zabaleen people. 7 altogether. The largest holds over 2000 and is dedicated to St Simon the Tanner who was associated with the legend of the moving of the Mokattam mountain. All the churches and the cliff faces are covered with beautiful carvings depicting stories from the Bible.
When emerging from the Village to the face of the mountain, into the sunlight, the contrast was stark. There is simplicity and holiness about this significant place which has been created by the community and it draws people from all over the city to worship God.
The carvings are so beautiful and very moving.
Unfortunately we had all too short a time there and were unable to go inside the largest Church as a funeral was in progress . It was the end of a long day, having already visited the pyramids and Coptic Cairo. But I hope to return to have more time to explore and possibly attend a service.
The smaller of the 2 main churches
Click on the line below to watch them enjoy worship in this amazing place (if you have Facebook) Cave church worship in Cairo
The raising of Lazarus John 11 v 43