Thursday, August 16, 2007

If You Like Garbage, Then You Just Might Like...


(Moqattam roofs and streets filled with garbage.)

If you like garbage, then you'll love a visit to Muqattam/Mokattam Mountain/Hills (spelling and exact name - debatable.)

I won't go into details, but I originally wanted a tour of The City of The Dead. I ended up with a Coptic Christian, who was really not at all interested in my request, but after driving me through the City of the Dead, as if he didn't give a shit, he says, "Can I show you something completely different?" Exasperated, Number One Son and I said, "Sure." Well, we ended up (literally) in the garbage dump of Cairo, the veritable "armpit," which Number One Son would probably describe as smelling like "ass in a glass" (and that's being kind.)

I had read a few articles / blogs about the Coptic Garbage Collectors and their recycling center previously, but when we returned home, I could find no mention of it whatsoever in any of my guidebooks (and I have five.)

The Internet is full of links, which I've included below, for those of you interested in more information. Googling Moqattam or Muqattam doesn't work very well, but "Coptic garbage collectors" seems to do the trick.

If you decide to go, make sure you get a Coptic tour guide, who can go on endlessly about the "miracles" that have taken place on the mountain. Be prepared for constant stench, even up at the church. You won't escape until you come back down from the mountain. We visited three churches - all caves. I have more photos on my flickr site. I've read that there's a total of seven churches - don't know. But I do know, for a fact, that there's two monkeys in a cage, and yes, playing with garbage (plastic bottles to be precise. Puppies love 'em too.)

Here's a few links with quotes to give you a tatste of what Mokattam Mountain is all about:

The Biography of Saint Samaan, includes the story of The Miracle Of The Moving Of Mokattam Mountain, The Results Of The Miracle, and The Building Of St. Samaan Church In the Mountain. Pictures here.

(St. Samaan Church, Mokattam Mountain)

(Most famous saying of St. Saman. "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you.")

Personally, I'm not sure if it's my right or left eye that's causing me to sin, and wondering if I should just gouge them both out! BTW, my new D40 quit working on me, so WTF!


At the end of 1969 his excellency the governor of Cairo issued a decree to the end of removing all the trash collectors of Cairo to one of the hills of the Mokattam to live there. So they built themselves primitive houses, simply huts of tin that are called in their vernacular "Zaraayib" (namely pigsties). They were thus named after the place where donkeys and pigs live, and all the other livestock they reared up; such as goats and cattle.
The number of the trash collectors that live in that area reached about 15,000 according to the research of the International Bank which was carried out in July, 1987. But, by the grace of God, this number has doubled now.
Every person had a primitive trash cart that looked like a wooden box carried on two wheels and pulled by two donkeys, or more, because of the difficult hill upto the mountain which was not paved in the past.
These trash collectors collect trash from the houses of most sectors of Cairo, and upon returning to their huts, they sort out the trash and classify it. They pick out from the trash all that is fitting for pigs and cattle to eat, as for the paper, glass, plastic, cloth and stuff like that, they are resold to specialized tradesmen, after they are sorted out, and the trash collectors live on what they get from selling them.

(Inside the church)

Free Copts

From Cairo's trash, a model of recycling
Inside dank rooms, in front of homes of reinforced concrete and along brick walls, pigs, goats and dogs eat rotting produce, while women and children cast aside dead rodents as they busily separate trash from recyclable items. Bags filled with glass, plastic, tin, paper and cardboard are piled high along the main avenue and side streets. Hordes of flies hover over the pungent heaps of trash yet to be sorted. Many walls are decorated with large crosses and pictures of Jesus.
Al Mokattam Mountain: On top of Cairo

From Cairo - IV

Sounds like a terrible deal. And it is. But not unprofitable. The Coptics ask for 5 pounds per year from each resident (just less than a dollar) but they do interesting things with the garbage. With the organic waste, they raise pigs…more than 60,000 of them. The Muslims don’t eat pork, but the Coptics certainly do, and so does the expat population. So they can feed themselves, and make a bit of profit on the side. With the cloth and paper waste, they make fabric products and paper, which they sell in shops across the city and export to specialty stores around the world. With the plastic, aluminum, tin, and glass waste, they resell them for various uses (recycling and secondary products). And they are so efficient that the UN believes that Cairo recycles at least 80% of its waste…a good thing in a city with 16 million residents (probably more) that’s considerably smaller in land size than the DFW metroplex.

(Coptics, by the way, are the original Christians, descended from those who sheltered the holy family when they fled the wrath of Herod the king, who killed all first-born children in the holy land. The Coptics predate both the Catholic church and Islam.)

Future’s So Bright
By 1984, a compost plant created a circle of relationships that would have shocked the well-to-do of the city had they contemplated it: waste from the tables of the rich was collected and sorted by the zebaleen and fed to the pigs. The pig offal was then hauled away to the compost plant and sold as fertilizer to farmers further north in the Nile delta, the circle ended back upon the dining table as fruits and vegetables.

One Egyptian's junk is another's parish: priest converts dump into a promised land for 27,000 Cairo poor - Father Samaan Ibrahim

(Inside the church / theatre.)

(Small Cave Church.)

This video is a ten minute short (religious) documentary on Father Samaan's work, the miracles on Mokattam Mountain, and the Coptic garbage collectors of Cairo. It contains a bit of history as well, but is also aimed at a religious audience. I really couldn't find anything non-sectarian and in English that filled the bill, quite as well as this does. I enjoyed the film, even though I'm agnostic, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in a Coptic perspective to life on Mokattam Mountain. I couldn't possibly explain everything this film displays so well. Let me add, again, a Coptic guide will give you pretty much the same experience, albeit in broken English and not quite as dramatic.



  1. So, is he converting Muslims and/or helping Copts become born again?

  2. Father Samaan - don't know. The driver we had - don't know.

    I think a lot of these people have to be born again - at least that's the impression I got from the film and the way the driver spoke about all the miracles, seemed "too new" like someone who's come back into the fold and not at all skeptical.

    There is a man who converted to Christianity here in Egypt, who is hiding out, due to threats on his life - he has sued to get his ID Card changed and has encountered numerous problems. But, I don't know if he converted to Coptic Orthodox or another Christian faith.

    It's an interesting place, but I think anyone who's going there should be forewarned - something we were not. I also read that's there's a very high percentage of TB cases (something like 70%) up on Mokattam Mountain - that was after the fact, of course.

    Still, it is an interesting site and one day I hope to go back and visit the recycling center and shop.