St. Simon’s Monastery

The Trashpickers’ Garden of Eden

Moqattam, Cairo, Egypt

From St. Simon’s of Mokattam

There were plenty of things about this place that I didn’t expect. As we rode through so-called “Garbage City” in our minibuses, neither the smell nor the trash was nearly as bad as I’d been led to expect. Yes, there was plenty of garbage in this Cairo neighborhood to which the government removed all the Zeballeen (trashpickers) in 1968. The Zeballeen bring garbage from all around the city, sort it to divide out the recyclables, and then bag those recyclables to be sold around the world. I’ve written about the Zeballeen before, and you can learn a great deal more about them from the multiple-award-winning documentary “Garbage Dreams”.

From St. Simon’s of Mokattam

That’s not why we went out to the Mokattam Hills, though. We went to see St. Simon’s Monastery, a figure very important to Coptic Christianity in Cairo. In the 10th Century, the first Fatamid Caliph in Cairo, al-Muizz, was known to host interfaith conferences with the Coptic Pope and Jewish leaders in order to learn more about the Abrahamic faiths. In one such conference, the Jewish leader challenged the Pope to prove his faith, citing a verse from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

From St. Simon's of Mokattam

The caliph challenged Pope Abram to prove that he had “faith as a grain of mustard seed.” The Pope dreamed of the Virgin Mary, who told him to find a one-eyed water bearer in the market who would perform the miracle. That was St. Simon (aka Simeon), a cobbler who once accidentally saw a female customer’s calf, and removed his own eye, obeying a Biblical commandment that if the eye sins, it should be removed. On the appointed day, Pope Abram, Caliph Mu’izz and St. Simon went to the Mokattam Hills, and the cobbler lifted the mountains off their roots as promised.

From St. Simon's of Mokattam

In addition to the 2,000-seat Church of St. Simon, there is a smaller church of St. Mark the Evangel. Mark is credited with starting the Christian church in Egypt, and is considered by Copts to be the first of their 111 Popes. St. Mark located his church in Alexandria, and was eventually martyred there by the Romans, and a church established in his honor. In the 12th Century, the Venetians smuggled his relics out of Alexandria under a shipment of pork, to be installed in the famous St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Some of the relics were later returned to the church in Alexandria.

From St. Simon's of Mokattam

There is also a third church, the cave Church of St. Paul the Hermit – the first hermit! – of whom I’ve written before.

We also visited a lovely little NGO in Garbage City.

From St. Simon's of Mokattam

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