Monday, March 15, 2010

Garbage City and City of the Dead

Today was quite a bit cooler than yesterday—it was only about 30 degrees today and is supposed to stay in the 20s for the rest of the week—so several girls in the branch and I got our groove on and headed out on a cheap adventure, which is the best kind of adventure to have.

Since there were so many of us we decided to split the cost of a taxi instead of hassling with the metro—with three little kids tagging along we wanted our transit time to be as short as possible—and landed ourselves in Garbage City (Manshiyat Naser/Madeenat az-Zabbaleen). We decided to hike up through all the muck to visit the Church of St. Simeon the Tanner at the top of the Moqattam hills.

Walking through Garbage City is always interesting. It starts out tame enough but all too soon you find yourself surrounded by mountains of trash, sludging through ankle deep ooze, and feeling nostalgic for your own ripe kitchen garbage (which is pretty tame compared to this mess).


Garbage heaps met up with the balconies on the first floor of apartment buildings (second floor for North America). We live on the first floor of our apartment building! That could be us!


Garbage is sorted collected around the city by the Zabbaleen in huge bags and pickup trucks. They take it all back to their home in Moqattam for further sorting and recycling. They recycle about 90% of what they collect, from what I’ve heard from some of our USAID contacts, and 99% of the Zabbaleen population chooses to stay in Garbage City for their whole life, returning sometimes to sort trash even after they gain an education and could leave. I wonder what it is that makes them want to live this way, carting my garbage around on their backs or sitting in a room full of bottles dripping with curdled milk.

IMG_4810 IMG_4815

Plastics are sorted out, melted into beads, and sold to China where they are either melted down again to make something new or are loaded into toys for stuffing. Cloth is used for making rugs and purses and other crafts. Organic waste is fed to goats, now that the pigs are gone, and any other animals willing to forage.


It’s really an amazing system, if you think about it. I just don’t understand why they live in it.

There is a marked difference when you pass from Garbage City into the holy ground of the Church of St. Simeon. Suddenly the smell disappears and the ground is swept perfectly clean, there are trash receptacles available, and signs telling you how to behave.


It’s quiet, pleasant, remote.


Perhaps today was more quiet than other days. A lot of shops were closed and the streets were void of women.


We walked past a church with a mother load of large, plastic tubs haphazardly piled to the side of the door. There were a bunch of women standing around outside and some event was taking place inside. Nacia graciously offered to ask what was going on.


As it turns out, it was a Mother’s Day celebration of sorts, even though Mother’s Day isn’t technically until March 21 (*hint, hint,* Andrew), and those plastic tubs were their gifts (but I don’t want one, mmmkay? I want something different).

Our curiosity satisfied, we headed onto St. Simeons, entering the parking lot through the gigantic ichthys and stopping to admire the many carvings of Bible stories found on the cliff face.

IMG_4825 IMG_4828IMG_4833

The church itself is huge and is built right into the mountain. The outside of the church has a mosaic depicting the story of St. Simeon, which Nacia related to us. Simeon was a  tanner by trade, around 970 AD. He was rather pious, even plucking his eye out after reading Matthew 5:29.

Anyway, it so happened that one day a caliph, a Jew, and a pope met together to discuss religion. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it? The caliph was Caliph al-Muizz, the Jew was Yaqub ibn Killis, and the pope was Abraam the Syrian. During their discussion, Matthew 17:20 cam up and Caliph al-Muizz and Yaqub inb Killis challenged Pope Abraam to move the mountain (presumably the Moqattam Hills) or he would be killed. Pope Abraam was given three days to perform the miracle and wasn’t sure how he would accomplish it.

He saw the Virgin Mary and she told him to go to the market and look for a one-eyed man who would be able to answer his prayers.

Abraam did so and found Simeon who told him to repeat “O Lord, have mercy” three times while making the sign of the cross over the mountain. And the mountain moved so no one was killed and some people were converted to Christianity. The end.

For more details, check out the story here.


I didn’t take many pictures inside because I had to feed Miriam. Rachel ran around with her friend Tuesday, while my dear friends Jaehee, Hayley, Nacia, and Jill took turns chasing the little girls around. I just sat and nursed. It was nice not to be bothered.

Jaehee took a turn toting Miriam around and Rachel was stuck to Nacia like glue so for the longest time I had no little person to carry. It was rather nice…and kind of surreal.


We visited the Cave Church, which I had never been to before.


It’s not far from St. Simeon’s. There are more carvings and mosaics in the church, a lot of which dealt with gouging one’s eye out—they even painted blood dripping down the faces of St. Simeon and Samson. Both of these churches were completed in the 1990s so the art is fairly modern. I’m pretty sure in this carving of St. Simeon that he used his quill pen to pluck out his eye. Lovely.


Rachel was very curious about Samson. She wanted to know why he was thrown in prison and since it’s a little too early for the “birds and the bees” talk I told her that he was put in prison for trying to make babies before getting married, which is the wrong order to do things. So now she knows that you get married and then make babies. That is definite potential for embarrassment if “making babies” comes out in later conversation.

Perhaps I gave her more information than she was looking for. Perhaps she was just worried about prison because she was once a rampant eye-poker. Or perhaps because I once poked her eye that prison is next. Who knew there were so many eye-pokers in the Bible, as well?


After visiting the chapel we went out onto the cliffs to look out over the city.

IMG_4878 IMG_4885  IMG_4893

Nacia is this little fountain of knowledge and explained to us that those stick houses on the tops of roofs with lovely geometric patterns on them are dovecotes. I knew about the mud ones but not about the wood ones. Now I’m just that much smarter.


Having both my hands free of children, and to prove how smart I really am, I decided to walk the line between life and certain death.


Just kidding. I’m not really that big of  a risk-taker. It only appears that I will plummet to my death with one misstep. In reality there is only an eight-foot drop behind that wall. And then a cliff.

Eventually we had to leave the oasis at the top of the hills and make our way back down through Garbage City, which was still full of garbage. Lots and lots of garbage.


At the bottom of the hill there was some bedrock exposed so we could see the different sedimentary layers. The newest layer is a thick band of compressed trash. Give it 100 or so years and it will be nice, toxic topsoil.


We also got to wade around a big puddle of sewage.


We opted to take a taxi to cross the street since there are eight lanes of traffic and we were all feeling a little sluggish from lugging various infants and children around all morning. Playing frogger across one of the busiest streets in Cairo just didn’t seem to be up our alley. Cramming nine people (driver included) into a five-seater taxi, however, was. Our cabby deposited us safely on the other side of the autostrad and we continued our adventure in the City of the Dead (Arafa), another slum neighbourhood of sorts just a hop, skip, and jump away from Garbage City. It’s actually a cemetery, but people also live and work amongst the tombs.


Rachel was thrilled to be in the City of the Dead. Once I affirmed that we were in the City of the Dead, she asked in her spooky voice, “Are we going to see dead people?”

“I don’t think so,” I told her, “All the dead people here are buried so we won’t actually see them.”

Just then a funeral procession went by at the end of the street.


“There’s a dead person in that box those men are carrying,” Nacia told Rachel, who rolled her eyes up at me and put her hands on her hips. “I told you we would see dead people!” Rachel quipped.

Who knew a two-year-old could be so morbid?

Later we ran into some wailing mourners and Rachel, tenderhearted as she is, was very concerned.

“Why are they crying?” she asked.

“They are sad because someone they loved has died.”

“Someone they loved?”


“What happened?”

“I don’t know, but someone they loved has gone to live with Heavenly Father and they’re sad because they won’t get to see them again for a long, long time.”

“But why are they sad?”

“Because they are going to miss that person very much. Imagine if someone you loved left and you didn’t know if you would ever see them again. Wouldn’t that make you sad?”

“It would,” she said, burying her face in my neck and joining her tears with the other mourners.

We had a nice little talk about eternal families and resurrection and I think that helped make her feel better, but she was a little weepy from that point on. She can get very emotional.


I enjoyed walking around the alleyways lined with tombs and mausoleums, but my favorite part, I think, were the murals depicting the Hajj. It’s traditional to honor a hajj (one who completes the Hajj) with a mural celebrating their journey and the rites of the Hajj. The rituals of the Hajj are symbolic of the life of Abraham and his wife Hagar.


We also saw some bloody handprints leftover from Eid al-Adha. I would have thought that our recent rainstorm would have washed them away, but apparently I would have thought wrong.


Our main goal in going to the City of the Dead was to visit the mosque and mausoleum of Qaitbay. We ended up getting quite turned around and found ourselves in a makeshift farmyard.

IMG_4945 IMG_4946 IMG_4951

Rachel was terrified of the goats. But we managed to get decent directions to Qaitbay and finally stumbled upon it a few minutes later. It was easy to recognize since it’s on the one pound bill.


While we were still winding our way through the alleys to get to it, I saw the saddest, scraggliest little kitten in the whole world. It almost broke my heart.


Quaitbay was cool, though. For some reason they didn’t want to let us inside but in the end acquiesced and opened the doors, for baksheesh, of course.


The inside was all full of pigeons which made walking around barefoot less than appealing. The cave church was full of pigeons, too, but since we had our shoes on and since it was a breezy, open air cave it didn’t bother me as much. Qaitbay mosque was rather musty inside: hot and stuffy and pigeony. But beautiful.

IMG_4979 IMG_4981

Rachel and Tuesday had fun chasing each other around through the bird droppings and climbing into windowsills.


We ended our tour with a quick stop at the glassmaker’s shop across the street from the mosque. He has really good prices, like half the price of things in Maadi (which has things for half the price you’d find in the Khan). It was fun to get to see the furnace, too, even though the artist said it wasn’t hot enough to blow glass yet.


He invited us to stick around until he was ready to work, but we had to get back to Maadi in time for school to let out. Instead Nacia, Hayley and I stood outside with the children while Jaehee and Jill shopped—it was a glass shop, after all, and we thought it best to keep the children away from the shelves of blown glass.

IMG_5000IMG_5003 IMG_5007 

I, for one, was glad to get home. We walked through the door and got straight in the shower—I’m sure we smelled awful and I needed to hurry and get ready to go tutoring. Miriam spent some quality time stroking Andrew’s face after she was all cleaned up (she’s the quietest, gentlest little baby, ever) and after a quick snack I whisked her away, leaving Rachel, still weepy from the encounter with the mourners, at home with Andrew.


It was a long day. But awfully fun!


  1. There are a couple of interesting documentaries about Garbage City that have come out in the past couple of years. I just watched Marina of the Zabaleen. Highly recommended. It's not a strict documentary, but a very thoughtful portrait of a family in the neighborhood.

    I can't think of the title of the other one, but I'm sure the internet knows.

  2. I think the one you might be thinking of is called 'Garbage Dreams.' Personally haven't seen it yet, but have heard great things about it. Believe there's a trailer on YouTube for it, too.