St. Simon's Monastery, the Coptic Zabbaleen cave church in Cairo.

The Cave Church of Garbage City

The Cave Church of Garbage City

Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Feb. 10 2015 10:35 AM

The Cave Church of Garbage City

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Large Christian communities are not abundant in Muslim-dominated Egypt. One of the more populous groups is the garbage-scavenging Zabbaleen, who have retained their Coptic beliefs and established the largest Christian church in the Middle East at the Monastery of St. Simon.

The Zabbaleen (meaning literally “garbage people”) village at the base of the Mokattam cliffs began around 1969 when the Cairo governor decided to move all of the garbage collectors to a single settlement. The garbage collectors were largely Coptic Christians, and as their numbers continued to grow over the years the need for a centralized church began to grow. In 1975 the first Christian church was built in the village, but after a large fire broke out nearby, work began on a monastery that was built right into the cliffside. 


The Monastery of St. Simon was the result of this new project. Simon the Tanner was a craftsman who lived during the 10th century, and the cave church that was dedicated to him seems as though it might last for 10 more. Using a pre-existing cave and the slope that led into it, the current monastery seats 20,000 people around a central pulpit. Other nearby caves have also been built into separate church spaces, and all of them have been linked to create a massive Christian complex in the heart of garbage city.

Since tourism through the scavenger’s village is not a thriving industry, reaching the Monastery of St. Simon is no small feat, yet as the largest Christian church within a handful of countries, hundreds of thousands of people make the pilgrimage each year.    



An Egyptian girl runs up the stands ahead of a service.


Egyptian Copts attended a Mass celebration in the cave church on December 13, 2012, where they prayed for Egypt ahead of the disputed referendum on the new draft Constitution.

Photo: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

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Eric Grundhauser is a head writer and editor at Atlas Obscura. He lives in Brooklyn with his comic book collection. Follow him on Twitter.