Cave Churches

Up amongst the hills of Moqattam near the Citadel on the outskirts of Cairo exists a collection of churches known as the Monastery of St. Simon. Despite the lack of monks, they still refer to it as a monastery. There are two primary churches, both have been built since 1970 for the local inhabitants.

Around 1970, the government of Cairo had the Zaballeen, garbage collectors, move out of the city to the edges, and with them, the city dump. The Zaballeen are Christians, so they found the need for a local church and it’s said that they decided to build one inside the limestone that surrounded them. So during 17 days of Ramadan one year, they coordinated the blasting of dynamite with the daily cannon boom announcing the iftar meal, so as not to be noticed. Not surprisingly, it’s not easy to get permits in Cairo to build a Christian church. However, they did build the second church “legally” and it took them 13 years.

The most fascinating aspect about both of these churches is that they have been built literally within the rock and are both immense in scope. As you can see from the pictures of the first one, the one built in 17 days, they merely hollowed out an existing cave and created a second entrance.

The second church is even larger and is said to seat 3,000 people. Both churches hold weekly services and if you look around on the walls of both churches and the whole complex, you will see carvings in the stone depicting St. Simon, Jesus and various Biblical tales. These have all been carved by a Polish expat, Mario. During our tour we were lucky enough to actually meet him, though I’m hoping to get in touch with him again to see if I could do an interview for an article. He said he was called here over 16 years ago and has been working on it ever since. His work is very good and most of the carvings are life-size, and many are located at dizzying heights on the stone walls (you can see the scaffolding around some that he’s currently working on).

Both churches are really phenomenal sights. It really shows what “the power of the people” can accomplish when they set their minds to it.

To get to these churches you have to drive through Garbage City, and following our tour we did a second stop at the recycling center that was established within Garbage City about twenty years ago. I am writing that up for a separate posting.