Image: Jayson Casper

From Garbage to Glory

The cave churches of Cairo offer sanctuary in the midst of squalor. /

The Pyramids of Giza used to be in the middle of the desert. Eventually Cairo’s urban sprawl pushed right up to the Sphinx. The Citadel of Saladin towers over the city. The southern approach requires an overpass straddling the City of the Dead. In Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum and its famed mummies were overrun with the bedlam of a revolution.

Tourism has dropped dramatically since then, but intrepid travelers can hardly help notice the encroachment of squalor on the glories of antiquity.

What most miss is the reversal: A glory rising out of the garbage. To create it, 40 years ago one man had to literally trudge through a pigsty. Today it is simpler to reach the massive cave church complex in the Muqattam Mountains on the eastern edge of Cairo. But the journey still requires a pungent assault on the senses.

Women and children pick through 15,000 tons of the city’s collected refuse, sorting out recyclable waste from the biodegradables useful for wandering livestock. Men haul burlap trash bags twice their size into garbage trucks poised to tip from overfill. Crude tattoos of St. George or a crucified Jesus adorn the arms of many a teenager. Pictures of Pope Shenouda and the Virgin Mary hang from open stalls filled with plastic bottles or corrugated cardboard.

This is the community of the Zabaleen, Garbage City, known officially as Manshiat Nasser. In 1969, the governor of Cairo created the slum by relocating the mostly Coptic Christian trash pickers to the base of the mountain, where they could keep their pigs in peace. The half-mile ascent is traversable by car, but the narrow street is made treacherous by potholes and the tight squeeze of donkey carts.

But arrival provides ample reward. At the top of the hill ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 46 / April 14, 2016
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 46: Gorgeous feathers, Cairo’s cave churches, ant trails, and clouds. /

  2. Simply Beautiful Feathers

    A display of birds’ useful adornments. /

  3. Not All Who Wander Are Lost

    How ants have solved the Traveling Salesman Problem. /

  4. Under the Cloud

    Five amazing facts about the fluffy, immense formations above our heads. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 46: Links to amazing stuff.

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