Historically marginalized and evicted from Giza in 1970, a community of Coptic Christians took up residence at the foot of the Mokattam hills in south east Cairo.
Burned by their previous experience, the religious group hesitated to build permanent churches in their settlement, which is now lined with mountains of trash, until 1976, when a fire broke out in Manshiyat Nasir.
The first 1,000 square foot cave church was carved at the foot of Mokattam mountain. The largest in the Middle East – the Monastery of St. Simon the Tame, a Coptic Christian saint – has an ampitheater that boasts a seating capacity of 20,000 devotees.
St. Bola’s Church, St. Marks Church, and St. Simon the Tanner’s Hall are among the six additional cave churches carved out of the rock, which continue to serve the community to this day.
Despite their status as outcasts, the Zabaleen have proven themselves to be not only excellent craftsmen whose attention to detail in the cave churches is sensational, but their garbage recycling operations are exceptionally efficient.
The subject of a popular documentary, the Zabaleen also used to raise pigs, which are considered Haram by Muslims, to manage Cairo’s organic waste as well. But then the government culled most of them in response to the swine flu epidemic in 2009.
A small handful of pigs have made a quiet comeback since then, though they remain in hidden corners of Garbage City.
Although Egypt has lost a lot of its tourists as a result of the post-revolution instability and occasional bouts of violence, the Cave Churches continue to attract a few.
Images via Flickr