Installed at the heart of Mokattam Mountain in southeastern Cairo, St. Simon Monastery, also known as The Cave Church, is the largest church in Egypt and the Middle East. The Cave Church lies in an area known as the Zabbaleen city, meaning literally “garbage city”. This city has the largest population of garbage collectors and recyclers in Cairo.
Location of the Monastery of Saint Simon
The Zabbaleen are descendants of farmers who started migrating from Upper Egypt to Cairo in the 1940s. Fleeing poor harvests and poverty, they came to the city looking for work and set up makeshift settlements around the town. Initially, they stuck to their tradition of raising pigs, goats, chickens and other animals but eventually found collecting and sorting waste produced by the city residents more profitable. The Zabbaleen would sort through household garbage, salvaging and selling things of value, while the organic waste provided an excellent food source for their animals. This arrangement worked so well that successive waves of migrants came from Upper Egypt to live and work in Cairo’s newly founded garbage villages.
For years, the makeshift settlements of the Zabbaleen were moved around the city, trying to avoid the municipal authorities. Finally, a large group of Zabbaleen settled under the cliffs of the Mokattam or Moquattam quarries at the city’s eastern edge, which has grown from 8,000 in the early 1980s into the largest garbage collector community in Cairo, with approximately 30,000 Zabbaleen inhabitants.
Egypt is a Muslim-majority country, but the Zabbaleen community is Coptic Christian; at least 90 per cent of them are Christians. Christian communities are rare to find in Egypt, so the Zabbaleen prefer to stay in Mokattam within their religious community even though many could afford houses elsewhere.
The local Coptic Church in Mokattam Village was established in 1975. After launching the church, the Zabbaleen felt more secure in their location. They started to utilise more permanent building materials for housing, such as stone and bricks. Given their previous experience of eviction from Giza in 1970, the Zabbaleen had lived in temporary tin huts up till that point. In 1976, a large fire broke out in Manshiyat Nasir, which led to the beginning of the construction of the first church below the Mokattam mountain on a site of 1,000 square meters. Several more churches have been built into the caves found in Mokattam. Consequently, the Monastery of St. Simon, the Tanner, became the largest, with a seating capacity of 20,000. In general, the Cave Church of St. Simon in Mokattam is the largest in the Middle East.
Churches of the Monastery of Saint Simon
The church of father Abram, the son of Zara the Syriaque
This church got its name after Father Abram, son of Zara the Syriaque, the 62nd pope for Mark’s Chair, commemorating the miracle of transferring the Moqattam Hill, which took place during his time. He was the one who introduced the three-day fasting, which the church had fasted at the time of the miracle. Before it, the Christmas fasting, which has become 43 days instead of 40. In addition, he also introduced the Nine’ve fasting to the Coptic church. And also, he was the one who rejected the habit of women slavery spread at that time.
Archaeologists discovered the Church of father Abram during the excavation operations of the caves present in the area in 1992. Further, they prepared it to become a church after expanding and disciplining it.
Noteworthy that the first Holy mass took place at this church in 1993. This church also holds spiritual and prayer meetings, besides the Holy mass services. Indeed, it is the smallest in the monastery.
Virgin Mary and St. Simon the Tanner Cathedral
This church’s name comes after the Virgin Mary and St. Simon, the Tanner, commemorating the Moqattam Hill’s miracle on November 27th, 979. By then, the Lord used St. Simon the Tanner to fulfil this miracle in the era of Pope Abram, the son of Zara the Syriaque, the 62nd Pope. During this time, after praying and fasting for three days in the church of the Virgin Mary in Old Egypt, Virgin Mary has made her revelation to pope Abram. Virgin Mary announced that upon whose hands the transference of the hill would take place (St. Simon the Tanner).
This church has been constructed at two stages:
The first stage:
the church was only a massive cave of limestone in the bosom of the hill, the height of which does not exceed one meter. During this stage, the audience used to sit, in front of the altar, on straw rugs laid and a few scattered chairs. Some servants have used the church to run prayer services to redeem souls in the area.
The second stage:
Owing to the increase of the audience, God blessed in expanding the church.
On November 27th 1994, which falls as the feast of Saint Simon, the Tanner, the church was constructed around a quarter circle to accommodate a few thousand people. Thus, it became the biggest church in this monastery. Also, engineers installed a well-developed sound system and a vast visual screen to transfer to the audience in the church.
The church holds holy mass services, spiritual films and meetings every Thursday.
In front of the altar and to the right side, the church keeps the remains of st. Simon’s body was discovered and brought in 1991 from Virgin Mary’s church in Babylon Al Darg, in Old Egypt. Then, it was transferred to his church, on July 11th 1992, by a document from the church on Anba Mataos’s hands, the Bishop of Old Cairo at that time, under the supervision of Pope Shenoda the Third.
In 1974, upon the ceiling and to the right side of the church, a conspicuous engraved figure of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Lord Jesus Christ was discovered, not touched by any human hand, and was later revised in 1994. The church is also famous for its clay pot belonging to Saint Simon, the Tanner, discovered beside his remains. It is all a testimony for the truthful promises of God, who works continuously.
Saint Simon the Tanner Hall & Saint Mark’s Church
This huge cave was discovered in the year 1974. It was full of hundreds of tons of stones even up to the cave’s ceiling (17 meters high from the ground). And it was later prepared to contain St.Simon the Tanner Hall and St.Mark’s Church.
The cave had only one sloop entrance, and it was challenging to pass through it. Now, the present big glass window overseeing the area.
In 1991, after continuous prayers for seven years seeking God’s guidance on how to enter the cave, work began to find a path to enter the cave and start removing the enormous quantities of debris and demolishing 140 thousand tons of stones from the walls and ground of the cave.