Thursday, September 4, 2008

Muqattam: Church, Hill, view and more!

Have you ever felt the desire to be at the top of the world, with the world at your feet? Well Cairo has just the place for that! The Muqattam Hills, just off the autostrad after you leave Maadi...right opposite the Citadel!

For days, my driver has been imploring me to go visit the Muqattam Hills for a spectacular view of Cairo. Now, after trying out a local eatery recommended by him in Alexandria, I was not too keen on trusting his judgement again....however, being at a loose end, I figured I had nothing to loose except a few hours which anyway would have been wiled away doing precious litte, given the heat!

Just when I was begining to believe that my first instincts had probably been right, the car came to a screeching halt some distance away from the edge of the hill, and, my driver announced that we had reached to enjoy the most breathtaking view of Cairo..and for once I was glad I had trusted his judgement!
The view from the Hill is indeed spectacular. It was a dusty day, so the view is not very clear in the photograph, but the entire city is spread out for you to see...This would be a fantastic place to come and watch the twinkling lights of Cairo late at night over a cup of hot coffee...there is a coffee shop on the other side, which converts into an open air cafe at night offering coffee and sheesha...nothing fancy, very basic, but who needs "fancy" when you have this view?

"Do you know madam, that this is right next to Garbage City, where all the garbage of Cairo is collected and sorted, my driver asked? Would you like to see it?" My driver asked, rather helpfully.

That I must admit, really fazed me! Now I have been exploring the city ever since I got here, but even I draw a line somewhere!! I made a mental note to try and remember what in my trips had led him to this conclusion...

I politely declined and asked him to drive back home, when I suddenly remembered Simon Muqattam monastry that some friends had mentioned to me..My driver had no clue, and, was absolutely emphatic that there was no such thing in Muqattam..even the traffic police at hand were clueless till I happened to see a dilapidated sign indicating the church of Simon the Tanner... Ah, you mean "Dier Samayan Kharas" said my driver rather exasperatedly!

Moral of the story: If you want to go see the Church, ask for "dier samayan kharas".....

To get to the Church you have to go through Garbage City and the smell is overpowering, even sitting in an air conditioned car..it makes you stop and wonder how these people live in this day in and day out and grateful for the lives that we lead.....and immense amount of admiration for these people who seem to smile, laugh and joke and appear to be happy even in this..

The place is known as Zabbalin village because the word zabbalin means garbage collectors...

As you drive through the gates, you leave behind the smell and the huge bags of the garbage city and enter an oasis of peace and tranquility..I am not kidding, but as you pass through the gates, the smell appears to vanish and you can breathe in fresh air...I had to drag my son out promising that there was no smell...and even if there was, he needed to learn to deal with it!
As you drive through, you realise that the whole complex has been carved out of the hills, and on the face of the hills are carved some really beautiful frescos, verses etc... the white limestone of the hills lends itself beautifully to this work of love and devotion, and, is a sight to behold.
The Monastery contains seven Churches and Chapels hidden in a series of caves in the Mokattam hills. The two main churches are named after the Virgin Mary and St Simon in commemoration of a legend which says that Simon the Tanner (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_the_Tanner) moved the Muqattam mountain with the power of his faith and prayers. This is an icon of Simon the Tanner who is depicted as a one-eyed man carrying a sack of water, as he used - every morning before going to work - to carry water to the sick and the old who could not fetch water for themselves.

The two churches are unique in that they reminded me of Cappadocia in Turkey given that they are carved out of caves..in fact they are popularly known as the cave churches......

This is the Virgin Mary church which has a central hall called the St Simon Hall... ...where the walls are decorated with pictures engraved on the rocks representing scenes from the Bible

...and this is St Simon's church...




Interestingly enough, though now a Muslim country, Egypt was the first home of monasteries, the most famous ones being St Anthony on the Red Sea Coast and also St Catherine near Sharm. The only earlier record of moansteries is that of the Essenes, prior to Christianity, who withdrew from society and formed monastery style communities in order to pursue a contemplative life.

As per Egyptian chronicals, it was the persecution of Christians in Egypt (by the Romans, who controlled Egypt at that time) and the heavy taxation that caused many people to loose their homes and land, which led to Christians forminng monesterial (suspect there is no such word, but it serves the purpose!) communities. In fact, the word anchorite which was used to refer to Christian monks, originally referred to people who left their land rather than face imprisonment for non-payment of debt.

Whatever be the reason, the churches and monasteries are an unexpected bonus in Egypt, and I for one, prior to coming to Egypt had never known, that before the advent of the Ottomans, Egypt was a predominantly Christian community! Well, you live and learn....

While not on the standard Egypt itenerary, the unusual location, the unexpected size of the caves and the beauty of the engravings at the Simon the Tanner monastery are worth a few hours out of a hectic schedule, probaby en route to Citadel.....

... the Zabbalin village and the monastery are both a tribute to the indomitable spirit of man, who even in adversity and arduous environs, manages to find joie de vivre and create an oasis of peace and tranquility......

4 comments:

Sima said...

Hi! I have lived in Cairo for the last 3 years and did not know about this church! The carvings look beautiful. I must go see this. Thanks so much

Manisha said...

Oh, do go see it! Its like an oasis of peace and tranquility....

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