Friendly Garbage City, Mosques & A Quirky House

Trip Start Sep 29, 2007
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Trip End Dec 20, 2010


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Where I stayed
African House Hotel

Flag of Egypt  ,
Friday, October 10, 2008

One of our Cairo days was spent checking out some of the stranger neighbourhoods of the city, the Northern Cemetery 'City Of The Dead' and the 'Garbage City' community at Manshiyet Nasr.

When we told our hotel staff that we wanted to go to the Garbage City and asked if they could write the directions in Arabic so we could negotiate a return deal with a taxi driver, they thought we were insane and couldn't work out why we wanted to see this bizarre site. The guys offered us a driver and car for the afternoon for a small fee and some bakeesh (tips) for the driver who would wait for us at the places we wanted to go. Cool bananas. A garbage city, we had to see.

There is still alot of garbage on the streets of Cairo but some of it is collected and this is done by
 60 000- 70 000 people known as the Zabaleen who are Coptic Christians. The Zabbaleen generally perform this service very cheaply or for free, making a living by sorting the waste materials for reuse or recycling. Waste food is fed to livestock (most often pigs or goats) or poultry. Other materials, such as steel, glass and plastic bottles, are sorted by hand and sold as raw materials. We took in a view from the top of a hill over the garbage sorting site where families live amongst the rubbish piles. Teribble living conditions. Goat herds were on rooftops and pigs were eating the rubbish too. There were lots of cats and no doubt, mice. Children swarmed around us to greet us. We bounced them a few high bouncy balls that sent them shrieking down the street. A group of deaf people signed to us that they wanted to meet us. Everybody wanted to meet us. We noticed that many of the people, even the children had small, home-made tattoos of crucifixes drawn onto the web of skin between their pointer fingers and thumbs.

We went down into the streets of the community despite our driver telling us that in the past  his car has been attacked by "monkeys", he meant children. We never felt unsafe there and in fact the people were some of the friendliest people we have ever met on our travels. Everybody came out to greet us, welcomed us and said hello. Children all wanted the handshake or high five and even the women were happy for us to take their pictures. The families were particularly happy when we photographed their children, they seemed proud that we wanted to take their child's picture. Unfortunately the children work hard there too but are extremely happy beings and know no other lifestyle having been born into the comunity. The streets smell and there really is garbage everywhere. There are lots of sheesha and tea houses where guys were playing dominoes at little tables. There were no other foreigners there. Families specialize in the type of garbage they sort and sell. One room will have children sorting out plastic bottles, while the next will have women separating cans from the rest. We saw one guy sorting plastic cutlery. Other items are repaired or reused. Some material is burnt as fuel. One family we visited had two little girls, a tiny boy, three woman (all from the same family), a cat and many live ducks all wandering around in a space filled with garbage that was the size of a single car garage. The children waded through the piles of stinking, rotting trash to greet us. Donkeys pull carts with towers of rubbish bags 8-10 metres high and they also use rubbish trucks. It is claimed that the Zabbaleen reuse or recycle 80-90% of the waste they collect. Massive effort. 

 Many Zabbaleen suffer from health problems such as hepatitis, due to the low-tech sorting methods used and general poverty. Although these slums have streets, shops, and apartments like any other area, they lack infrastructure and often have no running water, sewage or electricity. Although this community may just be around for quite some time yet. Authorities in Egypt have tried for several years to replace the Zabbaleen with modern waste collection and disposal methods, primarily employing large foreign companies. This process has attracted controversy in the area, with many residents objecting to higher fees for the modern disposal service. The modern collection service has also been criticized for being unable to recycle as much of the waste material as the Zabbaleen. Like many other things we see in Cairo, somehow the whole, impossible system works.


There is a church perched on a ridge above the city that is a part of a whole complex of churches carved into a cliff that also has biblical scenes carved into it. Today the site is a major site of Coptic Christian pilgrimage. Another church, the Cave Cathedral or St Sama'ans Church is the largest church in the Middle East with seating for 20,000 people, and what a location.

Later this day we went to visit the Mosque Of Qaitbey built in 1474 by a sultan. The mosque is located in an area known as the City Of The Dead. The cemeteries are not only for people buried there but also for the living. More than 50 000 people live amongst the tombs where there is free sleeping space so the area is very low-income and unfortunately was unsafe for us to visit due to some recent attacks on tourists there. we did the drive-by anyway and felt lucky we had gone with the private driver to speak Arabic there and keep us safe.

We drove past the giant  and very impressive Mosque-Madrassa Of Sultan Hassan which was built between 1356 and 1363. It was Friday prayer time so we were unable to go inside. Instead we headed over to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun which was built between AD876 and 879. We can't really get our heads around the age of these buildings. Some footwear minders at the entrance put some canvas slipper bags onto our feet and we did a lap of the courtyard. You can't wear shoes inside a mosque and women must be covered including their scary knees. There is a spiral minaret and a large dome. We were there when one of the daily prayers was sung through a microphone and found that the sound echoed throughout the mosque. The prayer ritual whose meaning and power have remained unchanged for 14 centuries and sometimes sounds like a cow givung birth. The act of praying consists of a series of predefined movements of the body and recitals of words all designed to please Allah. The call goes "Allah akbar, Allah akbar, Ashhadu an la, Ilah ila Allah, Ashhadu an Mohammed rasul Allah, Haya ala as-sala, Haya ala as-sala" but normally just sounds like the cow giving birth. Upon exiting, the footwear guys took the bags off our feet and we donated some tips.

Next we visited the very cool Gayer Anderson Museum which is two joined houses next to the Ibn Tulun mosque restored by a British major and army doctor and filled with antiques, artwork and knick knacks. The entrance was steep at 30 Egyptian pounds but we had a tour guide and the houses were big. There were some wacky paintings (maybe a few too many of young boys?) and a secret room behind a closet and drawes plus there was a large copper urn that slid out to reveal a cistern.  There was a glamorous harem room and a restored rooftop terrace that featured a pulley system that was used for pulling up trays of food and cafe from below. There was a gallery that looked down onto a magnificent reception hall and where an orchestra would have sat entertaining guests below. One room in the houses was used in the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me. Nice one. again the obligatory tips were left.

We shopped at the handicrafts emporium across the street called Khan Misr Touloun where i bought some beautiful mother-of-pearl and wooden inlaid trinket boxes for gifts.

The driver who had been patiently waiting for us way too long got us through peak hour traffic and back to the hotel. Well done boy.
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