Al Mokattam Mountain: On top of Cairo

Al Mokattam Mountain: On top of Cairo

by Seif Kamel

A table with a view on top of Mokattam Mountain

Egyptians consider the Mokattam Mountain to be the only real mountain in Cairo, though many outsiders would consider it more of a hill. It is four or five hundred feet high and lays immediately to the east of the city. One can go through the famous Salah Salem and take a right and be at the beginning of the road going up to the Mokattam Mountain. It twists and turns around many curves, but is a very pleasant drive. Although the Mokattam Mountain is not listed in most of the travel guides, it is nevertheless a very interesting place to visit, and a great location to scope out Cairo.

Historically, the Mokattam Mountains are first known to us for its quarries of limestone and other deposits that were worked from the

A view of Salah Salem Road from above

Old Kingdom, when it was quarried for stone to build the Great Pyramids of Giza, through the Pharaonic Period, and into the archaic Islamic Period. However, it should be noted that the mountain specifically is only a part of the Mokattam formation, and so often when this name is used regarding quarries, it does not refer to the mountain itself.The only other real historical aspect of the Mokattam Mountain is an early Christian legend, upon which a grand monastery was built. Tradition holds that a now famous saint by the name of Simon the Tanner who lived during the tenth century once miraculously moved the mountain.

View of the main Cathedral in the Mokattam Mountain.

At that time, Egypt was ruled by the Fatimid Caliph Al Mu'izz Ledeenallah Al Fatemy. During this period, the Coptic church was under the direction of the 62nd Coptic Pope, a Syrian by the name of Anba Abram. At the time, the Copts (Christians) in Egypt were engaged in handicrafts. St. Simon worked in one of the crafts widespread in Babylon (Old Cairo) which was tanning, a craft still known there till this day. This profession involved also other crafts that depend on the process, from where he carried several titles related to skins; St Simon the Tanner, the Cobber, the Shoemaker.

According to Coptic sayings, the Caliph Al Muizz, an enlightened man, was fond of literacy gatherings and inviting different religious leaders to debate in his presence with neither anger nor contention.

Interior view of the cave now used for spiritual meetings and events.

In one of those meetings in which Pope Abram and a Jew named Jacob Ibn Killis were present, the Pope got the upper hand in the debate. Plotting to take revenge, Ibn Killis quoted the verse where the Lord Jesus said in Mt 17:20: "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to the mountain, Move from here to there, and it will move, nothing will be impossible for you" and demanded him to prove that his religion is right by means of this. The Caliph saw in this an opportunity to remove the mountain that was spoiling his view.

At the same time, if the Christians proved unable to perform this miracle, than it would be proof that the religion of the Christians was wrong and he would be finished with them, or so goes the Legend. And so, after three days of prayers and fasts by the people throughout the land of Egypt, Simon was chosen to move the Mokattam Mountain. It is said that a great earthquake swept over the mountain. Each time the people stood up to worship, the mountain was thrust up and the sun would be seen from under it.

Biblical Carvings done by Polish artist, Mario who still continues working at the monastery.

When the people sat down, the mountain thrust down. This was repeated three times. Afterwards, the Caliph was racked with fear and embraced the Pope warmly and this was a new beginning for a good friendship between them. However, St. Simon went missing and was never found. It is believed that his skeleton was discovered in 1991 in Babylon in the St. Mary's church (the Hanging Church). This brings us to one of the modern attractions of the mountain, the Monastery of St. Simon (Simeon) the Tanner. Its not really an old monastery, as Egyptian monasteries go, established and dedicated to St. Simon some one thousand years after his death.

Hence, it might be of little interest to modern tourists, other than the fact that it is so very unusual. First of all, its setting up against the Mokattam cliffs is spectacular. Secondly, the main cathedral is in a cave, and finally, there are a number of wonderful biblical sculptures, actually not executed by Egyptians, but rather by a Polish artist. Also, we must mention the view of Cairo, which few tourists ever see from such a vantage point. But what the Mokattam mountain is seemingly most famous for today isprobably not the quarries, the miracles or even the famous churches, but rather trash, and the trash collectors.

Handcrafts from the Women of Zabaleen

The mountain is not only the main garbage dump for Cairo, but also houses most of the people who collect Cairo's trash. This district is named Zabaleen (Garbage collectors in Arabic), so literally, this is Garbage city. There are over forty thousand people living there. They include more than 17,000 garbage collectors or zabbaleen, who live in dusty squatter settlements of teeming, narrow dirt lanes. There they sort and recycle the garbage produced by Cairo's burgeoning population. They start working in the early morning; go to every place in Cairo to collect garbage, and then go back to Mokattam where the trash is dumped. Although this place attracts some tourists, I never thought of visiting it.

A Zabaleen Trash Collector, now though replaced with new garbage trucks

Obviously there is an odor about the village, and sometimes an almost overwhelming one. One must keep in mind that Cairo has some 18 million people, and just about all their trash ends up here. However, it is also a very interesting place culturally, as one might imagine. The people of Zabaleen have essentially collected the trash of Cairo at no cost over many years, making their living actually from recycling the trash. Today, there is even a small industry of women who have become something of a cultural phenomenon because of some of their handicrafts using discarded material.

Now one might imagine that a lofty perch might create a demand for more upscale housing, and indeed it has, for along with the huts of the garbage collectors, there are now initiatives to build more luxurious homes about the mountain. Indeed, a new aristocratic community has developed, with villas that cost from 200,000 to 1,000,000 L.E, which is not at all surprising. The trash dump is actually in a small valley and does not effect much of the mountain, which is mostlypollution free.

The road leading up to the mountain

All of this was not what made me wish to visit the Mountain. I wanted to visit a place called The Mokattam Corniche similar to the Nile Corniche in Cairo. It is a unique place to walk and sit as one can see a very large part of Cairo and all about. I once went there five years ago with my friends and now I thought I would try it again. I took the Salah Salem road and went in the direction of Mokattam. Though I love my car, the road up made me wish for something a little more sporty, perhaps a convertible, for the narrow, curved roads could be truly exciting.

I stopping several times to take pictures, and also to examine the different mysterious looking caves that can be found along the way. I found the road that reaches the main square on Mokattam which leads in turn to all the other streets on the mountain.

Soon, I found myself on the main street, where there are actually many stores. There were many cafes, gift shops, restaurants, and fast food stands. The street was very enjoyable but this wasnt what I was looking for so I turned back to the main square. I then found the correct road,where one can see a full view of Cairo.

Cairo from the Mokattam Mountain near sunset

It was amazing, and even more spectacular since I reached it just before sunset. Not so surprisingly, the place is famous for viewing the sunrise and sunset and it is a very romantic place. One can simply go there, park the car near the cliff, and enjoy the view. That may sound very familiar to those who live in other large cities with surrounding hills. Such a place often gets the name, "Lookout Point", but because of Egypt's somewhat more conservative nature, one will probably find few couples necking here. Nevertheless, one canenjoy a little more privacy than one might ever find elsewhere in Cairo.

Looking down on the Citadel and the Mohammad Ali Mosque

There are actually a number of small cafes around the Mokattam Corniche, where one may sit at a table and have a drink. They serve coffee, tea and cold drinks, but one can also grab a drink to have while sitting in your car as well. I sat at a table and ordered tea and Shisha with apple flavor and started looking around for the best view I could find of Cairo. I began by looking for my house, a long ways off, but near it is the Television building and the foreign affairs ministry building, which stood out.

Tourists getting a grand view of Cairo

There was the Cairo Tower, whichalso offers a great view of Cairo, but not as good as the Mokattam Corniche. I could also make out the Rameses Hilton, the Gezeira Sheraton, and of course, the Citadel itself can very clearly be seen not far below. The layout of Cairo became more clear to me than ever, with its various major avenues, and far off, I could even make out the Giza Pyramids.

The view of the sunset going down on Cairo was truly spectacular. The Mokattam Corniche is a photographer paradise. I snapped away with my camera, hoping that the camera could portray what my eyes were beholding. Although not many tourists visit Al Mokattam Mountain, more should, and more probably will. It is both an interesting place with a mixed culture as well as simply the best place to look down upon Cairo and really get a feel for the city. I do believe god really loves Egypt as he gave her many gifts, such as the Nile, but the Mokattam Mountain is certainly another.