Mokkatam Village a/k/a Garbage City in Cairo

I sat down to write a post about the amazing Cave Church I visited in Cairo, when I began instead reading up on the people who live in the village that is home to the church. Soon it became clear that an entire post should be dedicated to what little I know about these people and their village.

Zabbaleen, Arabic for “garbage people” number approximately 60,000, 90% of whom are Coptic Chrisitians, living in seven different villages scattered throughout Cairo. Mokkatam, the largest of these villages, is the home of the Cave Church as well as the city’s largest population of Zabbaleen, approximately 25,000.

Garbage City and the Cave Church within it are not very well known, not only by people around the world but even Egyptians themselves. My friend Mohamed from Luxor was in Cairo at the same time as I, and we decided to visit this location together. But where was it? He had never heard of it. We asked at my hotel desk and the men manning the desk had likewise not heard of it. So we got in a taxi and took our chances.

Take us to Mokkatam, Mohamed told the driver. And so we went.

Garbage lying on the road

Very little of the garbage in Garbage City is scattered like this. Most of it is contained neatly in large plastic bags alongside the roads.

Using donkey carts and pickup trucks, the Zabbaleen travel through Cairo collecting trash and transporting it back to their villages. Here they sort it and sell it to middlemen or recycle it, creating new materials. Supported in a partnership with the UK-based Association for the Protection of the Environment, many craftswomen using looms at home or working in workshops in Mokkatam create beauty out of this trash. I was heartened to later learn that that the Zabbaleen have this association. The few I was able to talk to were lovely people and deserve the support.

Hauling trash in Garbage City

Because it is dubbed Garbage City, I really expected this area to be a huge mess, with hundreds of tons of trash lying all over the ground. Instead, I was surprised to see that almost all of the trash of this village was neatly bagged, tied, and set in piles along the sides of the road. Apparently this trash was designated for recycling, as Zabbaleens recycle 80% of the trash they collect, whereas the Western world recycles only 20 to 25%.

Neat piles of trash in Cairo's garbage city

Neatly bagged garbage in Mokkatam Village, Cairo, Egypt

After we made our way through the village of garbage and arrived at the church, Mariam and Madonna, two teenage girls from the village, began following me around, giggling and whispering and taking photos. Clearly, they don’t see many Westerners here. Where you from? Mariam asked.

America, I said.

America! Mariam responded in a gasp, grabbing her heart, I love America so much!

From a city made of garbage, the voice of youth dreaming of a better life.

Mariam, Madonna and Me

Mariam, Madonna and Me

4 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Steve says:

    What an interesting place. For somewhere called Garbage City, they sure do seem organized with all those plastic bags and piles. Seems like a good system though. They’re putting all that garbage to good use.
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  2. Sabina says:

    Hi, Steve – Yes, it did seem quite well organized and very orderly. They really know what to do with the garbage, and they do it. It didn’t seem like a bad place to live, in that it wasn’t too dirty. They make a living out of trash, so they have to have it around, but other than that it seemed like a normal neighborhood.

  3. I read about this place once, sounds incredible. Interesting that people around didn’t know where it was – glad the cab driver did. Apparently, the West has a lot to learn from them about recycling.
    Ayelet – All Colores recently posted..#ObamaInIsrael – The Funny Madness of President Barack Obama’s Trip to IsraelMy Profile

  4. Sabina says:

    Yes, from what I learned about Mokkatam Village, it does seem like the West can learn from them. Will we, though? I don’t think so.

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