This last summer Lisa and I visited the countries of Jordan & Egypt. Included in both of these countries are several “Holy” sites to the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. For example, we were able to see the site where Jesus was baptized by John. We also stood on Mt. Nebo where it is believed Moses was given a glimpse of the Promised Land before dying. We visited Machaerus, where King Herod built a citadel/temple, and where he took the Head of John the Baptist. The question that has come up often after visiting these sites is “did you feel anything?”
Let me start by saying that the majority of the holy sites we visited are now tourist attractions. In other words, you have buses coming in and out, and in many cases you also have heavier security because of the religious significance of these sites. Still, there is room for God to speak or for people to get emotional when visiting a site, and I have witnessed this. If I am honest, however, I must say that I did not feel any heightened emotions, energy, chills, and I didn’t hear a voice or see anything special at these sites. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited to visit places where I knew Jesus had been, and I knew something significant occurred, but nothing special happened while I was there.
When we were in Egypt, we had the opportunity to spend a day going around Cairo with an American who had lived in Cairo for 15 years. She decided to take us to a place you will not find in any guidebooks. In the shadow of the Mokattam mountains is the Zabbaleen Village, or what we call Garbage City. You can imagine my apprehension in going to a place by that name, but we decided to trust our guide, and at the very least we would have something to tell people when we returned home.
Garbage City is exactly that. Since Egypt has few landfills, and the Cairo metro area has a population of around 20 million, there is a lot of garbage. The villagers take their pickup trucks or donkey carts out to gather the trash, then they pile the bags of garbage impossibly high on their vehicles, and bring them back to the village to distribute. The villagers take the trash into their homes, where the first floor is set aside for sifting, and the remaining floors for living. Recyclable material is sold, and the remainder is burned or fed to their swine (and due to the swine flu outbreak, Egypt required these villagers to slaughter their swine, which has put a strain on the people). In addition, the roads in this village are not paved, they are very narrow, and there is stray garbage throughout. The smell is terrible, so we did not roll our windows down, and disease is very common in these parts due to lack of sanitation.
If you could imagine an outcast group of people, the Zabbaleen Village is it. These people have been marginalized by their fellow people and the Egyptian government because of the way they live, and because they are largely descended from foreigners who moved to the area decades ago to try to make a better living for themselves.
Back in the 1960’s the Coptic Church in Cairo began to take interest in the Zabbaleen Village. The Copts saw the conditions they lived in, the lack of education and health care, and decided they needed to try to make an impact. They found a people very open to the message the Copts brought. As the villagers accepted this message, it became necessary to get a larger church built to house the worshippers. The problem was that the government has to approve any church building, and they were not willing to give their approval to this project. How could the people gather for worship?
The answer came from the mountain itself. If a building could not be built, why not dig an open air church out of the mountain? Since Cairo only has 1 to 2 days of rainfall per year, this solution made more and more sense. Carving and digging were done without protest from the government. All blasting was done during Ramadan when the noise would coincide with the celebrations of the Muslims.
Today the Zabbaleen Village has the largest church in the Middle East, with seating for 20,000 people, and all of it carved out of stone. It is visited by Christians from all over the world, who hold conferences and retreats within the village. Artists have volunteered their time to carve Biblical images into the cliff sides, and make this church that much more striking. I heard this story as I stood in this huge open-air cathedral, and I have to tell you despite the 90+ degree temperatures I got chills. We also witnessed another group of Christians who had come to visit the church as they sang hymns and praise songs in another language in appreciation to what had gone on here. I could have spent the whole say sitting in this church and soaking in the peace that flooded over me. It was surreal, and I never saw it coming.
Since I returned to the states I get asked which holy site meant the most to me. I go through this story with those who ask each time, and I get puzzled looks. The site isn’t holy because of something the patriarchs, prophets, or Jesus necessarily did here. It is holy because God is still there, making a difference in the lives of the people, and playing in the trash.