Cairo, Egypt

September 30, 2019

…Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.

Matthew 17:20

Mokattam Mountain in Cairo had been moved by mustard seed faith. Jesus may have meant His statement metaphorically – He spoke in parables after all – but the Copts took it literally. This mountain’s solid rock face had been heavily quarried, either for practical reasons or mystical qualities, to become building blocks of pyramids and temples. That said, the miraculous geologic movement was not its only astounding aspect. Mokattam stood over a city of trash. Coming from a developing country, our group was familiar with landfill slums, but we had not expected to find ourselves in the middle of one in Cairo.

DSC_0206
TTT @ Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery, Cairo
Cairo Skyline @ Manshiyat Naser

The tour bus parked beside a dusty construction site in the outskirts of Cairo. We were, then, herded onto a cramped utilitarian bus that tilted side to side as it expertly negotiated the narrow dirt road through what was locally known as Garbage City, a repository of urban waste sorted and recycled by the Zabbaleen.

These informal garbage collectors were actually a community of mostly Coptic Christians in the fringes of this Muslim-majority society. We passed men hurling bundles of rubbish dumped by the road into dark rooms for recycling and reselling, their people’s livelihood since the government established Garbage City in 1969.

Bus Ride through Garbage City @ Manshiyat Naser, Cairo
Zabbaleen in Garbage City @ Manshiyat Naser, Cairo

In the 1970s, a visiting Coptic minister was praying with a Zabbaleen in one of the many caves in Mokattam when a strong wind blew over, depositing a piece of paper before them. It was a page from the Scriptures that read:

The Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no-one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.

Acts 18:9-10

In the fashion of the burning bush and the Stone Tablets, the minister received it as a godly command to evangelize the disenfranchised people of Garbage City in no uncertain terms.

Cave Cathedral aka Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery @ Cairo
Entrance to Cave Cathedral, aka Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery @ Cairo

The church founded from that wind-blown commission eventually became the largest church in the Middle East. Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery, aka Cave Cathedral, occupied a huge cave in a massive limestone cliff. The entrance tunneled through typical Coptic church architecture. We emerged on the other side to a wide amphitheater hewn, it seemed, from the mountain.

In 1974, the church opened with a membership of less than ten. Attendance had since ballooned to the thousands. Expanded 20 years later, it could seat 15,000 worshipers at a time.  The Copts believed that God had blessed the church through the prayers of the saint of this mountain, Samaan the Tanner.

Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery @ Cairo

In a flashback to 1,000 years, the miracle of moving the mountain took place on November 27, 979 CE. It came out of a friendly debate among a Coptic Pope, a Jewish official, and a Muslim Caliph, the head of the city. Currying favor with the ruling Caliph, the Jew challenged the Copt by quoting the verse in the Gospel of Matthew about mountain-moving mustard seed faith. The Caliph jumped at the chance of proving or disproving the Christian Bible.

Three days into prayer and fasting, the Copt sought the help of St. Simon (Samaan) the Tanner, a one-eyed ascetic who had plucked out his lustful eye in literal obedience to Jesus’ sermon, also in the Gospel of Matthew. At the saint’s behest, the Coptic Pope cried out “Kyrie eleison” (Greek for “Lord have mercy”) three times. Just then, an earthquake thrust Mokattam up and moved it eastward. This miracle of faith was a manifestation of mercy. The Caliph exclaimed, “Oh Patriarch, I have recognized the correctness of your faith.” The witnesses had no sooner gathered their senses than the saint vanished without a trace.

TTT @ Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery, Cairo
Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery @ Cairo

This miraculous act of mercy resonated with the Zabbaleen that would call Mokattam their home a millennium later. Thus, the cave church was named after Saint Samaan. Mokattam, transliterated as “broken off” in Arabic, may have been so named for that geologic movement. Myth or miracle, it remained a matter of faith. Regardless of belief, the architecture of the cave church could draw gasps of amazement. Niches, gashes, fractured and uneven layers on the walls indicated the effects of force and movement on solid and static rock.

Rock Carving and Inscription @ Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery, Cairo
TTT @ Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery, Cairo

At the deep end of the cave, the altar was placed under an engraved image of the Madonna and Child discovered when the church was first built. This discovery was significant as the Virgin Mary figured in the miracle of Mokattam by way of a dream appearance. It was she who instructed the Coptic Pope to enlist the support of prayer warrior Saint Samaan.

The church was not simply a shrine for a saint but a working place of worship. A projector screen hung over the altar to facilitate liturgy. Religious carvings, both inside and outside of the church, told biblical vignettes yet set too high up cliffs and cave walls, requiring zoom camera function to see clearly, except for the Nativity scene in an eye-level niche beside the entrance.

TTT and Fellow Tourist and Pilgrim, Fely @ Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery, Cairo
TTT @ Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery, Cairo

Saint Samaan may have disappeared after the miracle but not forever. In 1991, his skeletal remains were found in the Hanging Church in Babylon, Cairo and moved to the monastery named in his honor. How his identity was determined after 1,000 years may be another matter of faith.

Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery @ Cairo
TTT and Sis @ Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery, Cairo

Our group concluded the visit with a prayer and a hymn. Amazing Grace movingly put into words the mercy of redemption brought on by the faith that moved mountains. Another song – secular in genre but spiritual in meaning – became my personal prayer. Sung by Richard Page, Kyrie was a pop song about embarking on a journey, literally or metaphorically, and built on the same prayer for mercy of Saint Samaan and the Coptic Pope. How opportune was the timing; it was the first day of my Holy Land tour.

Holy Land Tour Group @ Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery

Kyrie


The wind blows hard against this mountainside
Across the sea into my soul
It reaches into where I cannot hide
Setting my feet upon the road

My heart is old, it holds my memories
My body burns a gem-like flame
Somewhere between the soul and soft machine
Is where I find myself again

Kyrie Eleison down the road that I must travel
Kyrie Eleison through the darkness of the night
Kyrie Eleison where I’m going, will you follow?
Kyrie Eleison on a highway in the light

When I was young, I thought of growing old
Of what my life would mean to me
Would I have followed down my chosen road
Or only wished what I could be?

Kyrie Eleison down the road that I must travel
Kyrie Eleison through the darkness of the night
Kyrie Eleison where I’m going, will you follow?
Kyrie Eleison on a highway in the light

Richard Page / Steve George / John Lang
Kyrie by Mr. Mister