Egypt is a world-famous destination. Impressive Egyptian History – check; colossal monuments – check; impressive landscapes – check; extreme poverty – check that one too.
But, most travelers who visit Egypt seem to skip that one last check. Nothing wrong with skipping it, but it is important to know that Egypt is not just the grandeur of its imperial past.
While various degrees of poverty can be seen around the streets of Cairo, even many locals seem to turn their faces when you mention one place in particular: Manshiyat Naser, commonly known as Garbage City.
Garbage City is a slum settlement at the base of Mokattam Hill on the outskirts of Cairo and inhabited by Coptic Christians. This was the first place I got to experience out of all Cairo.
Right after I arrived in Egypt, I managed to meet with Jaime, Breakaway Backpacker, and we both agreed that we had to see Garbage City. And so we did.
I’m not sure if this is good or bad for the slum, but the slum’s current condition is such because the whole city of Cairo dumps its trash at Garbage City. On one part, why is Cairo dumping all its trash in a “city”?
But on the other hand, maybe that trash is a “blessing” for the slum since they’ve been able to generate an economy out of the collection and recycling of garbage.
Walking through the dirt streets gave us nothing but the crude reality of life in the slum. The smell of rotten food and decomposition floated throughout the city and engulfed us as soon as we stepped in.
The dirt roads overflowed with stagnant water at some points, a visible sign that this slum lacks infrastructure and often has no running water, sewage, or electricity.
In other parts where the dirt roads were dry, they simply were full of huge bags of garbage or simply garbage sprinkled all around. Animals like cows, goats, and dogs live inside buildings and on the streets, surviving on edible garbage.
While poverty was what surrounded us 360 degrees, we had the opportunity to see a few friendly faces that were kind enough to chat with us for a while. Among those were two kids that were playing around (in the picture).
There wasn’t much of a conversation as they spoke barely any English, and we didn’t speak Arabic, but the few words, combined with body language, made for a nice “exchange” between the four of us.
Vibrant colors can also be spotted around the gray and dusty environment. Fruits, pastries, and candies are sold on the streets as in any other city.
It’s interesting how each living unit paints its balcony as a way to show its uniqueness and its place in the city, or just to show some artistic expression.
While walking the chaotic streets of Garbage City, we got to understand, to a small degree, how their economy moves. Families specialize in a particular type of garbage, and they are in charge of collecting, piling, and recycling as much as possible of that garbage.
Rooms were full of men, women, and children that would go through the trash, sorting it out as sellable or unsellable. We saw how they shredded tons of plastic bags and how they piled aluminum cans and plastic bottles to sell as raw material.
Outside of the economic logistics, there were a few interesting features that stood out. While minute in size, I found it interesting how you could see the Christian cross built with bricks right on the façade of many buildings.
A sign that this place is indeed Christian, and even though the Muslim population has grown in the past few years, it will always be identified as a Christian slum.
Another even more exciting feature is the Cave Christian Church hidden somewhere behind the chaos that rules the city.
The Cave Cathedral, or St. Sama’ans Church (St. Simon “The Tanner” Monastery), is considered the largest church in the Middle East, with seating for up to 15,000 people.
While I wouldn’t describe the church as beautiful, I would describe it as something interesting and extraordinary.
Coptic Christians found a way and a place to praise God, even if it meant carving and fitting a church on one side of the mountain. Religious images referencing the bible were carved in various places on the cave walls.
This is a fully functional church, and the Coptic Christians guard it with much effort.
How to Visit Garbage City, Cairo (Manshiyat Nasir)
UPDATE: When I visited, the only way to visit was independently, but now there are tours to Garbage City.
Getting to Garbage City independently is not hard, but is not easy either. The best way to visit it is by hiring a taxi that would take you, wait for you there, and take you back. As I mentioned, few people go there, so many taxi drivers will have no idea how to get there.
Our taxi driver had a hard time getting there, but after asking for directions a few times, we got there. These days, maybe the easiest landmark to give your driver is the St. Simon “The Tanner” Monastery.
You can either show it to them on google maps or mention Manshiyat Nasir (also named like that and written in Arabic on google maps).
We paid 80 Egyptian pounds between the both of us (about $13), including a tip for our driver, who was amazing and patient with us. Prices might have gone up since then, but it should still be affordable.
UPDATE: Garbage City is now a bit more popular than when I visited. Now affordable half-day tours are taking tourists there, giving them great insight into the life in Garbage City and the Coptic Christians living there.
Garbage City might not have the glory of Egypt’s past and of its monuments, but it is a place I recommend everyone to visit as it shows a face that many don’t care to see, but that is very ever-present not only in Cairo but in many parts of the world.
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It’s so fascinating and moving to read this. The colors on the walls, the fruit, the economy system seem to give a fraction of hope, one that I hope will grow if society dares looking their way.
Ayelet, I like how you see those spontaneous moments in their lifestyle. THose are the things that make them feel like a community and like everyone else, and not as “outcast” in the dirt of the city.
You wrote a great piece about our experience visiting Garbage City. I am glad we were able to go together. Oh & of course I love all the photos.
Thanks Jaime! I too am glad we did go there. It was the best introduction I could have to Egypt.
This is so interesting and that is a lot of garbage! I love how the people still try to individualize and create in such a glum place.
haha, it IS a lot of garbage! One thing I noticed is that while the place might look, well, like trash, these people have a sense of community and identity that challenges any other community anywhere.
I agree that this is definitely a reality worth writing about. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!
Thanks, Amanda! 🙂
I was in Cairo at the height of the Swine Flu outbreak which resulted in the Government going through and killing all the pigs in the city used by the Christians to eat a lot of the waste. Very sad considering how poor these people already are…
Thanks, Ash! Oh wow, I can imagine how bad it must have affected them economically. Those pigs are one of their limited sources of income.
It’s interesting to see these sides of countries that aren’t often seen by tourists. I really like how they paint and decorate their balconies uniquely – that’s a great idea.
I like the balcony paintings too. It’s a way to express their individuality and their sense of identity. This slum is a place worth experiencing.
Im more than positive, that each city around the globe has its own “ugly side”. But in this case, the only thing that makes me sad is that it is referred to as the “christian slum”. I mean that implies segregation on the grounds of religious views… However, that cave cathedral looks stunning!
House, well, literally they ARE segregated based on their religious views. While today many religious views live in relative harmony through Cairo, in the past, this was not the case.
I’m glad that you wrote about this and took photos. I feel there is a tendency to gloss over poverty.
True, there’s that tendency, but as we know, the pretty is not the only side she should pay attention. The other face can teach us just as much, if not more, about the places we visit.
hey Norbert , i really enjoyed the way u described that hidden side of Egypt 🙂 …as an Egyptian i always wonder how could foreigners perceive how Egypt looks like nowadays .. let me till U something , the slum city u visited is repetitive all over egypt , for me it’s very clear : It’s not a matter of racism against coptic christians but it’s a matter of a regime Failure in understanding ppl needs & problems . the garbage city is everywhere in Egypt … while sometimes there is wuts more complicated & irresistible . u can find ppl living in cemeteries , huts made out of garbage … no pluming , electrical, water ..systems .
wut seems very interesting 4 me the way u described the painted balconies 🙂 , and i’m doing some research in this part …and wanna ask u : as a foreigner do u have extra visual reading of balconies of slums ?
Hi Asmaa –
Sorry for the delayed response. THanks for sharing your knowledge and point of view on Garbage City and other slums in Egypt. Regarding your question… As a foreigner I saw the balconies as a way to identify themselves from the rest, while still following some norm that is common throughout the community. The paintings can represent so many things that go from simple artistic expression to deep symbolism. Balconies are the threshold between the private and the outer spaces. The owners can express themselves (and do their private chores) in their own private space while still seen by everyone on the public space.
Are you familiar with the term ‘poorism’?
Poverty tourism. It happens a lot, especially with countries where poverty is highly visible.
Hi, I visited garbage city, or Manshiyat Naser, back in 2005. I loved Egypt, everyone was so nice to me and my dad but there was something very very disturbing about what I saw there at Garbage City that has stayed with me for years.
The Coptic Christians have been persecuted in Egypt for a thousand years and this was kind of the ultimate symbol of it. And when the Coptic children would smile and welcome you into their “garbage city” there was something overwhelmingly sad and yet powerful in an indomitable spirit sort of way.
And it makes me even more sad that we can’t comment on what is blindingly obvious in the Islamic world without being scolded for being islamophobic. Truth is the new hate speech/blasphemy in the west today.
Your name says everything and demonstrates the heart of the people in “Garbage City.” I, too, traveled there around 2005 and was touched by the sense of community. The Coptic Christians truly demonstrate that there is dignity in honest work and have a recognition that labor actually adds value and purpose to one’s life. I did not sense sadness as much as dedication to making the most of one’s life. To my western nose, the smells in most of the streets were acrid, but I was highly impressed by the regard the community had for the sacred. I was impressed with the numbers attending the church services several times a day and the beauty and evidence of HARD WORK that had gone into constructing and ornamenting their places of worship. Like anywhere, parents were rearing their children the best they knew how and respect was an admirable trait among all. We were able to see products created from the discards. And, like you said, kindness and gentleness abounded. Now that we are seeing the ravages of homelessness, hopelessness and seeming insignificance in so many peoples’ lives, particularly in some of our most beautiful large cities in the United States, the commitment to righteousness shines brightly in “Garbage City” despite material lack. Please continue to pray for protection of the Coptic Christians and the Light they are bringing into the lives of others. May you be abundantly blessed.
never thought I would read such a beautiful article about this place. makes you think of the uniqueness of it and its people.
God is for everyone even thos in garbage city
This is a horrible story to make sports stories you need to fix this.
Not sure what you mean by “sports stories,” but please, tell me what is horrible about this that I “need” to fix?
I am writing a novel in free verse in which “Garbage City” plays an important extended cameo. I appreciate this travelogue greatly for the images—written and visual—that it provides. I plan to be there in the coming months, crossing over from the country next door, where I live.
i think it’s disrespectful and short-sighted for visitors to turn these people’s homes and lifestyle into a tourist destination. Only Westerners would think its “adventurous” to visit a slum for Egyptian garbage collectors. Whoever wrote this article, visited Manshiyat Naser, and considered the city and it’s people a novelty should be ashamed of themselves for advocating poverty tourism.