The Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner lays nestled in the shadow of Cairo’s Muqattam Hills, in an unbearably squalid neighborhood (unofficially known as “Garbage City”) that is home to tens of thousands of mostly Christian trash collectors for the massive urban sprawl. It’s not an easy trip for visitors to get there, but once the front gates are open, it’s clear that something special is inside. St. Simon’s is an active and thriving monastic community, but it is also a sort of celebrity sacred space, with two large congregational meeting halls literally carved from the Muqattam Hills—the smaller of which regularly holds 10-15,000 spirited worshippers for weekly meetings.

Equally amazing are the massive mural carvings of Christian motifs that fill the surface of most of the monastery’s towering cliff walls: here is the Resurrection, here is Jesus calming the storm, and here is St. Simon himself, leading the Coptic Christian patriarch and his congregation in prayers that Copts believe literally moved the Muqattam Hills in the late 10th century, after a do-or-die challenge from the Fatimid ruler of Egypt. The very existence of this monastery and the message of its larger-than-life murals punctuate its role as a neighborhood refuge and as an important meeting place for local Christians—including this massive gathering in November of up to 50,000 people for a night of worship and prayer for Egypt. How can such a place exist in the midst of the Arab world’s most populous country? Who are these people with such a fierce sense of identity both as Christians and as Egyptians?

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