Skip to main content

Best American Travel Writing series

The entryway to the church of Saint Simon the Tanner.

Garbage City

Perched atop the Moqattam Cliffs, where Pharaonic slaves cut limestone for the pyramids, the Monastery of Saint Simon and its accompanying cathedral boast a commanding view of Cairo. On a smog free day, if you peek around the cliffs to the south, you can see clear to the Great Pyramids of Giza. Looking west, you have a fine view of more recent history; you can almost throw a rock at the Citadel of Salah Ed-Din or into the endless expanse of tombs that make up el-Arafa—the City of the Dead. On the western horizon, the Cairo Tower stands apart from the deceptively modern skyline of downtown. Right below your feet, largely invisible to the outside world, you'll find Izbet Az-Zabaleen. The Garbage City, as it's known in English, is a hive of entrepreneurial recyclers called zabaleen, literally "garbage people," nestled at the edge of Manshiet Nasser, a teeming slum on Cairo's eastern outskirts.


The Hinnom Valley, looking west from the Jerusalem’s Old City. (Ian W. Scott / CC BY-SA 2.0).

Looking for Judas

We had been looking for Hakeldama for close to an hour, wandering through deep, desertic, geological gouges stubbled with little merkins of shrubbery and low gray trees that look squashed and drained of chlorophyll. The sun did strange things to the landscape here, vivifying the dominating grays and sands, weakening the greens, and walling off thousands of hilltop and hillside houses behind shimmering heat-haze force fields.