Cairo monastery combines spirituality, miracles
Cairo - The road to the Monastery of St Simon the Tanner in southern Cairo is never easy. People must pass heaps of rubbish and dirt along a bumpy, often-deserted road to reach the monastery.
Soon after arriving, however, visitors are assured the rough journey was not for nothing because they have reached one of the most overlooked wonders of Egypt.
Located in the heart of Mokattam hills, St Simon Monastery is not a traditional building constructed with bricks and cement but rather is a set of caves dug into the hills, contributing to its exquisite nature.
The allure of the monastery is not about its magnificent structure, the natural colours of the rocks making its walls and ceilings or about its pews orderly placed under and between the rocks. It is about the bottomless tangible spirituality that fills its spaces.
“People come here because they want to see the power of God, which was manifest in the ability of a helpless tanner to move the mountain,” said Father Pola, the priest responsible for the monastery. “The tanner managed to do this because his heart was full of faith.”
From inside, the monastery feels like a God-made work, rather than one made by man. It is associated with Simon, a tanner who lived in the tenth century when the Muslim Fatimid Caliph al-Muizz Lideenillah (953-975) ruled Egypt and Abraham the Syrian led the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
Legend has it that the caliph often invited religious leaders for intellectual debates. During one such session, in which Abraham participated, someone quoted the verse where Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel: “He replied, ‘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.”
The man challenged Abraham to prove his religion right by moving the mountain. The caliph asked the patriarch to do the same, threatening to kill the caliph and other Christians if he did not move the mountain.
The patriarch asked for three days to complete the miracle. Having asked a group of monks, priests and elders to stay in the church for three days for penance, Abraham was praying when he had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who told him to go to the market.
“There thou wilt find a one-eyed man carrying on his shoulder a jar full of water. Seize him, for he it is at whose hands this miracle shall be manifested,” the Virgin Mary told the patriarch.
Abraham went to the market where he found the one-eyed man — Simon the Tanner, who had plucked out his eye because of a passage from the Bible: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
Simon told Abraham to take his priests, the caliph and soldiers to the mountain. He asked him to cry out “O Lord, have mercy” three times and each time make the sign of the cross over the mountain.
The patriarch did as he was told and, to his surprise, the mountain lifted. The caliph said to Abraham: “O patriarch, I have recognised the correctness of your faith.” After the miracle, the patriarch looked for Simon but he had disappeared and no one could find him.
This was more than 1,000 years ago, when Simon the Tanner Monastery came into being. Now, some people question the story but this does not prevent hundreds of people visiting the site every day.
Tourists, especially from Asia, arrive in droves, drawn by the miraculous nature of the place and its spirituality. “I really think God is around everywhere here,” said Alexius Hardi, a visitor from Indonesia.
He and fellow Indonesian tourists approached Father Pola and kissed his hand, asking for a blessing. Behind the priest, a towering engraving of Jesus dominated the western wall of the monastery.
The monastery contains five churches, or more accurately ecclesiastical caves, each of which was discovered by archaeologists separately and where Christian prayers are said.
In the middle of the monastery courtyard, a huge rock has the words “If all those people fall silent, the rocks will speak out” engraved on it.
These words are an honest expression of the vivacious rocks of the site, a liveliness and beauty that stands in stark contrast to monastery surroundings.
Around St Simon the Tanner Monastery, hundreds of tonnes of garbage are taken to what is known as the Garbage Collectors’ Village for sorting, recycling and disposal. The piles of waste mesh with nearby southern Cairo slums and stand in stark contrast to the beauty inside the monastery and even the deeper beauty inherent in its extended history.
Father Pola said he has hopes the government will build a new road or bridge to link the monastery with the outer world, one that allows visitors to avoid the heaps of rubbish on the road.
“Some tourists leave, even before coming here, because of these wastes,” Father Pola said. “I am sure one day our government will see the beauty in this monastery with my own eyes.”