From my new article for Christianity Today’s Behemoth publication:
The Pyramids of Giza used to be in the middle of the desert. Eventually Cairo’s urban sprawl pushed right up to the Sphinx. The Citadel of Saladin towers over the city. The southern approach requires an overpass straddling the City of the Dead. In Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum and its famed mummies were overrun with the bedlam of a revolution.
Tourism has dropped dramatically since then, but intrepid travelers can hardly help notice the encroachment of squalor on the glories of antiquity.
What most miss is the reversal: A glory rising out of the garbage. To create it, 40 years ago one man had to literally trudge through a pigsty. Today it is simpler to reach the massive cave church complex in the Muqattam Mountains on the eastern edge of Cairo. But the journey still requires a pungent assault on the senses.
Women and children pick through 15,000 tons of the city’s collected refuse, sorting out recyclable waste from the biodegradables useful for wandering livestock. Men haul burlap trash bags twice their size into garbage trucks poised to tip from overfill…
The article tells the story of how a Coptic Orthodox priest inhabited this world and gave birth to one of Egypt’s most beautiful sites.
Please click here to read the full article and see the photos at The Behemoth.
One of the distinctive marks of a Coptic Christian is the cross tattoo worn on the wrist. Sometimes applied as early as forty days after birth (and following baptism), the tattoo is a permanent identification marker signaling to all the faith and community belonging of the bearer.
Girgis Ghobrial is an electrical engineer by training and a tattooist by passion. For over twenty-three years he had made a ministry of applying the tattoo to the wrists of Copts.
This is his shop at the St. Simon Monastery in the Muqattam Mountains east of Cairo. The location deserves its own description, but in short it is the recently developed church complex dedicated to serving the poor of ‘Garbage City’. This community of Coptic Christians has long been the trash collectors of Cairo, recycling over 90% of collected waste.
Ghobrial contributes to the ministry with his skills and time. He is present at the monastery every Friday and Sunday for services, charging around $4 US for a cross tattoo and $25 US for a more elaborate tattoo, such as in the picture below.
All proceeds are donated to the monastery, and if a customer is unable to pay, he offers his trade at reduced prices or for free. Ghobrial made certain to emphasize the cleanliness of his operation. Every needle is replaced for each new job.
Mina, with the cross tattooed on his arm in the picture above, said the operation does not hurt very much. As for motivation, he was getting the same image a friend of his bears. Many of the area youth were milling around the booth. Tattoos, they say, are just a part of the local culture, usually among youths in poorer areas. Most of their friends chose to do so, and they imitate. Being Christians, however, their choices tend to be crosses or images of the saints.
Local priests, they report, do not provide any special encouragement for or against tattoos, even the common one on the wrist. The tattoo booth, however, signals an official acceptance of the practice, and its location is right before the entryways to the two main churches – both in caves in the mountains – which seat tens of thousands of worshippers each.
In the Bible, in Leviticus 19:28, the following command is issued:
You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.
It should be noted, however, that a few verses earlier is another command, seemingly much less important:
Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you.
In the New Testament, I Corinthians 6:19 declares the body to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, without any reference to tattoos but with the designation the body belongs to God and is meant for his honor.
Does a tattoo of any nature honor God? Do the tattoos of these Coptic Christians?
If part of the Christian life is the imitation of God, perhaps Isaiah 49:17 is useful to note:
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.
Surely this verse is neither command nor outright license for Christians to get tattoos, but it does put the matter somewhat in perspective. If God signals his love for his people through the image of a tattoo, perhaps the Copts’ love for God displayed on their wrists is equally acceptable.
All the same, I don’t like it very much. Why do something you can never get rid of?
Hmmm, but is that not also the demand, result, and promise of faith?
Demand: Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. (Luke 14:28, 33)
Result: Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:3-4)
Promise: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Perhaps a tattoo of faith is easier, but its glory is far less. Either way, let its mark be a choice made in freedom.
Emma’s Saliib (Cross; Emma is our daughter, imitating her friends) – February 26, 2010