It’s 6 p.m. in Cairo’s Garbage City slum, and hundreds of people have gathered outside St. Sama’an Cathedral for the evening service. The crowd, which has been building for hours, is waiting patiently for Father Sama’an Ibrahim, the famous Coptic priest and founder of the church. It’s Thursday, which as everyone in Garbage City knows, is exorcism night.
The majority of the people gathered in this packed courtyard are not actually Christian. They’re Muslims who have come in the hopes that Father Sama’an can expel their demons. Groups of women in hijabs huddle together in silence, and every 30 minutes or so, a minibus arrives bearing more pilgrims. As darkness approaches, you can feel the anticipation in the air. One woman lets out a bloodcurdling scream, and two of her friends rush over to quiet her down.
Hamid, an old Muslim man who is uncomfortable giving his surname, sits on a bench, his crutches propped up next to him. “I am here because my body feels like someone is shaking me,” he says. “I want to meet Father Sama’an.” Hamid, like many here, didn’t come by himself. Two young Coptic women from Cairo found him on the side of the road and decided to help him get here. “There are bad spirits that live inside others,” says Vivian, 17, one of the women. She believes Father Sama’an’s abilities “come from God.”
Carved into the rock face of Mokattam Mountain, St. Sama’an Cathedral itself is more like a stadium, with seats that rise up into the sky to form an echoing amphitheater. As the crowd makes its way inside, Arabic hymns start to filter out through the large central entrance tunnel. At around 7 p.m., Father Sama’an, an old, bespectacled man with a flowing gray beard starts making his way across the courtyard to a Mercedes that has pulled up directly in front of the tunnel. This will be is his ride to the altar. The crowd makes a path for him and waves.
“His spirit is very powerful,” my translator whispers to me.
Sama’an Ibrahim’s power to heal is the stuff of legend, and when he makes his way to the stage after his big entrance, he does nothing to discourage this perception. “I have raised four people from the dead,” he declares during his sermon. “There were witnesses.” The audience isn’t shocked. They’ve all heard this before.
According to lore, Father Sama’an founded St. Sama’an Cathedral about two decades ago, after a local asked him to come to Garbage City. Once here, the story goes, he found a page from the Biblical book of Acts on the ground, which led him to an ancient cave church amidst the mounds of refuse that give Garbage City its name. He claims the Coptic Pope Shenoda told him it was a divine signal. In the years since, Sama’an has turned the little alcove into the biggest church by capacity in the entire Middle East, complete with Hollywood-caliber camera and lighting equipment.
Everyone here seems to have a story or two to tell of Father Sama’an’s divine connection. Local businessman Edhim says Father Sama’an resurrected him when he was 8 years old; Naroz, 62, who works in another Garbage City church, claims to have seen Father Sama’an breathe life back into a woman who was crushed by a stone. Hundreds more have tales to share about minor infirmities that were healed through his supernatural powers, and it drives people to the church week in and week out.
Egyptian families generally consider exorcisms—in Arabic, ekhrag el shayateen (output of demons)—a very private matter, so it is difficult to determine how many people participate in them throughout the country. However, places like St. Sama’an Cathedral and Father Makary Younan’s St. Mark’s Church—the two major hubs for weekly Coptic exorcisms—are known to attract scores of exorcism seekers from Cairo and the surrounding areas every week.
Additionally, some Muslim sheikhs perform their own form of exorcisms, which generally consist simply of reading the Quran over the “possessed.” Just a few blocks from Father Sama’an’s church, for instance, Sheikh Mahmoud Tahaa, 35, claims to have exorcised many demons. “People come to me when they think they have a devil inside them,” Sheikh Tahaa says. “I know if it’s a devil if it speaks to me.” Asked what a devil sounds like, he says, “They speak no Arabic or English,” but rather a “devil language.” He is, however, quick to add that in many cases, people just “need to go to a doctor.”
“There does exist healing by the Quran, and whoever says otherwise is a liar,” Sayyed Attiyah, one of a number of Muslim sheikhs who exorcize in Cairo, recently told Reuters. “If the Quran cannot heal someone, then there is nothing else that can.”
But sometimes one exorcism just doesn’t seem to do the trick.
“If you are sick, you go to a sheikh,” explains Ahmed Ibrahim Sahim, a 51-year-old Muslim, outside the St. Sama’an. “And if you’re still sick after a reading from the Quran, you go to a Christian.” Ahmed, like so many others here, has made the trip to Garbage City to get Father Sama’an to heal his friend Mustafa Ibrahim, 51, who he thinks is possessed by a demon. Their friend Zakaria Rasheed, 49, a Christian, accompanies them. Mustafa shakes violently and lets out a slight yelp as his friends try to calm him down. Mustafa’s sheikh had tried to exorcise his demon, they say, but had failed, so they’ve come to Father Sama’an as a last resort. They know he’s a powerful man, and if he can’t get the demon out of him, no one can.
In the center of the courtyard, Malik, 21, is burning paper on the stone floor, or what he calls “contracts with the devil,” made by deceptive sheikhs when Muslim women go to them for help from God. Unless these contracts are burned, Malik warns, Father Sama’an can’t help them. (Egypt’s high rate of illiteracy—16 million illiterates in a country of approximately 81 million—could be a contributing factor to these myths.) One Copt later told me these contracts are meant to help one evil spirit vanquish another evil spirit, by becoming bound to their human host, though I wasn’t able to find any precedent for this practice in theological texts.
This particular Thursday is an especially busy day. Scores of people are here for the exorcisms, most of whom are poor-to-middle-class Muslims with nowhere else to turn.
Inside, after a couple hours of sermons, prayers and hymns, Father Sama’an is finally ready to move to the adjacent room in the auditorium for the main event. Exorcism hopefuls, along with their friends and family, press themselves up against the door as volunteers attempt to regulate how many people are let inside at a time. Many are desperate to convince the bouncers of their worthiness. Some pretend to faint or have seizures, others let out yelps. They are let in a few at a time, on a first-come-first-served basis.
Pressed against the wall, I see Zakaria and Mustafa passing by. They wave as they get pulled inside. One man coming out of the room has sweat beads running down his face. His arm is around his friend for support and he seems to be in serious pain. He looks worse than anyone going in.
Inside, family members, friends and church volunteers sing and chant over the “possessed” individuals, as Father Sama’an makes his way from person to person.
In the back corner near the exit staircase a man who has recently gone through an exorcism lies on the floor grunting and flexing his muscles, his eyes nearly popping out of his face. I take care not to step on him. Near the baptismal (the exorcism room doubles as the baptismal room), two women are brought in shaking, their heads banging into each other. They’re laid on the floor and covered in a blanket until Father Sama’an can attend to them. At least one is from the group I saw in the courtyard earlier. In my peripheral vision I spot Zakaria and Mustafa. I tap Mustafa on the shoulder and he smiles, grabbing my hand. This is what he’s been waiting for all night.
Father Sama’an reaches Mustafa and taps him on the head with his cross. With what appears to be a Magic Marker, Father Sama’an marks Mustafa’s wrists and forehead. He mutters a brief prayer, sprinkles some holy water out of a reused water bottle on his head, and sends him on his way. His was an easy exorcism.
Eventually Father Sama’an makes his way to the women lying on the floor. He stands one of them up, taps her on the head with his cross, marks her wrists and forehead, sprinkles water on her and prays. She doesn’t appear any different. Then, suddenly, a slap. The old man smacks her across the face. No response. Slap. He packs another wallop on the return. She’s laid down again on the floor, where she writhes around, appearing to have a seizure, and is then carried away.
Outside in the nearby parking lot, families and cabbies sit around waiting for their relatives and clients to finish with their exorcisms so they can go home. I notice that many of the people leaving the chamber look more stressed, sweaty and anguished than they did before they went in.
A few days after my visit, Father Sama’an fell in his residence and was put on mandatory bed rest. For the foreseeable future, all exorcisms have been put on hold.