Coptic tattoos. The triangle of tradition. Between religion, culture and history

Loreto-Jerusalem-Cairo “The triangle of tradition” These three cities have in common the tradition of Christian tattooing, carried out by hand, based on wooden molds that represent mainly religious symbols. For further information, on the blog section, read also: “Traditions in comparison” and “The pilgrims and the tattoo of Loreto


Sui tetti di Piazza Tahrir


I’ve decided to take this trip to Cairo, after deepening my study on Christian and Coptic Christian religious tattoos (Loreto and Jerusalem). Cairo is a place where the Coptic Christians are a minority of the population (just 10% of the total population) whilst 90% of the population is Muslim. This tiny minority keeps its faith strong, despite many difficulties and constant threats. Cairo is the capital of Egypt with 9.5 million inhabitants and it is famous all over the world for its spectacular Pyramids, the Sphinx of Giza and the majestic Egyptian Museum which contains one of the richest collections of historical artifacts, including mummies and the objects of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Despite being a World Heritage Site, the Pyramids where not the reason of my journey to Cairo.

Instead, my aim was this small Christian minority that in the Coptic area of Cairo continues to get religious and Christian tattoos, thus affirming its belief and living in faith and prayer.

Before starting my journey, I must admit that I had second thoughts and almost cancelled my trip, since the political situation of Cairo appeared particularly unstable and tense. After the political and social upheavals occurred in January 2011, continuous threats and attacks have taken place since then, with the last episode occurring just 5 days before my departure (a car at high speed, filled with explosives, hit other cars in front of the oncology institute and caused the death of 20 people while injuring others 45). But the passion for what I do, my instinct and perhaps a little recklessness on my part too, made me decide to stick with my original plan – as I also thought that if I had not seized the moment, perhaps this trip would no longer be possible in the future

Friday, 9th August

I landed in Cairo. From the plane I admire the majesty of the Pyramids, but what strikes me the most is the size of the city and the density of the houses and the buildings joined together. As I take the taxi to the hotel, I can immediately experience the Egyptian chaos and I get a taste of the Egyptian lifestyle awaiting me during the next few days. My hotel is right on Tahrir Square, the same place where all protests against President Mubarak took place in 2011 (and this is still the location where all protesters gather in Cairo). The first thing I notice, upon entering the hotel, is the metal detector and two police officers on duty for security purposes 24/7. While, on one hand, their presence is very reassuring, on the other, it makes me even more aware of the critical and unstable situation of the city. As I decide not to dwell on this thought, I leave my luggage in my room and opt to go out for a walk, to understand the approach of Egyptians with a tourist travelling alone. As I walk along the crowded streets, I feel under scrutiny but I guess people are more curious about my tattoos than anything else. I feel a bit bewildered, immersed in the noise of car horns, with hundreds of people walking next to me, the music coming from the boats sailing along the Nile and the loud sound of the sirens of police cars which find it difficult to make their way amidst the heavy city traffic.



Tramonto su Qasr El Nil bridge

Piazza Tahrir

Well, Cairo it’s just like I’ve imagined it!!! I grab a bite to eat and return to the hotel for an early night as I need to be well rested for the next day when my mission would begin: the search for the Coptic Christian tattoo in Cairo.


Saturday 10th August
From my previous researches, I knew that this tradition is still practiced only in two places: in the Coptic area of Mar Girgis and in Muqattam. Together with my Egyptian guide I go to Mar Girgis. The tattoo artist should be found outside the church of Saint George. After asking for some information (having to tip too, in order to get somewhere!), we finally arrive at the point where he should be, but there’s no trace of him! We ask around and we got told that he should be there on Sunday. So, despite being a little disappointed, I take this opportunity to visit this place of Christian worship. The word “Coptic” is the modern name to describe the oldest part of the city. This area is located within the walls of the Roman fortress of Babylon dating back to the 3rd Century B.C. The area is heavily guarded by armed forces and police (in April 2017 it suffered a terrorist attack with many casualties) and it is crossed by quiet alleys and holy places. Among the most interesting buildings that one can visit, there is the Greek Orthodox church of St. George, a saint to whom the Christian population is very devoted.

Chiesa di San Giorgio in Mar Girgis

While I’m visiting this place I notice that many worshippers have tattoos with religious icons: this is great news as it proves that I am in the right place! So I decide to return the day after and for today I will try to find another tattoo artist who should be in the Muqattam area, a place also called “the garbage city”.



The Garbage city is not a tourist site and many local guides will do all they can to avoid taking you there. This area of the town is thriving thanks to the recycling of the garbage of the capital. This area is where the “zebelins” live. The “zebelins” are people who collect the garbage of the whole city and take it home using hand-drawn carts, donkeys and small vehicles. In their homes the sorting begins and whole families contribute to this business. Women and children are in charge of selecting organic waste while men, instead, take care of plastic, cardboard and iron waste which will be mainly sold to Chinese corporations always looking for raw materials. The recycling system here is extremely effective: 80% of all the incoming material gets recycled (compared to the average 30% of all European main cities). From the religion point of view too, 80% of the inhabitants of the Garbage City are Christians. In fact, along the bumpy roads, surrounded by garbage and degradation and children playing in the dirt, I notice people tattooed with sacred images. As we continue this chaotic journey, we leave the chaos and the squalor of the shanty town to reach the top of the hill, where we find a place where ancient traditions embrace the memory.

Garbage city

Le vie di Garbage city

Immondizia ovunque

                       SAINT SAMAAN
The church of Saint Samaan is the largest Coptic church in the Middle East. It was built in 1947 and it is entirely carved into the stone and it can contain up to 15,000 people. On the inside, it is decorated with biblical reliefs carved in stone and it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Simon, whose relics are kept here.

Chiesa di San Simone in Muqattam

 Outside this charming sacred place, working in a very tiny workshop (1.5 sq mt) I finally found Girgis and his Coptic tattoos.


Gabriel Girgis works as an engineer in Cairo. Every afternoon, after finishing his day-job, and during the holidays, he crosses the Garbage City to reach the monastery of Saint Simon on the slopes of Muqattam. Here, in his very tiny workshop located in front of the monastery, he does his second – and much-loved – job as a tattoo artist. The workshop is very small, with just two chairs, one for him and one for the customer. On the table there are needles, ink and various materials used to tattoo. All around, a display of the tablets with Coptic Christian religious icons that Girgis has been using for about 32 years, as stencils for his tattoos.
As soon as I arrive I have to witness a rather strange and cruel scene for us Westerners but quite normal and heartfelt for the locals: Girgis is tattooing a small cross (as the tradition goes) on the wrist of a baby who is perhaps not even 1 year old! Girgis gives me the permission to watch the procedure and while the baby’s father firmly holds the arm of the crying baby, in about 4 or 5 seconds Girgis performs the tattoo with an incredible ability. This practice can be considered sheer violence for many of us and for a moment I thought the same too. But then, as I reflected once again, I understood how important and symbolic that tattooed sign is for those people who reside in a place where it’s not easy to live the Christian faith. With Girgis I immediately have a great feeling: I ask him about his tablets and we talk about our jobs, so similar and linked to one another by the same tradition. Suddenly, out of the blue, he stops and asks me: “would you like to get a tattoo?” For a moment I remain hesitant (mainly for hygiene concerns). I guess he can sense my discomfort so he proceeds to show me the needles, the disposable caps and the ink. At this point I sit down and, in no time at all, I also have my little Egyptian Coptic cross tattooed on my wrist. I am very happy even though I think that the icing on the cake would be to bring back some tablets to enrich my collection as proof of this ancient tradition. Well, after chatting a bit more and drinking a cup of tea, we become friends and “the miracle” happens: Girgis gives me six of his Coptic tablets! Now I can really return to my hotel, happy as a child in a candy store.

Girgis tattoo shop in Muqattam

Tavolette copte usate per lo stampo(stencil)

L' iniziazione ,Girgis esegue una piccola Croce sul polso di un bambino


La piccola Croce tatuata sul polso del bimbo

Il mio momento


I fall asleep tired but so grateful to have been able to meet Girgis and to live this wonderful experience.

Sunday 11th August

The next day it’s Sunday 11th August. I set off again, trying to find the other tattoo artist. I arrive near Saint George’s church and I see a heap of people around a beach umbrella along the alley. As I get closer, I can see a boy who is tattooing himself.


I move to the side to observe his work, but my presence is immediately noticed and while I take pictures and videos, Magdi – this is the name of the tattoo artist – turns around and asks me if I’m Italian. While I reply in my broken English, he carries on working. Unlike Girgis, Magdi works on the street under a beach umbrella. On his stall there are the tools of the trade: self-made small machines as well as needles, ink and disposable caps, like Girgis. And obviously the sacred icon tablets. Gloves are nowhere to be seen here… While there, I witness again a tattoo made on a very small child whose family tries to caress him to calm him down. Unfortunately I can only talk briefly with Magdi as he’s very busy: it’s Sunday and there are many worshippers who want to get tattooed. I can still manage to introduce myself, take some pictures and – last but not least – return to my hotel with three other Coptic tablets.

This trip meant the completion of the triangle Loreto – Jerusalem – Cairo. These are very far apart places but with traditions linked to one another; different countries but all constantly threatened by terrorist fundamentalism. Yet, these powerful signs and symbols rise above the fear and continue to write our history, like they have always done in the past.

The ancient tattoo is not a fleeting fad but it is the deepest expression of our being.