Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Jesus in Egypt

Egyptians believe God chose their country as a haven for the infant Jesus Christ when he was fleeing the soldiers of Herod, king of Israel. Jenny Jobbins traces the footsteps of the Holy Family

Why did God tell Joseph the Carpenter to take his family to Egypt? The answer may lie in the fact that, apart from being a land of plenty with no shortage of natural resources, Egypt was traditionally seen to display a high level of cultural integration and religious tolerance. As far back as the New Kingdom (c. 1567-1080 BC), when Egypt commanded a vast empire that included Syria and northern Mesopotamia, Asiatic gods like Baal of Canaan and Astarte and Huron of Syria were worshipped popularly in Luxor alongside the Egyptian gods Amun, Mut and Khonsu. On Elephantine island in Aswan, a Jewish community thrived in the sixth century BC within a stone's throw of the huge temple of Khnum; and in Memphis quarters of the ancient city were marked out for Phoenicians, Syrians and Jews who occupied these quarters and built temples to their gods. Egypt was a multi-cultural society in which all were welcome.

The traditional story of the Holy Family's journey through Egypt is taken from the account of the fifth century Pope Theophilus, who wrote down what the Virgin Mary told him when she appeared to him in a vision. The Holy Family journeyed south from Palestine across the wilderness, avoiding the main road for fear of capture. They entered Egypt at modern-day Rafah, where a lone sycamore tree is said to have survived since their visit.

According to Theophilus, the Holy Family then reached Rhinocolorum, now Al-Arish. From there they followed the old Horus Road along the Mediterranean coast to the fortified town of Filusiat, now called Al-Zaraniq, where the Byzantines later built three churches. From Al-Zaraniq they continued to Al-Kalse, once known as Ras Cassion, and from there to Al- Mohamedieh. Their last station in Sinai was on its northwest coast near the edge of the Delta at the city of Pelusium, then a busy port, now the sprawling ruin of Tell Al-Farama. Here archaeologists have discovered traces of several Roman churches.

The Holy Family then travelled south along the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, which has long since dried up. They stayed in the city of Bubastis, now the ruin of Tell Al-Basta near the modern city of Zagazig (see neighbouring story).

They then went on to Mostorod, known as Al-Mahma, which means bathing place, as here the Virgin is said to have bathed Jesus. There is a church in Mostorod named after the Virgin Mary, built in the 12th century and recently restored. This road, however, was unsafe, and the family turned north again towards the town of Philippos, now Bilbeis. There they were warmly received.

Now they travelled northwest across the Delta. When they reached the branch of the Nile which flowed north to meet the sea at Tamiathis, now Damietta, they embarked on a ferry boat which took them to Sebennytos, near the present-day town of Sammanoud. The Holy Family continued north to Burullus, in the region known as the Valley of Sysbann. On their way they came to a village where the inhabitants did not welcome them. However, they were courteously received in the next village, Al-Matlaah.

The next place, Sakha, which lay in the western Delta, later went by the Coptic name of Pekhalssous, which means the foot of Jesus. Here the Virgin Mary is believed to have held her son on a rock which retained his footprint. A relic in the church dedicated to the Virgin bears such a mark.

An icon from the Hanging Church in Old Cairo showing the Holy Family travelling in Egypt
photos: Nabil Selim Atalla, courtesy of Lehnert and Landrock

The Holy Family moved on, crossing the most westerly branch of the Nile into the Western Desert until they reached Scetis, later called Wadi Al-Natrun. The monastic settlements established later in Wadi Al-Natrun once numbered almost 50. Today only four remain.

They left Wadi Al-Natrun for the place where Cairo now stands, crossing the River Nile to its east bank and journeying to Heliopolis, the Greek name for the ancient Pharaonic city of On. Today this suburb of Cairo is called Ein Shams, which in Arabic means the eye of the sun. From there the family went to Matarieh, where they sheltered under a sycamore tree. The story says that as the Virgin Mary sat there, a spring of water gushed out of the ground. There is still an old and much decayed sycamore at the site called "Mary's Tree."

The next station for the Holy Family was Al-Zeitoun, and then Al-Zweila. Travelling south they reached Babylon, nowadays called Old Cairo. It was said that when they entered the town some ancient statues fell, and the governor then tried to find them and kill the child. Joseph and Mary hid in a cave: this cave is now the crypt of the church of Abu Serga, or Saint Sergius.

In Maadi, south of Old Cairo, is a church which goes by the name of "the Virgin's Church of the Ferry." From here the family took a ferry across to Memphis, once Egypt's ancient capital, and embarked on a boat which would carry them on the prevailing north wind, against the flow of the Nile, to Upper Egypt.

Their first stop was on the west bank near the village now called Ashnein Al-Nassara, at a place called Al-Garnous, where a monastery was later built. A church dedicated to the Virgin was built at Deir Al-Garnous in the 19th century, on the west side of which is a deep well believed to have provided the family with water.

After four days they were on the move again, this time to a place later called Abai Issous, or the "house of Jesus." This is the site of the present-day village of Sandafa, north of Al- Bahnassa. From here they travelled on to Samalout, and from there they crossed to the east bank of the Nile and rested on Gabal Al-Tair, "mountain of birds," at the place where the monastery of the Virgin now stands. The Holy Family took shelter in a cave which is now covered by the ancient church. Coptic legend says that while the family was resting in the shade of the mountain, Jesus stretched out his hand to hold up a large rock which was about to fall on them. His palm print remained on the rock, but this relic is now lost.

Two kilometres south of Gabal Al-Tair is an acacia tree which stoops until its leafy green branches sweep the ground and then turn upwards. This tree, called "the worshipper" by local people, is said to have taken its strange shape from bowing to the Christ child as He passed.

The Holy Family continued their journey south, travelling as far as Bir Al-Sahaba, where they crossed the Nile again to Hermopolis Magna, now Al-Ashmounein. There, a good man sheltered them, for which he got into a good deal of trouble. This was caused by the collapse of a huge copper idol which was thought to be inhabited by evil spirits. When it broke, the spirits escaped. The local priests were infuriated, and the family was obliged to move on.

At Al-Ashmounein is the monastery of the Virgin associated with Wadamun, a young man from the southern town of Armant, who declared the divinity of the Christ Child and was put to death by the priests. Their next stop was Dairout Umm Nakhla, which means the mother of palms, and where the date palms are believed to have bowed to Jesus as He passed.

Now they crossed to the east bank again and reached Abu Haneis, where they paused to quench the thirst of the child at a well since called Sahaba, which means cloud. It was given the name because the mother of God was "moving like a swift cloud in search of water." The Holy Family rested at a hill still known as Kom Maria. Nearby is the Church of the Holy Virgin.

The family then crossed the river again and reached the town of Philes, today Daitout Al-Sharif. They were soon driven out and travelled from there to Al-Qusseya, where again the inhabitants were unfriendly, so they fled to Meir, and here at last they were hospitably received. They travelled east into the desert to Mount Qussqam, and this was perhaps the most important of all their stations.

The family stayed at Mount Qussqam for six months and 10 days. This place was later called Muharraq, which means burnt, as there was an abundance of grass which had to be burned so food could be grown in its place. Mount Qussqam is called the second Bethlehem, and its church is held to be the first built in Egypt. The cave in which the family sheltered became the altar of the Church of the Virgin Mary. This church was never officially consecrated, since the belief was that it had been consecrated by Jesus. Its library contains an account of the Virgin's appearance to the Patriarch Theophilus.

Here, the story goes, a messenger of the Lord appeared to Joseph and said: "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sought the young child's life." The Holy Family then began the long journey home. They went back through Assiut , and then probably sailed down the Nile to Memphis, landing at what is now Al-Badrashein near the ancient capital. Once again they may have passed through Maadi, Babylon and Heliopolis before crossing the desert to Palestine and, finally, reaching their home town of Nazareth. So was Hosea's prophecy fulfilled: "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

Copts believe the journey through Egypt took three years, while Muslims believe it took seven. An excellent version of the story is related in Be Thou There: The Holy Family's Journey in Egypt, edited by Gawdat Gabra and published by The American University in Cairo Press.

BIBLICAL POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY: The Syrian Orthodox Church maintains that when Jesus Christ was born, the region of his birth was in the south of Syria and was known as Bilad Al-Sham, the Levant. The language Jesus spoke was Aramaic, the old Syrian language. "We love Him and belong to Him. Nobody can monopolise Him," Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Zacka I said recently.

In his book Syrian Christ, Lebanese writer Ibrahim Mitry Rahbani advanced a political perspective on the basis of Christ's nationality as a Syrian. Syrian Christ, which ran through 11 reprints in the six years following its publication in English in 1916, has been published for the first time in Arabic by Amwag Publishing House in Beirut.

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