Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 December 2003
Issue No. 670
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In their footsteps

The Holy Family sheltered in a small cave in the mountains near Minya. Sherine Nasr follows in their footsteps through Minya and Gabal Al-Teir

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"Out of Egypt have I called my son" (Matthew 2:15)
We left the city of Minya in the early morning, crossed over to the east bank of the Nile and drove to the Monastery of the Virgin Mary on Gabal Al-Teir. As soon as we crossed the Nile, it was like entering another world: one of serenity, peace and beauty. The narrow road leading to the mountain winds through a patchwork of green fields, hemmed in by the desert and mountains. Nowhere have I experienced such tranquillity, and for a second I thought of stopping the car, wandering through the fields, and staying there for good. I even felt that the people were special, with their genuine smiles and friendly looks. I immediately understood why the Holy Family selected this particular spot to seek refuge from the soldiers of Herod, King of Israel. I, too, felt I was fleeing from the stress, worries and duties of the material world.

During their flight from Palestine into Egypt, a journey that lasted almost three years, the Holy Family did not follow a direct route. Instead, they zig-zagged across the country, repeatedly crossing from the west to the east bank of the Nile. The hazards of the long trip and the scarcity of their resources were not the only problems to surmount. When Egyptians noticed that idols were falling before Jesus, plots were made to kill the Holy Child.

While the Holy Family stayed in some places for long periods of time, as in the Monastery of Al-Moharraq in Assiut where they stayed over six months, other sites were used only as resting places for a day or two. Monasteries were subsequently built on many of these locations, and are currently undergoing restoration and renovation.

On of these sites is the Monastery of St Mary which lies 25 kilometres to the north of Minya on the east bank of the Nile. The monastery is commonly known as the Monastery of Gabal Al-Teir (Mountain of Birds), because according to tradition, huge numbers of migratory birds once flocked to the top of the hills there. It is also known as the "Monastery of the pulley", as pulleys were used to carry visitors up to where the church now lies.

More interesting, however, is that in previous times it was called the "Monastery of the Kaff" (Palm) in accordance with a belief that Jesus left his imprint on a rock in the site.

"A mediaeval manuscript describes a situation in which pagan priests, upon seeing their idols crumbling in front of Jesus, tried to harm the Holy Family by throwing a huge rock at them. Jesus placed his hand on the rock to save his family, leaving his imprint in the stone," explained Mahmoud El-Nabarawi of the Tourist Promotion Office in Minya. He added that many stories have been spun around this rock, which no longer exists. "Some say it is buried under the silt of the Nile while others believe it was taken by the British during their occupation of Egypt and is now kept in store at the British Museum," El-Nabarawi explained.

The monastery, which was built in the fourth century AD by Empress Helena, lies on the top of the mountain, almost 130 metres above the Nile, and is reached by a flight of 166 steps hewn into the rock.

El-Nabarawi took me first to the church of the monastery. In the southeastern corner of the church, cut into the rock, is the cave where Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Joseph were believed to have taken shelter. This cave is the oldest part of the church.

The aisle is separated from the nave by 10 thick columns, each hewn out of rock, surmounted by heavy square capitals dating from the Graeco-Roman period. In the middle of the iconastasis is an icon of the Virgin Mary surrounded by three icons on either side, each portraying two of the disciples. The most ancient icons, dating from 1554, are those of the Virgin Mary carrying the Holy Child and that of St Demiyana and her 40 virgin martyrs.

I was visiting at a quiet time of the year, it seems, as the only other visitors were a mother and her children, who were sitting on one of the benches reading the Bible.

For me, the Monastery of St Mary is different from any other monastery I have ever visited. It is not as spacious as most monasteries -- like Al-Muharraq in Assiut or the monasteries in Wadi Al-Natrun, for example -- and is dominated by the ancient church. Also, unlike other monasteries, this is inhabited by only one monk and two priests, in addition to the abbot.

The breath-taking view of the River Nile makes a pilgrimage to this holy spot a unique experience.

"The tranquillity of the area turns into an atmosphere of buzzing activity overnight when the season for devotion to the Virgin begins," said Bishop Arsanios of Minya and Abu Qurqas. "The ceremony usually starts a month before Easter and lasts for about 10 days. During those 10 days, some two million pilgrims, Christians and Muslims alike, visit the monastery," he added.

To the west of the monastery lies the small village of Gabal Al-Teir, with its narrow, dusty roads and one-storey houses. The village has a desolate feel and the only signs of life are the occasional donkey cart and a few housewives sitting on the thresholds of their houses cutting vegetables or washing clothes at a nearby water pump. According to El-Nabarawi, however, the atmosphere in the village changes completely during the moulid [saint's feast] when the place is packed with pilgrims from Minya and the surrounding villages.

"This is a time to pray and a time to do business as well," said Nabila El-Sayed, a resident of Al-Teir village. "Taxi drivers and felucca owners are on duty almost around the clock. Fast food is served everywhere. Houses near the monastery are rented out to visitors. Dozens of animal sacrifices are offered and Christian families come from all over to baptise their new-born children," said El-Sayed.

In the past the monastery could only be reached by hiring a boat, or waiting for hours for the ferry from the village of Al- Bahio, which faces the monastery on the west side of the Nile. The monastery is now more accessible thanks to a bridge, which was built a few years ago, linking the east and west banks of the Nile. The monastery is also accessible by the Cairo-Assiut eastern desert road, where a side road 35 kilometres north of Minya now reaches the site.

We then moved further south and stopped at Abu Hinnis village near Mallawi, 48 kilometres south of Minya. At that village, the tradition goes, the Holy Family paused to quench the thirst of the Child at a well since called Sahaba, which means 'cloud'. It was given that name because the Virgin Mary was "moving like a swift cloud in search of water". The Holy Family rested at a hill, which is still known as Kom Maria. Nearby is Deir Abu Hinnis (Monastery of Abu Hinnis) where the cave church of Abu Hinnis lies. Founded in the early fifth century, Deir Abu Hinnis was once a flourishing monastery. The oldest parts are its two altars and the Virgin Mary's ancient offering table topped by a marble stone.

Although Minya is significant as far as the route of the Holy Family is concerned, no serious steps have yet been taken to promote or market this kind of tourism. "We all know that we have the best holy sites in the world, that they are historically significant and that their natural surroundings are unsurpassable, but what's next; how can we invest and make something out of it?" asked Samir Metri, a board member of the National Egyptian Heritage Revival Association (NEHRA) that aims to preserve Egyptian heritage. "I first visited the Monastery of Gabal Al-Teir only last year and I was really impressed. I recalled my visit to the Doms Rock in Avignon, in France. The area overlooked by this cathedral is similar to that of Gabal Al- Teir," Metri said. "The historical and religious significance of the two sites [Gabal Al-Teir and Avignon] cannot be compared ... However, the facilities in Avignon are unbelievable in comparison. There are hotels located only a few metres from the site. They have shops selling souvenirs and traditional crafts, and religious and cultural festivals are also held there. Avignon attracts some five million tourists annually and the occupancy rate of hotels is always more than 60 per cent all year around," he explained.

Metri argues that Minya should model itself on other successful tourist sites. "We need to build hotels near the monastery of St Mary and we need to establish small factories to produce crafts to sell to tourists. We don't need financial help from the government, we can get it from foreign countries such as France, for example, which have showed great interest in the project," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Visitors to Gabal Al-Teir and Abu Hinnis could also combine their religious tour with excursions to some interesting Pharaonic sites. From Gabal Al-Teir, pilgrims can easily reach the Frazer tombs, which are located about five kilometres south of the mountain and date back to the fifth and sixth dynasties. Although they are rarely visited by tourists, these plain tombs, overlooking the fields, contain some statues and carved hieroglyphics from the Old Kingdom.

Tombs of later dynasties, dating to the 11th and 12th centuries, are found in Beni Hassan, which is a necropolis on the east bank of the Nile 20 kilometres south of Minya. There are 39 tombs cut into the cliff overlooking the Nile. Reliefs inside the tombs depict everyday activities, including trading, tax collecting and wrestling matches.

The remains of Tel Al-Amarna, 12 kilometres southeast of Mallawi, is another possible excursion. It was once a glorious city that served, for a very short period of time, as the capital of Egypt. "In the 14th century BC, Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti abandoned the gods and priests of Karnak at Thebes and built a new city in the area now known as Tel Al-Amarna to worship Aton, the god of the sun," El- Nabarawi explained. Tel Al-Amarna boasts a necropolis and 25 tombs, some of which have wonderful reliefs.

As our spiritual tour came to an end, we returned to the west bank of the Nile to the city of Minya, which has recently been given a facelift. The six-kilometre Nile promenade has been completely redeveloped and has been transformed into a wide pavement lined with benches and parks.

Until early 1990s Minya, 245 kilometres south of Cairo, was a thriving tourist destination where hotels were fully booked, the bazaars were packed with travellers and the archaeological sites were permanently overcrowded. Minya was a major stopover for bus tours travelling from Cairo to Aswan. It was also a main station for Nile cruises that used to sail from Cairo to Aswan. Following attacks on tourists in upper Egypt, however, these tours no longer stop at Minya and the city is a mere shadow of its former self. Officials have repeatedly declared that attacks are no longer a threat and there are now discussions to reintroduce the long Nile cruise. Some LE850 million have been allocated to clean and maintain the Nile basin between Beni Sueif and Qena, including Minya, as an introduction to the resumption of the long cruise.

These efforts have already started to bear fruit. The 2004 edition of Le Retour, the French pocket guidebook published in Paris, no longer refers to Minya as a place to avoid. "Our ultimate goal is to develop the governorate," said Minya Governor Hassan Hemida, who added that great attention has lately been given to upgrading services in almost all the archaeological and tourist sites in the governorate. Many of the once inaccessible archaeological sites, such as the Monastery of Gabal El-Teir and Beni Hassan, can now easily be reached by paved roads.

In an unprecedented initiative, a full documentation of Minya's archaeological sites and their contents has been carried out by Egyptian specialists. "It took us 36 months to photograph every archaeological site with the aim of preserving our heritage and providing tourists with a full documentation of Minya's treasures," commented Hemida. The photographs are on a CD which can be purchased at the governorate building overlooking the Nile promenade in Minya.

There is no airport in Minya, but negotiations are underway to open the military airport to civil and charter flights. "If we want to put the governorate back on the tourist track, we have to make it accessible," noted Hemida.

The governorate recently allocated 25 feddans (one feddan = roughly one acre) in one of the most beautiful areas on the east bank of the Nile on which to build the long-awaited Aton Museum. "It is time for Minya's unparalleled archaeological artefacts, which have long been kept in storage, to be displayed," said Hemida. The museum will house an institute for restoration and a service area with shops, telephones and other essential services.

Only a few travel agencies arrange weekly trips to Minya, but there are negotiations with some operators to get them to include Minya in their itineraries. "Promotion of this age-old city has so far been done on a personal basis. We use our public relations to convince travel agents to visit us," said hotel owner Tharwat Barsoum. "Minya has everything a tourist can wish for. I am positive that, in a very short time, the governorate will be able to attract more tourists."

See also: Traveller's notes

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