Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 December 2003
Issue No. 670
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The Holy Family in Egypt


The route of the Holy Family in Egypt

In 2000, Egypt launched a major tourist initiative to remind people throughout the world of one of the major events of biblical history: the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. The programme encourages travellers to retrace the steps of Jesus Christ with his mother, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph in Egypt.

According to the New Testament, the Lord warned Joseph that King Herod, the King of Israel, was planning to kill Jesus. The Family thus decided to flee Bethlehem and escape to Egypt. "Take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt" (Matthew 2:13).

Jesus Christ lived in Palestine, and the only other country he travelled to was Egypt. During their time in Egypt, Jesus, Mary and Joseph visited many places. The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism is now urging travellers to follow the route taken by the Holy Family in their 'great escape' from King Herod.

In order to promote this initiative, the ministry published a book, with the approval of Pope Shenoudah III of the Coptic Orthodox¤ Church, describing the route taken by the Holy Family. The book has been translated from Arabic into English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Greek and Japanese.

The ministry also carried out a major renovation project in Old Cairo, believed to be one of the major stations of the Holy Family in Egypt. The area includes major Islamic, Coptic and Jewish sites including the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As, the Hanging Church and the Synagogue of Ben Ezra. The $15- million project, focussing on social, economic and constructural development of the area, started in May 1999 and was inaugurated in April 2001.

Shabby plaster walls have been re-faced with rough stone; about 350 houses and 80 shops were renovated and repainted inside and out, taking care to maintain the historical atmosphere of the area by adding traditional mashrabiya (wooden lattice) windows and lanterns for adornment. The walls of the Greek Orthodox Cemetery have been suitably restored.

All the main streets have been upgraded; a new police station built; the metro station and the local youth centre renovated and decorated; and a new bus station and a fire station established. A new tourist bazaar and a pottery village have also been built to revive the traditional crafts of Egypt.

Businessmen were also enthusiastic about drawing attention to the route of the Holy Family in Egypt. They have established the National Egyptian Heritage Revival Association (NEHRA) responsible for restoring the icons of Harit Zuweila Church, the oldest church in the world. They have also restored the tomb and church of Dimyana in Mansoura, the icons of the Holy Virgin Church in Maadi and an underground passage way to the Nile from where the Holy Family travelled to Upper Egypt.

According to tradition, the Holy Family went from Bethlehem in Palestine to Rafah, Al-Arish, and Farama in north Sinai. From Farama the Holy Family continued to Tel Basta, city of Pharaonic lion goddess Bastet, just outside modern-day Zagazig in Sharqiya Governorate. It was here that, when Jesus entered the temple, the idols crumbled before him. They then travelled to Mostorod, north of Cairo, where they stayed in a crypt which today is part of the church. Mostorod is also called Al-Mahamma which means 'the Bathing Place', a name given to the town because Mary bathed the Christ Child in this place.

Fearing Herod's soldiers, the caravan fled north, stopping briefly in various spots including Sakha in Kafr Al-Sheikh Governorate, where a rock, with the footprint of Jesus, has been unearthed. The Holy Family then went to Wadi Al- Natrun, the centre of monastic Coptic Orthodox Church life. They then left the desert behind and made their way southwards, crossing the Nile to its eastern bank, and heading for Matariya and Ain Shams. In Matariya, a tree still stands to this day which is called "Mary's Tree" since it is believed that the Family rested in the shade of its branches.

The next destination is the area that is now called Old Cairo where the Family took refuge in a cave. In later years, the church of Abu Serga (St Sergious) was built at this site. This, and the whole area of Babylon, is a place of pilgrimage, not only for Egyptians, but also Christians from around the world.

When the governor of Old Cairo heard of idols falling before Jesus, he plotted to kill the Child, and the Family fled to Maadi. At Maadi they boarded a sailing boat which carried them up the Nile towards southern Egypt. A historic church, dedicated to the Virgin, is built upon the spot where they embarked. The stone steps leading down to the river bank, believed to have been used by the Family, are accessible to pilgrims through the Church courtyard. The sailboat docked at the village of Deir Al-Garnous, a short distance from Ashneen Al-Nasara, a small village near the town of Maghagha in Minya. Both villages have wells where the water rises at the beginning of June -- the time the family arrived in Egypt.

They then travelled southward, crossing over to the east bank of the Nile to Gabal Al-Teir (Bird Mountain), also known as Gabal Al-Kaf (Mountain of the Palm). The Family rested in a cave which is now located inside the ancient church there. It is believed that Jesus left an imprint of his hand in the rocks. From that spot, the Family once again crossed the Nile back to the west bank, heading towards Qussqam where, 50 kms north of Assiut, lies Al-Moharraq Monastery. The Family stayed there for more than six months, longer than at any other place in Egypt, until an angel told Joseph to return to Palestine as Herod was dead: "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" (Matthew 2:20&21).

On their way back to Palestine, they passed Mount Dronka, eight kilometres south of Assiut, where they stayed in a cave. A monastery was built around the site of the cave. They then travelled to Old Cairo, Matariya, Mostorod, across Sinai and back to Palestine, where they settled in Al-Nasserah(Nazareth).

Since the tourist initiative was launched, several travel agencies and organisations have put together special itineraries combining sightseeing, culture, history and as well as religious devotion.

Arab West Report (+202 753 0227) is one such organisation that organises Holy Family tours in Egypt. The programme, "Holy Family Pilgrimages", is organised under the auspices of the Shobra Al-Kheima Bishopric. It offers one-day trips from Cairo to sites such as Wadi Natrun, Tel Basta, Sakha, Samannoud and Dimyana, as well as sites like Zaytoun and Matariya. Prices range from LE125 to LE200 per person. There are also overnight and two-night trips to sites north and south of Minya (Gabal Al-Teir and Deir Abu Hinnis), the Biblical land of Goshen (east of the Delta), and Assiut (Al-Moharraq and Dronka Monasteries). Prices range from LE300 to LE600 per person, depending on the number of participants in each trip. Prices include transportation in air-conditioned buses, accommodation, meals, drinks, documentation, guides and entrance fees to archaeological sites. Photography fees and insurance, however, are excluded. Accommodation is offered in either churches or hotels, depending on the location.

The Arab West Report is not a travel agency, but an independent organisation reporting on Arab-West relations and the co-existence of Muslims and Christians in Egypt and the Arab world. The organisation does, however, offer customised group visits to the Holy Family sites in conjunction with several expatriate churches in Cairo.

According to Dr Cornelius Hulsman, the editor-in-chief of the West Arab Report and co author of "Be Thou There, the Holy Family Journey in Egypt", the AUC press , the purpose of the Holy Family pilgrimages is to create an understanding between different cultures. "We want to encourage the visits of expatriates to any of the Holy Family locations because this will greatly enhance their understanding of Egypt's most prominent Christian tradition. Not many traditions in the world are as old as this one, the first record of which comes from the fourth century. This tradition is the link between the Gospels and the church in Egypt and is still very much alive today," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The travel division of Sina's Group, (www.travelegypt.us/ holyfamilytourusa.ht), organises a 10-day/nine-night programme which covers the entire Holy Family route. The tour starts in Cairo, and includes stops in Farama, Tel Basta and the Nile Delta, Fayoum, Minya and Assiut, before returning to Cairo.

The programme is designed for foreign travellers, and prices range from $2,095 to $2,595 for double accommodation depending on the time of year. The cost includes a round trip from New York's JFK Airport to Cairo, transfers by air- conditioned buses, hotel accommodation, sites and museum fees and the services of an English speaking Egyptologist.

Deyar Management & Investment (+202 576 6900) organises an eight-day/seven-night tour of the Holy Family route. The tour starts from Cairo to Tel Basta and Belbeis in Sharqiya, to Mostorod and then to Wadi Natrun to Matariya and Zeitoun, Old Cairo, Al-Maadi, Bahnasa, Gabal Al-Teir in Minya Governorate, and Al-Muharraq and Dronka Monasteries in Assiut.

Mass Travel (www.masstravelegypt.com/holyfmly) organises day trips within Cairo including to the Tree of Virgin Mary in Matariya, Old Cairo (Church of Abu Serga, the Hanging Church, Church of Saint Barbara and the Church of Mar Gerges) and the Coptic Museum. There is also a special programme including a trip to Wadi Natrun in addition to overnight tours to Minya and Assiut.

The following Web sites are recommended for those who wish to know more about the route of the Holy Family in Egypt:

www.holyfamilytravel.com

www.touregypt.net/holyfamily1.htm

www.egyptvoyager.com/features_holyfamily.htm

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