Itinerary of the month: In their footsteps
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. This programme encourages travellers to retrace the steps of Jesus Christ along the routes he travelled with his mother, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph. Jesus Christ spent almost his whole life in Palestine, and the only other country he is said to have visited is Egypt. During their time in Egypt, Jesus, Mary and Joseph stopped at many different places, and it is possible to follow at least part of the route taken by the Holy Family on their "great escape" from King Herod.
According to tradition, the Holy Family left Bethlehem in Palestine and passed through Rafah, Al-Arish and Farama in north Sinai. From Farama they continued on to Tel Basta, just outside modern-day Zagazig in Sharqiya Governorate. From there they travelled to Mostorod, north of Cairo, where they stayed in a crypt which today is part of a church. But they were not there long: fearing Herod's soldiers, the caravan soon fled north, stopping briefly at various spots, including Sakha in Kafr Al-Sheikh Governorate, where a rock bearing the footprint of Jesus has been unearthed.
They then proceeded to Wadi Al-Natroun, the centre of Coptic Orthodox monastic life. Here, they left the desert behind and began to make their way southwards, crossing the Nile to its eastern bank, and heading for Matariya and Ain Shams.
Their next destination was the area that is now called Old Cairo, where the Holy Family took refuge in a cave. In later years, the church of Abu Serga (St Sergious) was built on this site. Not just the church, but the whole Babylon neighbourhood, is now a place of pilgrimage, not only for Egyptians, but also for Christians from around the world. However, even here, Jesus and his parents were not out of trouble: and when the governor of Old Cairo heard that the idols had fallen before the Christ Child, he plotted to kill him, and the family fled to Maadi.
There they boarded a sailing boat which carried them up the Nile. The sailboat docked at the village of Deir Al-Garnous, a short distance from Ashneen Al-Nasara, a small town near to Maghagha in Minya.
They then continued southwards overland, crossing over to the east bank of the Nile. At Gabal Al-Teir (Bird Mountain) they crossed back again to the west bank, and headed for Qussqam, 50kms north of Assiut, which is now the site of Al-Moharraq Monastery. The area around the monastery is also known as the Second Bethlehem. The Holy Family stayed there for more than six month, until an angel told Joseph to return to Palestine as Herod was dead.
On their way back, they passed Mount Dronka, eight kilometres south of Assiut, where they stayed in a cave. They then travelled on via Old Cairo, Matariya and Mostorod, crossing the Sinai and returning at last to Palestine, where they settled in Al-Nasserah (Nazareth).
Since the tourist initiative was launched, several travel agencies have put together special itineraries combining sightseeing, culture, history and religious devotion. Some of these agencies organise only day trips within Cairo, while others operate two- or three-day tours including sites in the Delta or Upper Egypt.
The following itinerary is one of the most interesting, because it's one of the most complete. The 10-day/nine-night programme covers the entire route of the Holy Family in Egypt. It is mainly designed for travellers arriving from the USA.
Day 1: Depart from New York's JFK airport to Cairo.
Day 2: Arrive at Cairo and transfer to a hotel in the city for the first night.
Day 3: Travel to Pelusium (an Egyptian city on the easternmost mouth of the River Nile, and one of the first resting places of the Holy Family) by air-conditioned vehicles, and from there to Belbeis and Mostorod. Return to Cairo for overnight at hotel.
Day 4: Pilgrims travel to Samanoud in the Delta, then on to Sakha and Wadi Al-Natroun. Return to Cairo for overnight at hotel.
Days 5 & 6: Visit to Matariya and Ain Shams suburbs in Cairo, as well as Old Cairo. Overnight at hotel in Cairo.
Day 7: Visit to the old church at Maadi where the Holy Family boarded a sailing boat to Upper Egypt. Departure to Upper Egypt via Deir Al-Garnous, then on to Gabal Al-Teir in Minya. Overnight at the Mercure Minya.
Day 8: Travel to the Monastery of Al-Moharraq on Gabal Qussqam. Overnight at the Mercure Minya.
Day 9: Return to Cairo and overnight at a hotel in the city.
Day 10: Transfer to Cairo International Airport for departure.
For more information call South Sinai Travel (+202 418 7310), or log on to www.travelegyp.us/holyfamilytourusa.html.