Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

When Christ came to Egypt

The Holy Family sought refuge in Egypt from the wrath of King Herod shortly after the birth of Jesus Christ, writes Samir Sobhi


Over 40 years ago, the Egyptian Coptic Bishop Agerygorous gave an interview in which he spoke about the research that the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo was conducting.

The specific topic he touched upon was the connections that the Egyptian Coptic language, still used today for religious purposes, has with that of the ancient Egyptians and Arabic and the fact that many words have been exchanged between these three languages.

He added that many words from the Coptic language have become an integral part of everyday spoken Arabic in Egypt, which in turn has become an integral part of the evolution of the unique Egyptian Arabic dialect.

While Coptic linguistics and their connections with modern Egyptian Arabic is a fascinating subject in its own right, this is not one that will be explored here. Instead, this article will focus on one of the bishop’s interviews that was not published focusing on Christ’s journey into Egypt.

According to Bishop Agerygorous, the Egyptian Orthodox Church, along with other Eastern Churches, holds that the Holy Family entered Egypt on the 24th day of the month of Pashons (9 May-7 June in the Gregorian calendar). Jesus Christ, his mother the Virgin Mary, and her fiance Joseph the carpenter all entered Egypt, the Church says.

The Holy Family sought refuge in Egypt from the wrath of King Herod, who was told of Christ’s birth by the Magi, three wise men from the East, probably ancient Persia, who had made the journey to see Christ in Bethlehem after their leader Zarathustra had prophesied that a holy virgin would bear a child incarnating Truth.

They continued their journey until they arrived at Jesus’s place of birth. They joyously went to the manger in the stable that was serving as shelter for the Holy Family and presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. That night, the Magi had a vision in a dream that told them not to meet up with Herod again, so they decided to go back to their homeland by another route.

When he discovered that the Magi had disobeyed him, an enraged Herod ordered all the new-born male children in Bethlehem and the neighbouring towns to be killed. However, an angel of God appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take Jesus and his mother and flee with them to safety in Egypt. The angel told Joseph to stay in Egypt until he told him to leave after Herod’s death. As St Matthew says in his gospel (2: 12-19), “from Egypt I have called my son.”

The Holy Family went to Egypt and stayed there for nearly four years. Herod died, and an angel of God reappeared in a dream to Joseph and told him, “get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead” (Matthew, 2: 19-20).

When the Holy Family set off to Egypt for the first time, Mary was riding on a donkey with Jesus in her arms, while Joseph was leading the donkey on foot. This is what is stated in a document kept today in the Vatican Library in Rome, and these details are confirmed in the Coptic Book of Defnar (a collection of histories of the Church fathers and the saints) which adds that the Holy Family’s arrival fell on the eighth day of the Coptic month of Paoni (8 June-7 July).  This information is also mentioned in the Coptic hymns Al-A’daam and Al-Wates.

Christ came to Egypt in the arms of his mother Mary, and when they reached the frontier they received a revelation from God: “See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt with fear. This event will guide some to faith, while others will follow the path of fierce rivalry and spite against their brothers. Some will accept and receive the Lord’s blessings, and others will revel in His glory,” it said.

In his talk, bishop Agerygorous cited a verse from the biblical Book of Isaiah describing pagan idols shattering before the Holy Family. In this way, the idols of Egypt shattered in the presence of Jesus. Later authorities say that a church in Al-Ashmounein in Egypt once commemorated the day Christ arrived in Egypt on an annual basis, celebrating the blessings his visit brought to the country. The Egyptian population at the time is recorded as having sung a hymn with the words “O Joyous day for Egypt and its people, for it is the day on which the King of all humanity first arrived on its Land!”   

Over the millennia, Egypt has hosted many prophets including Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Joseph as well as the Children of Israel. But the greatest honour bestowed on Egypt was when Jesus Christ himself visited it as a child, passing through the Delta, Upper Egypt, Mount Qussqam and the Virgin Mary Monastery in Asyut. At the latter a church was built, as stated in the Book of Isaiah: “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the Lord at its border” (Isaiah 19: 19).

In his talk, Agerygorous recounted the story of Boutros, the 109th pope of the Coptic Church (1809-1852), who was told by the then Russian ambassador that the Russian tsar wanted to provide protection for Egypt’s Copts. Boutros declined his offer. “All humans (including the tsar) will die,” he said. “But we [the Copts] are protected by the King who will never die.”

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