Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The Holy Family in Egypt

The sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt was nationally celebrated this year, Nevine El-Aref reports

  An icon representing the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt
An icon representing the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt

The religious compound in Old Cairo where monuments from the three major monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are brought together for visitors was buzzing last Friday as people flocked to the area to attend a gala ceremony organised at the Coptic Museum to celebrate the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt.

Patriarch of the Coptic Church Pope Tawadros attended the ceremony along with the ministers of antiquities, planning, tourism and immigration.

“The spirit of tolerance is overwhelming,” said Khaled El-Enany, the minister of antiquities, adding that it was particularly in evidence at the religious compound itself where the culture and heritage of thousands of years are embraced in a single street.

The compound is built around the ruins of the area’s Roman fortress and includes the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque, the Coptic Church of St George (Mar Girgis), the Greek Church of St George, the Coptic Nunnery of St George, the Church of the Virgin, the Hanging Church, the St Sergius Church better known as Abu Serga, the Coptic Museum, the Coptic Cemetery, the Ben Ezra Synagogue and the remains of the Babylon Fort.

The design of the façade of the Coptic Museum is similar to that of the Al-Aqmar Mosque in Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street in Islamic Cairo, El-Enany pointed out.

He explained that the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt had begun on the 24th day of the Coptic month of Pashons, the ninth month of the Coptic calendar. It derives its name from Khonsu, the Ancient Egyptian deity of the moon and son of the god Amun-Re and goddess Mut. The Holy Family spent more than three-and-a-half years in Egypt, stopping at 25 sites in the country.

El-Enany said the government was keen on documenting the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt in order to register associated sites on the World Heritage List managed by UNESCO, the UN cultural body.

A scientific committee had been formed in collaboration with the concerned authorities to document the Holy Family’s period in Egypt. The Ministry of Antiquities in collaboration with Egypt’s Coptic Church had also carried out a number of restoration and development projects in churches and monasteries on the Holy Family’s route.

Last October during an audience in St Peter’s Square in Rome, Roman Catholic Pope Francis blessed an icon by a Vatican artist representing the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, effectively giving his blessing to the millions of Christians around the world who may want to follow in the Holy Family’s footsteps.

It was described as “the crowning glory” of the government’s efforts to revive Christian pilgrimages to Egypt and an important step towards including Egyptian routes in Roman Catholic pilgrimage programmes.

Although there is no contemporary evidence of the gospel story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt in order to escape the edict of the biblical king Herod, Ahmed Al-Nemr, a member of the scientific office at the Ministry of Antiquities, told Al-Ahram Weekly, the Coptic Synaxarion, a compilation of writings by various authors drawing on different sources and oral traditions, mentions 25 places associated with their flight.

A mediaeval manuscript details the sites visited by the Holy Family in Egypt, as revealed in a dream to Pope Theophilus, the 23rd patriarch of Alexandria, in the early fifth century CE. These are held to be sacred until today, and the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III approved the itineraries drawn up for Christian pilgrims by the Ministry of Tourism in 2000.

During last week’s ceremony, Minister of Tourism Rania Al-Mashat announced that Egypt would receive the first pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Holy Family on 17 June this year.

The Holy Family’s flight into Egypt is associated with archaeological sites from Sinai to the Delta and Assiut in Upper Egypt, said Mohamed Abdel-Latif, former deputy minister of antiquities.

“The Holy Family’s visit to Egypt bestowed on the country a unique honour and blessing,” Abdel-Latif told the Weekly, making Egypt one of the world’s most sacred Christian centres.

 “The duration of the Holy Family’s sojourn in each of the cities they visited varied from a few days to a few months. The longest stay was in Gabal Qusakam where they spent 185 days,” Abdel-Latif said.

The Holy Family arrived from Bethlehem in Egypt via Arish and Tel Al-Farama in Sinai. They then travelled to Tel Basta in Zagazig, Belbeis, Samannoud and Sakha in the Delta and Wadi Al-Natroun, Bahnasa, Gabal Al-Teir and Ashmunein in Minya, Philes (Dayrout) and Al-Qusseya (Al-Muharraq) in Assiut.

In Assiut, Al-Nemr said, a messenger of God appeared to Joseph and told him to return to Palestine because Herod was dead.

The Holy Family then began the long journey home, following a different path from Assiut. They probably sailed down the Nile to Memphis, Maadi, Babylon in Old Cairo, and then on to Matareya, Mostorod, Belbeis, Tel Basta in Zagazig, Al-Farama and Arish in Sinai.

“Not all of these places are archaeological sites, but they share religious, social and cultural rituals which derive from the holy journey,” Al-Nemr said.

The places where the Holy Family stopped that house archaeological sites are the Virgin Mary Tree in Matareya, the Church of Abu Serga in Old Cairo, the Monasteries of Wadi Al-Natroun, the Church of the Virgin Mary at Gabal Al-Teir in Minya, and the Al-Muharraq Monastery in Assiut.


THE VIRGIN MARY TREE: According to Pope Theophilus Joseph possessed a wooden walking stick which Jesus broke into pieces.

Joseph buried the pieces in Matareya, and when he placed his hand on the ground a spring burst out beside a sycamore tree that provided shade and respite for the Holy Family. The pieces of buried stick then flourished, giving out a pleasing scent. Jesus himself drank from the spring and numerous balsam trees grew on the spot.

The Arab historian Al-Maqrizi described the Holy Family’s journey into Egypt in the mid-15th century CE, mentioning that they settled in Matareya near a stream. He recounts how when the Virgin Mary washed Jesus’s clothes in the stream, the water flooded the nearby land where balsam trees began to grow. Al-Maqrizi adds that the balsam oil from the trees was prized for its use in baptism.

The site of the Virgin Mary Tree boasts archaeological and modern attractions today, including the well, the tree and several stone water basins. A visitor centre relates the story of the Holy Family’s journey, and a small museum displays icons and other artefacts alongside photographs of other places visited by the Holy Family in Egypt.


THE CHURCH OF ABU SERGA: This church is located in Old Cairo where the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque and the Ben Ezra Synagogue are also found. It neighbours the Roman Fort of Babylon, the Hanging Church, the Church of St Barbara and the Coptic Museum.

The church is generally thought to date from the fourth and fifth centuries CE, though some sources place it as late as the seventh century. It is built on a site where the Holy Family took refuge on their way to and from Egypt.

The church is named after St Sergius and St Bacchus, Roman soldiers who were killed in Syria at the beginning of the fourth century by the emperor Maximian because they had converted to Christianity.

The Abu Serga Church and its crypt is an awe-inspiring example of an early Christian basilica, Abdel-Latif commented. It consists of a narthex, a vast central hall, and three naves with a crypt beneath.


THE MONASTERIES OF WADI AL-NATROUN: The earliest monastic structures at Wadi Al-Natroun date to the mid-fourth century CE. In mediaeval times the area housed up to 50 monasteries.

“Nowadays there are four functioning monasteries, and three of them, Bishoi, Al-Suryan and Al-Baramous, are built on sites the Holy Family visited,” Abdel-Latif said.

The Monastery of St Bishoi was built in the fourth century and houses the corpses of St Bishoi and other saints. It is also where Pope Shenouda III is interred.

The Al-Suryan Monastery is half a km northwest of St Bishoi and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Sold during the eighth century to a Syrian family that had settled in Egypt, it was long used by Syrian monks. The monastery is enclosed by a large wall and houses a tower and five churches, two named after the Virgin Mary. There is also a “door of prophecies” adorned with symbolic diagrams depicting the past and the future of the Christian faith through the eyes of 10th-century monks.

The Al-Baramous Monastery was built by St Macarius the Great and is the oldest of the four remaining monasteries. Although it was besieged on a number of occasions, the Monastery preserves much of its ancient architecture. It has five churches, the oldest of which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.


THE CHURCH OF THE VIRGIN MARY: The church is on the summit of the Gabal Al-Teir hill in Samalout in Minya in Upper Egypt. The hill, named Al-Teir (or “the birds”), is so called because it is the nesting site of a large number of birds. It is also known as the Gabal Al-Kaff (the hand) or the Deir Al-Baraka (Monastery of Blessing).

The church was carved into the side of the hill on the orders of Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, in 328 CE. The area above its western entrance is decorated with carvings of flora, fauna and anthropomorphic elements. The church follows the early Christian basilica pattern, comprising a nave with two side aisles, a western return aisle and three ambulatory shrines.


THE AL-MUHARRAQ MONASTERY: The monastery lies 15km southwest of Al-Qusseya in Assiut governorate in Upper Egypt. It was built during the fourth century CE on a site the Holy Family visited during their journey from Lower to Upper Egypt.

The monastery is one of the largest in Egypt. It is surrounded by a wall and has a courtyard for celebrations, a building for visitors, and a garden. It is divided into three sections by internal walls. The outer section includes the new Church of the Virgin, a visitor centre, a bookstore selling monastery publications, and facilities for livestock and fuel.

The middle section includes a visitor centre, gardens and a dining room, while the third section contains the Monastery’s five churches and monks’ cells.

“According to Coptic tradition, the monastery contains the first church built in Egypt, over the site where the Holy Family lived for six months,” Al-Nemr said.


OTHER SITES: The Tel Al-Farama site in Sinai contains the remains of a Roman fortress, while Sakha in the Western Delta contains a fourth-century church. This is the town where the Virgin Mary is believed to have held her son against a rock that retained his footprint. A relic in the church dedicated to the Virgin is said to be the stone.

Al-Nemr explained that the journey of the Holy Family in Egypt has been celebrated in other cities in Egypt in the moulids (festivals) of Al-Adra (the Feast of the Virgin Mary) at stops such as a cave in the Drunka hill, the Al-Muharraq Monastery in Assiut and the Virgin Mary Church in Gabal Al-Teir.

“The most distinguished is the one organised in Minya,” Al-Nemr told the Weekly because every year the bishop of Malawi and governor of Minya mark the journey by inviting intellectuals and foreign diplomats on a Nile trip on traditional boats whose sails carry images of the Holy Family.

The event recreates part of the blessed journey in which the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus and Joseph moved by land and by Nile in Egypt.

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