Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1406, (16 - 29 August 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1406, (16 - 29 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A journey to the Virgin Mary Tree

Mai Samih visits the Virgin Mary Tree in the Cairo district of Matariya and finds out about the area’s renovation

The branch that the french solders inscribed their names on.

The Virgin Mary Tree in the Cairo district of Matariya is a Sycamore tree that is believed to be holy by Christians who believe that this tree once sheltered the Virgin Mary, her son Jesus and Joseph when they fled into Egypt from the forces of king Herod who had given the order to kill Jesus. 

The story goes that the Virgin Mary rested under the tree and a spring spontaneously appeared for her to wash the baby Jesus. When some troops passed by, it is said that the tree grew branches to hide the Virgin Mary and her son until they were gone. It is believed that the Virgin Mary also threw water from the spring on the ground as she washed Jesus and a balsam tree subsequently sprouted.

The sacred well

For this reason, the tree and the surrounding area are now sacred for many Christians and Muslims who come and visit the tree or touch it since they believe it can heal illnesses. Some women who have not been able to bear children have also visited the tree in order to help them conceive, as the tree is believed to bestow holy blessings. 

Al-Matrawi Street, a narrow road that resembles a country lane lined with simply built brick houses and with sheep and cows dotted about its dusty ground, is not far from the Matariya metro station and is the location of today’s Virgin Mary Tree Museum. The building has long yellow walls and security guards at the entrance. The guide is friendly, and he explains to visitors everything there is to know about the tree and its surroundings. 

There is a sense of tranquillity and peace, as if one had travelled back in time to the age of the tree. In the middle of the area is the sacred well believed to be the well in which the Virgin Mary once washed the baby Jesus. To the right is the holy Virgin Mary Tree. There are three trees, in fact: the original Virgin Mary Tree, another tree planted at the time of the French occupation of Egypt in the late 18th century by French soldiers whose names are still inscribed on it, and a third tree planted by the Roman Catholic Church. 

I sat in the shade of the trees contemplating how the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus might have felt finding shelter, food and water in this area after their long trip from Bethlehem in Palestine. It had only been 11 metro stops for me from Abdel-Nasser station in downtown Cairo, a relatively easy journey. However, I was able to feel the tranquillity of the place, only disturbed by noise from a nearby construction site. 

The icon of Virgin Marry, baby Jesus and Joseph

Behind the tree area is a small chapel decorated by a South Korean artist with a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and Joseph. The artist has imagined how they might have lived in this place and followed his imagination. Inside the chapel on the left-hand side is a drawing of the Virgin Mary and Jesus dedicated to the Virgin Mary Tree Museum by the Coptic Museum in Cairo. At the far end there is a display room in which pictures on the walls and a map in the middle show the details of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.

In addition, there is a manger believed to be the one that the Virgin Mary carried and bathed Jesus in. It was found near the original tree and was also a gift from the Coptic Museum. There is no sign of the famous balsam trees, however, and these are now grown in monasteries.    

The original Virgin Mary Tree died in 1656, according to some sources. However, priests at the time replanted a cutting from it by a nearby church called the Virgin Tree Church. When the tree grew, another branch was taken and replanted near the original one. Today, the tree area is being renovated under the supervision of the city council and various NGOs.

Head of the Egypt Youth Association for Development and the Environment (EYADE) Mamdouh Rashwan gave details of the renovation process. “Soon we will start field work developing the area of the Virgin Mary Tree, including the street and the housing blocks in the area. We will plant grass and 150 trees and change the lighting system to save energy,” he said, adding that the idea was also to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. 

“We will also install a solar-powered heater for the club facing the tree area to save energy. There will be an electronic panel telling residents about the climate of the area and giving advice on how to save energy,” he added. 

Virgin Mary Tree

Research on an area’s carbon footprint has not been done before in Egypt, and the research the EYADE aims to carry out will be the first showing the area’s emissions and fossil-fuel consumption. The idea is to reduce both by comparing the figures for before and after the renovation work in the area.

“If this project is a success, we will carry out similar projects elsewhere. By the first half of September we hope to have distributed the new lamps and will start a study on changes like decreasing pollution rates and carbon dioxide emissions,” he added.

“We have been cooperating with the local council, the European Union through its Participatory Development Programme in Urban Areas and the German Federal government.”

On the way to the tree I met a former resident of the Virgin Mary Tree area who kindly guided me to it. “I come from time to time to get the tree’s blessings. I would go in the past with my parents,” she said, adding that the place was open to everyone and that she had never heard of there being polluted water in the well as some rumours had said. 

The icon of Virgin Mary and baby jesus

“The council is now working on a new sanitation system in the area,” Rashwan said. “Our role is a complementary one to that of the authorities. The site we are working in is a very important station on the Holy Family’s journey into Egypt. For this reason, we chose to play a complementary role to the government in terms of developing the Virgin Mary Tree area.”

Of future plans, Rashwan said that “there is a group of young people, mostly from the district, working with what we call our ‘friends of the environment unit’ that works on the state of the environment. This unit will present problems from the residents’ point of view, while meeting with governmental representatives to express these as the consensus of civil society.”

“After all, the residents are the ones who will best be able to maintain the work that has been done in the area,” he concluded.

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