Flight into Egypt
Nevine El-Aref retraces the steps of the Holy Family
"Take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt." (Matthew 2:13)
While the Gospel of St Matthew recounts how the Holy Family fled to Egypt seeking safety from King Herod it offers no details of their actual journey. For that we must turn to a mediaeval manuscript which includes the places visited by the Holy Family in Egypt as revealed by the Virgin Mary who appeared in a vision to Pope Theophilus, 23rd patriarch of Alexandria, in the early fifth century and told him about their wanderings in Egypt. The places named in the manuscript are held sacred until today.
Though the late Pope Shenouda III approved the itineraries drawn up for Christian pilgrims by the Ministry of Tourism in 2000 little has been done to advance the potentially enormous pilgrimage market. That was until last week when, during a general audience in St Peter's Square in Rome, Pope Francis blessed an icon by a Vatican artist representing the Holy Family's Flight into Egypt, and effectively gave his blessing to the millions of Christians around the world who may want to follow in the Holy Family's footsteps.
Tourism Minister Yehia Rashid described the occasion 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.
The Holy Family's flight to Egypt is associated with many archaeological sites, from Sinai to the Delta and Assiut in Upper Egypt, says Mohamed Abdel-Latif, Deputy Minister of Antiquities and head of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Sector.
"The Holy Family's visit to Egypt bestowed on the country a unique honour and blessing," Abdel-Latif told Al-Ahram Weekly, and made Egypt one of the most sacred Christian centres.
Abdel-Latif believes the Holy Family travelled in Egypt for three years and six months. "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," says Abdel-Latif.
The Holy Family arrived from Bethlehem to 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 Ashmuneinin Al-Minya, Philes (Dayrout) and Al-Qusseya (Al-Muharraq) in Assiut.
In Assiut, says Abdel-Latif, a messenger of the Lord 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," says Abdel-Latif.
The places in which the Holy Family stopped which do 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.
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 of the ground beside a sycamore tree which provided shade and respite for the Holy Family. The pieces of buried stick then flourished and emanated a pleasing scent. Jesus drank from the spring and numerous balsam trees grew on the spot.
The Arab historian Al-Maqrizi described the Holy Family's Journey in the mid-15th century and mentions they settled in Matareya along a stream. He recounts how when the Virgin Mary washed Jesus' 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 use in baptism.
The site of the Virgin Mary Tree boasts archaeological and modern attractions including the well, the tree and several stone water basins. A visitors' 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.
THE CHURCH OF ABU SERGA: The church is located in Old Cairo where the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque and 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.
It is generally thought to date from the fourth and fifth centuries although some sources place it as late as the seventh century AD.
The church 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 Emperor Maximian because they had converted to Christianity.
Abu Serga Church and its crypt is an awe-inspiring example of an early Christian basilica, says Abdel-Latif. 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 in Wadi Al-Natroun date to the mid-fourth century. 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," says Abdel-Latif.
The Monastery of St Bishoi was built in the fourth century and houses the corpses of Bishoi and other saints. It is also where Pope Shenouda III is interred.
Al-Suryan Monastery is half a kilometre northwest of St Bishoi and is dedicated to Virgin Mary. Sold during the eighth century to a Syrian wealthy family which 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 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 Baramos monastery was built by St Macarius the Great and is the oldest of the four remaining monasteries. Although it has been 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.
CHURCH OF THE VIRGIN MARY: The church is on the summit of Gabal Al-Teir in Samalout in Minya. The mountain, Al-Teir (the birds), is so called because it is the nesting site of a large number of birds. It is also known as Gabal Al-Kaff (Mountain of the Hand) or Deir Al-Baraka (Monastery of the Blessing).
The church was carved in the mountain on the orders of Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, in 328 AD. 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.
AL-MUHARRAQ MONASTERY: The monastery lies 15km southwest of Al-Qusseya in Assiut governorate. It was built during the fourth century on a site the Holy Family visited during their journey from Lower to Upper Egypt.
The monastery is one of largest in Egypt. It is surrounded by a wall and has a courtyard for celebrations, a building for visitors and a garden.
The monastery is divided into three sections by internal walls. The outer section includes the new Church of the Virgin, a visitors' centre, a bookstore selling the monastery's publications as well as facilities for livestock and fuel stores.
The middle section includes a visitors' centre, gardens and a dining room while the third 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," says Abdel-Latif.
Tel Al-Farama also has the remains of a Roman fortress. Sakha, in the western Delta, has a fourth century church. It is the town where the Virgin Mary is believed to have held her son on a rock which retained his footprint. A relic in the church dedicated to the Virgin is said to be the stone.
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