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Thursday, January 5, 2017

MEI Editor's Blog: Rerun for Eastern Christmas: The Coptic Legends of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt
Michael Collins Dunn wrote:
> *Those Eastern Christians who follow the Julian Calendar will celebrate
> Christmas this Saturday, January 7.*
> *
> **Since 2009, I have annually noted the rich Coptic traditions of the Holy
> Family's flight into Egypt*,*which expands the couple of verses in the Gospel of
> Matthew, by offering a detailed story of a three-year sojourn and visits up and
> down the Nile. More recently I've added a map and some pictures, and fixed a few
> errors. As always, despite the obvious apocryphal nature of these tales, I
> intend to respect the charm of the stories while noting some of the
> improbabilities. My revised and illustrated version:*
> Since we're in between Western Christmas and Eastern Christmas, I thought it
> might be a useful time to call to your attention the extremely detailed
> traditions Egypt's Copts maintain about the Holy Family and the Flight into
> Egypt. There is hardly a Christian church in Egypt — and there are some mosques,
> too, since Jesus and Mary are highly venerated in Islam — that doesn't claim
> that Jesus, Mary and Joseph dropped by for a while. They must have been
> constantly on the move to have covered so much ground, but you can't build up a
> good pilgrimage trade if you don't stop frequently.
> Now, the Flight into Egypt gets only a couple of verses in the Bible and is only
> mentioned in one Gospel, Matthew, (Matthew 2, 13-14 and 19) so the extremely
> detailed accounts of the Coptic stories have more to do with pious elaboration —
> or pilgrimage tourism — than history, but the stories can be quite charming.
> Some are based on an apocryphal Armenian infancy gospel, some on local
> traditions, etc. The Coptic traditions hold that the Holy Family spent three
> years in Egypt.
> I am shamelessly cribbing this from Chapter XXXI of the late Otto Meinardus'
> Christian Egypt Ancient and Modern, (Cairo: AUC Press, 1965; Revised Edition
> 1977). Meinardus was a major figure in Coptic studies; German-born, he wrote
> mostly in English or French, taught at the American University in Cairo, and was
> an ordained Lutheran pastor. (Judge for yourself what Martin Luther would have
> thought of some of these stories.) He died in 2005. But I have to condense all
> the details considerably; his chapter runs over 40 pages. There's also a
> detailed online site, with pictures <>
> (text approved personally by Coptic Pope Shenouda, they say), for those
> interested. And tours are available <>;this site
> also offers a travelogue.
> <>It
> seems the Holy Family traveled with a midwife named Salome who isn't mentioned
> in the Gospel but plays a role in the Coptic stories. Instead of heading
> straight to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, they seem to have zigzagged to
> the Plain of Jericho, then Ashkelon, then Hebron (at least according to the
> various churches and monasteries situated in those places), then proceeded to
> enter Egypt via the Land of Goshen, en route to the town of Bilbays. Along the
> way they had an encounter with a dragon in a cave, and were approached by wild
> lions, but of course they all bowed down to the Baby Jesus. At Bilbays they
> rested under a large tree, which was venerated in the Middle Ages by both
> Muslims and Christians as the Virgin's Tree, which stood until 1850. Then they
> headed to Samannud, where there is a church on the site of a well blessed by
> Jesus. (Early Christian apocryphal infancy Gospels, as well as the Qur'an, have
> Jesus talking while still in the cradle.) Then they detoured northward to the
> Mediterranean coast at Burollos, stopping there according to the monks of the
> place. Then, perhaps at Basus or Sakha in Gharbiyya (Meinardus speculates on the
> place), Jesus left his footprint on a stone.
> Needless to say, they could not ignore the Wadi Natrun, the Coptic version of
> Mount Athos, where the four great monasteries of the Desert Fathers still stand
> (but of course didn't then as Christianity hadn't been founded yet), though why
> they were wandering in the desert instead of the delta in those days isn't
> explained. Passing by from a distance, Jesus said to his mother, "Know O my
> Mother, that in this desert there shall live many monks, ascetes and spiritual
> fighters, and they shall serve God like angels." (Apparently Mary would have
> known what a "monk" was, though it's hard to know why.) Anyway, you can ask the
> monks if you doubt any of this.
> Even though Cairo wasn't there yet, you know Cairo isn't going to let all these
> other towns have a claim and not find some of its own, don't you? First they
> went to On, the ancient Heliopolis, not on the site of the modern suburb of that
> name but on the site of Matariyya. There Jesus took Joseph's staff, dug a well,
> and planted the staff, which grew into a tree which became a goal of pilgrimage
> and was venerated by Muslims as well as Christians. (The Qur'an has a story of
> Mary resting under a palm tree, and this and the Matariyya tree became conflated
> in later folklore. The Matariyya tree is a sycamore.) The present tree, still
> venerated, is alleged to be grown from the shoot of an older tree:
> <>
> *The Virgin's Tree, Matariyya*
> <>
> *Harat Zuwaila Church of the Virgin*
> From there, the Holy Family went to a site where, centuries later, the Harat
> Zuwaila quarter of Cairo would rise; the Church of the Virgin there is one of
> the oldest in Cairo proper, and the convent has a well blessed by Jesus.
> (If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned their stop in the Fortress of
> Babylon, in a church many tourists visit today, it's because they stopped there
> only after their tour of Upper Egypt. Trust me, it's coming.)
> Next they went to Ma'adi, today an elite southern suburb of Cairo, and attended
> a synagogue. Joseph got to know some Nile boatmen, who offered to take them to
> Upper Egypt. (You're wondering how an exiled carpenter and family fleeing from
> King Herod can afford all this Grand Tour? Don't be so cynical: the legend has
> it covered: using the gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi.)
> I'm going to condense a bit here since every Church of St. Mary up the Nile
> seems to mark a site where the boat stopped and they visited a well or a palm
> tree. But since Upper Egypt remains one of the more Christian parts of the
> country, they couldn't skip such Christian centers as Sammalout, Asyut,
> al-'Ashnmunein, or the great monastery known as Deir al-Muharraq.
> One of the legendary sub-stories here deserves telling, though. Up near
> al-'Ashmunein, two brigands who had been pursuing the Holy Family since
> Matariyya (must be the gold, frankincense and myrrh again) tried to rob them.
> They grabbed Jesus and Mary cried, and one of the robbers repented, and they
> left them. And — as any folklorist should have figured out by now — these were
> the same two thieves, including the same Good Thief, who would be crucified
> alongside Jesus! How could it be otherwise?
> <>
> *Deir al-Muharraq Today*
> The constant travels were finally relieved when the Holy Family were taken in by
> a devout Jew and lived for six months (and ten days: I told you the stories are
> detailed) at the site of the Monastery of Deir al-Muharraq, south of al-Qusiya.
> The monks of the monastery say it was the first monastery in Egypt, built just
> after the arrival of Saint Mark as the Apostle of Egypt. If you doubt that, take
> it up with the monks, not me. Or with the monks at St. Anthony's in the Eastern
> Desert, which is usually seen as the earliest.)
> <>
> *Abu Sarga Church Crypt*
> Then the angel came to Joseph and told him it was safe to go back to Palestine.
> (That part actually is in the Gospel of Matthew, unlike everything else in this
> post.) They stopped at pretty much every Coptic village that would ever have a
> Church of the Virgin on their way back down the Nile, and feeling they had not
> yet done enough for future Cairo tourism, they stopped inside the Roman fortress
> known as Babylon and, perhaps having run out of gold and frankincense, stayed in
> a cave that is today the crypt of the church of Saint Sergius (Abu Sarga),
> conveniently adjacent to the Coptic Museum and included on many Cairo tours.
> I hope I don't sound too cynical here: the stories are charming and are clearly
> a pious attempt to elaborate on a brief reference in the Gospel in order to make
> the Christian link to Egypt more tangible to believers. On the other hand, the
> sense that every Church of Saint Mary in Egypt actually sheltered the Virgin and
> Child seems a bit credulous.
> I hope my Coptic friends recognize that I am helping spread knowledge of your
> tradition, even if I may not accept every detail as historically attested. I'd
> really like to know more about that dragon.
> <>

Sent from my Linux system.

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