In the parched desert of the Beheira governorate stand the four monasteries of Wadi Al-Natroun enclosed within high walls as an enduring testimony of early Coptic monasticism in Egypt.
The serenity of these monasteries was disturbed early this week when the ministers of tourism and antiquities and local development arrived in the governorate to inspect development work being carried out on one of the stops the Holy Family made when travelling in Egypt at the beginning of the first century CE and to open it to the public.
The inauguration took place ahead of the day marking the arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt, which is celebrated on 1 June.
The development work, costing almost LE80 million provided by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Beheira governorate, included the paving of roads leading to points on the Holy Family Trail, new landscaping, the installation of a new lighting system, and new signage, seats, and sunshades.
Entrance gates for each monastery were also installed.
Most of the restoration work carried out at the Wadi Al-Natroun monasteries since 2016 has now been completed, including the restoration of the Al-Sheyoukh and Abasekhiron Churches at the St Macarius Monastery and the restoration of the St Pishoy Church, the monks’ cells, and the mill and outer wall of the St Pishoy Monastery.
The main church at the Paromeos Monastery and its eastern outer wall and monks’ cells were also restored, along with the Virgin Mary and 14 other chapels at the Syrian Monastery.
The development and inauguration of the Beheira stop is another milestone in the development of the Holy Family Trail in Egypt, said Khaled El-Enany, minister of tourism and antiquities, who explained that the ministry has allocated LE60 million for the development of stops on the trail and the restoration of monuments on it.
Facilities are being upgraded and infrastructure installed to assist visitors following the route of the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt. The goal of the project is also to develop poorer areas and communities in the Delta and Upper Egypt, restore archaeological sites, and create suitable services for visitors at sites along the Trail. This is part of developing spiritual tourism that can appeal throughout the year and not just during special seasons.
“The Holy Family’s visit to Egypt bestowed on the country a unique honour and blessing and made Egypt one of the most sacred Christian centres in the world,” El-Enany said, adding that the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt had great historical and religious significance for Egyptians. It had given the Egyptian Coptic Church a special position among other Christian churches, he said.
The Holy Family travelled in Egypt for around three years and six months. The duration of the Holy Family’s sojourn in the places they visited varied from a few days to a few months. The Holy Family’s flight to Egypt is associated with archaeological sites from Sinai to the Delta and Assiut in Upper Egypt. The government has been keen on documenting the Holy Family’s period in Egypt with a view to registering it on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
A scientific committee has been formed to document the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt, El-Enany said, and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in collaboration with Egypt’s Coptic Church has carried out a number of restoration and development projects at churches and monasteries on the Holy Family’s route.
These include the restoration and inauguration of the Abu Serga Church in Old Cairo, the St Abba Noub Church in Sammanud, monks’ cells and other structures at the Wadi Al-Natroun Monasteries, and the Virgin Mary Church at Gabal Al-Teir in the Minya governorate, which is to be inaugurated soon.
Mahmoud Shaarawy, minister of local development, announced the completion of the development of 25 points on the path of the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt in eight governorates in full cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Coptic Church, with the support the president, the follow-up of the prime minister, and the patronage of Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark.
He said that the eight governorates had almost completed the development of the Holy Family Trail with a view to presenting it to the Egyptian public and to the world as a whole as one of the world’s most important heritage and human landmarks.
He described the opening of the Wadi Al-Natroun stop on the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt as a further success to be added to efforts carried out to develop the trail and mentioned the previous inauguration of another three stops in Samannud in the Gharbia governorate, Tell Basta in the Sharqiya governorate, and the Church of the Virgin in Sakha in the Kafr Al-Sheikh governorate.
He said that more stops would soon be opened to announce Egypt’s readiness to welcome pilgrims and tourists from all over the globe to seek blessings from these holy places.
Wadi Al-Natroun Monasteries: The Wadi Al-Natroun monasteries marking the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt are the Syrian, St Pishoy, and Paromeos Monasteries.
The Syrian Monastery was originally built during the 6th century CE in the aftermath of a theological dispute between the monks of the neighbouring St Pishoy Monastery over the incorruptibility of the body of Christ. The monks who refused to abide by the so-called “Julian heresy” that spread in Egypt during the papacy of Pope Timothy III of Alexandria left the monastery and established a duplicate one and called it the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Theotokos.
The Julianists believed in the incorruptibility of Christ’s body, which contradicts Orthodox Christian faith.
From the 8th until the 16th centuries, Coptic and Syrian monks lived together inside the monastery. Like other monasteries in the Wadi Al-Natroun desert, the Syrian Monastery was subjected to fierce attacks that led to extensive damage and drove away many of the inhabitants.
According to a Syriac inscription found on one of the monastery’s walls, two monk brothers called Mattay and Yakoub then took the initiative to rebuild the monastery. It flourished in the 10th century, when the Syrian Moses of Nisibis, who was responsible for important renovations in the eastern part of the church, was abbot.
Nisibis travelled to Baghdad to ask the Abbasid caliph Al-Muqtadir to grant tax exemption to the monasteries. He then travelled to Syria and Mesopotamia in search of manuscripts. After three years, he succeeded in buying 250 Syriac manuscripts, making up the core of the monastery’s library that now houses the largest collection of Syriac manuscripts in the Middle East.
The St Pishoy Monastery was founded in the 4th century CE on the spot where the bodies of St Pishoy and St Paul, Coptic saints, lie in the main church along with those of other saints.
The monastery has five churches, the main one being named after St Pishoy. The others are named after Mary Abaskhiron, the soldier saint St George, and the Archangel Michael. The monastery is surrounded by walls built in the 5th century to protect it against attacks by Berbers. A keep was built early in the 20th century and was later replaced by a four-storey structure built by the late Pope Shenouda III.
The monastery also contains the Well of the Martyrs, which according to a Coptic tradition was used as a burial place for the bodies of 49 martyrs killed by the Berbers. Tradition says that the Berbers also washed their swords in the Well after the assassinations.
Local Christians later retrieved the bodies and buried them in the nearby Monastery of St Macarius the Great, founded in the 4th century, who was the spiritual father to more than 4,000 monks of different nationalities. The monastery was restored in 1969.
The Paromeos Monastery is probably the oldest among the four existing monasteries of Wadi Al-Natroun. It was founded by St Macarius the Great, and its name refers to the saints Maximus and Domitius, children of the Roman emperor Valentinian I, who had cells in the present monastery, rebuilt in the 5th century CE after the destruction of the old one by the Berbers.
The monastery still preserves much of its ancient character and has five churches. The oldest is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and dates back to the 6th century. The second is dedicated to St Theodore of Amasea, the third to St George, the fourth to St John the Baptist, and the fifth to the Archangel Michael.
It also contains a keep, a tower, two refectories, and a guest house.
The Holy Family in Egypt: “Take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt,” says the Gospel of St Matthew (2:13). But while it recounts how the Holy Family fled to Egypt seeking safety from King Herod in the early 1st century CE, the Gospel offers no details of their actual journey.
For that we must turn to a mediaeval manuscript that includes the places visited by the Holy Family in Egypt, as revealed by the Virgin Mary who appeared in a vision to Pope Theophilus, the 23rd patriarch of Alexandria, in the early 5th century CE. The places named in the manuscript have been held to be sacred until today.
The late Coptic Pope Shenouda III approved itineraries drawn up for Christian pilgrims in 2000. During an audience in St Peter’s Square in Rome in 2017, Roman Catholic 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.
The Holy Family’s flight to Egypt is associated with many archaeological sites, noted Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities. They journeyed south from Palestine across the wilderness, avoiding main roads for fear of capture. They entered Egypt at modern-day Rafah, where a lone sycamore tree is said to have survived on the site since their visit.
The Holy Family reached Arish, and from there they followed the old Horus Road along the Mediterranean coast to Zaraniq, where the Byzantines later built three churches. They continued to Al-Mohamedeya, and their last station in Sinai was on the northwest coast near the edge of the Delta at the city of Pelusium, now the sprawling ruin of Tel Al-Farama. Here, archaeologists have discovered traces of several Roman churches.
They then travelled south along the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, which has long since dried up. They stayed in the city of Bubastis, now the ruin of Tell Al-Basta near the modern city of Zagazig. They then went on to Mostorod, where the Virgin is said to have bathed Jesus. There is a church in Mostorod named after the Virgin Mary that was built in the 12th century and that has been recently restored.
They then turned north again towards the town of Bilbeis, travelling northwest across the Delta. When they reached Damietta, they embarked on a ferry which took them to Sammanud. The Holy Family then continued north to Borollos. The next stop was Sakha in the western Delta. Here, the Virgin Mary is believed to have held her son against a rock which retained his footprint. A relic in the church dedicated to the Virgin in the area bears this mark.
The Holy Family then moved on to the Western Desert, eventually reaching Wadi Al-Natroun, where monastic settlements were later established. They then headed for what is now Cairo, where they stopped at Ain Shams and Matariya, where they sheltered under a sycamore tree, now known as the Virgin Mary Tree. One story says that when the Virgin Mary sat there, a spring of water gushed out of the ground.
The next stop for the Holy Family was Al-Zeitoun, and then Al-Zweila. Travelling south, they reached Old Cairo and hid in a cave that is now the crypt of the Church of Saint Sergius. In what is now Maadi, they went to the place now named the Virgin’s Church of the Ferry. From there, the family took a ferry across to Memphis and embarked on a boat that carried them to Upper Egypt.
Their first stop there was on the west bank of the Nile near a village now called Ashnein Al-Nassara at a place called Al-Garnous where a monastery was later built. A church dedicated to the Virgin was built at Deir Al-Garnous in the 19th century, on the west side of which is a well that is believed to have provided the family with water.
The journey continued towards Al-Bahnasa, Samalout, and then Gabel Al-Teir, where a monastery now stands. The Holy Family took shelter in a cave that is now covered by an ancient church. They travelled to Al-Ashmounein, Armant, and Dairout, and then crossed the river again and reached the town of Al-Qusseya.
They travelled east into the desert to Mount Qussqam, perhaps the most important of all their stations, where they stayed for six months and 10 days. This place was later called Al-Muharraq, which means “burnt,” as there was an abundance of grass there which had to be burned so food could be grown in its place.
Mount Qussqam is sometimes called “the second Bethlehem,” and its church is held to be the first ever built in Egypt. The cave in which the Family sheltered later became the altar of the Church of the Virgin Mary.
According to Ahmed Al-Nemr, a member of the ministry’s scientific office, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in Assiut and told him to return to Palestine because Herod was dead. The family then went back through Assiut and then probably sailed down the Nile to Memphis, landing at what is now Al-Badrashein near the ancient capital.
Once again, they may have passed through Maadi, Babylon, and Heliopolis before crossing the desert to Palestine and finally reaching their home town of Nazareth. “Not all of these places are archaeological sites, but they all share religious, social, and cultural rituals which derive from the holy journey,” Talaat said.
The places at which the Holy Family stopped that house archaeological sites are the Virgin Mary Tree in Matariya, the Church of St Sergius 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.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.