June should be a happy month since summer officially starts on the 21st, but most importantly the name “June” is related to “the Latin Iunius, (Iuno), which appears to come from the Latin iuventas, ‘youth,’ which is related to words like juvenile and rejuvenate.” It also refers to Juno, an important and powerful ancient Italian deity who became the protector of Rome, wife of Jupiter, queen of gods, and goddess of marriage, childbirth and fertility.
But reading the month in an Egyptian context, I see it starting with a beginning and ending with another beginning. June starts with a very special event, the entry of the holy family into Egypt; they came from Palestine through the desert and their trail blessed Egypt from North Sinai, through the Delta and Cairo, and across Upper Egypt. They indeed crossed the whole country from east to west, from north to south, leaving their indelible prints in numerous spots as well as many stories that the tradition – backed by historical manuscripts and documents – records regarding their trip and the places they stopped at.
They had to flee Judea because King Herod the Great was disturbed to learn of the birth of Christ, who would be “King of the Jews.” To protect his throne, he ordered the killings of “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.” (Matthew 2: 16) To save the young child, Joseph was divinely warned in a dream by the angel who ordered him to flee to Egypt with Jesus and his mother, the Virgin Mary. They were told to stay there until it was safe for the child to return to Palestine, which happened after the death of Herod, making them stay in Egypt for about three years and a half. The flight to Egypt fulfils the words of the prophets Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called My Son;" and Isiah’s “Blessed is Egypt my people” (Hosea 11:1 & Isiah 19:24).
It is believed that the holy family’s journey to and from Egypt “extends over 3,500km, and includes 31 sites, eight caves or grottos, 18 water springs or wells, and 13 trees.” The trail of this journey would later on sprout with churches and monasteries, many of which have been places of touristic attraction as well as pilgrimage sites and sources of blessings visited by many Egyptians, whether Christians or Muslims. Landmarks include Gabal Al-Teir, or Bird Mountain and Al-Muharraq Monastery; both are in Upper Egypt and the latter is where the holy family unquestionably stayed the longest and is often regarded as a second Jerusalem by many Christian pilgrims, particularly in Egypt and Ethiopia. Another place that attracts visitors from inside and outside Egypt is a sycamore tree, now known as the Virgin Mary Tree, located in Al-Mataraya district near Ein Shams (Old Heliopolis). Many of the locals believe that going round the tree helps women get pregnant, as the tree has a reputation among visitors to bless women with children.
One more landmark stop, this time in the Delta region, is Wadi Al-Natroun, which was inaugurated on 28 May 2022 by Dr. Khaled El-Enany and General Mahmoud Shaarawi, the ministers of tourism and antiquities and local development as well as General Hisham Amna, the governor of Behira, and his deputy Dr. Nehal Balbaa. The official opening of this stop marks another milestone in the development of the Holy Family Trail in Egypt. There are still further plans for promoting the area and building ecological lodges for those seeking spiritual retreat and tranquillity in this unique area. The significance of Wadi Al-Natroun goes back to the Pharaonic era since the area was known for the salt used in mummification; "natrun" is the Arabic word for sodium carbonate salt. Besides, the Romans used to extract the silica they used in making glass from there. A must see landmark in this seemingly parched desert is a spring of water known as St Mary’s Springor Bir Mariam, which miraculously exits in Lake al-Hamra ("the Red lake"). Speaking of this Lake, historian Ayman Abul-Maati remarks: “Its salinity is eight times the normal salinity of the sea. In this it is second only to the Dead Sea in Jordan.” However, amid the extremely salty waters of the lake, flows a spring of fresh and sweet water! Tradition has it that passing by this area, the Holy Family were thirsty but could not drink from this salty water; hence, a sweet water spring welled for them to drink. The well still exists and there is no scientific explanation for it, which makes the locals regard it as a miracle. And this is what has been mentioned in the presentation given about the area on the day of its inauguration.
Wadi Al-Natroun is one of the 25-stop-trail that the Egyptian government, in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church, has been working on developing and promoting. This will definitely be an asset to Egypt, marketing it as an important country for spiritual tourism throughout the year. Dr. El-Enany remarked: “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.”
Indeed, many Egyptians believe that this journey and many other things make their country a privileged and a blessed place. They sense a special divine protection of their country, which I believe was well phrased by the Egyptian President El-Sisi in a speech given on 23 March 2022 in celebration of the Egyptian woman’s day. He noted and even “swore to God” that Egypt was one day going downhill, but with the help of the mighty hand God, it was miraculously saved and brought back on the right track. It is obvious that he was mainly referring to the Muslim Brotherhood era and its aftermath. Restoring Egypt started on the 30th of June 2013, which makes the end of the month mark a new beginning, the dawn of an era of light dispersing the darkness Egypt lived in for a whole year. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that the end of June represents a new beginning, which can be related to the special beginning of its first day and the entry of the holy family into Egypt.
A great deal has been written about the 30th of June 2013 and the three days following it, days that will always be remembered in the history of modern Egypt. I was with family and friends among the millions who stayed for four days in the streets of Alexandria asking the former ruler to “depart. I was like many a witness to what they call the will of the people who, realising that their social contract with the ruler was violated, decided to overthrow him. John Locke and other enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, tell us of a hypothetical social contract between the ruler and the ruled, the governor and the governed by which he should respect and protect their natural rights, especially those related to liberty and property. Failing to secure these rights legitimises the people’s revolt against their sovereign, and hence they can justifiably overthrow him. This principle is one of the elements that instigated the American Declaration of Independence, leading finally to the American Revolution against the British rule.
And this is simply what the Egyptians did when they could intuitively discern the destructive effect of this regime on their identity and whatever they believed in. They realised that the regime did not only fail to protect their security and rights, but also distorted the country’s identity and culture, and sold its land. So they took to the streets until the regime collapsed, which was indeed miraculous. History never tells us of a fascist religious regime that was toppled down in a year. Yes, there has been careful planning for the country’s revolt and a great deal of effort was put to instigate the deep state. Rebel, the movement which collected signatures of millions of Egyptians asking the former ruler to step down,was a major element. Yet, the hand of God was definitely behind it; and I would add the unique mental map of the Egyptians, something which the Egyptian thinker Dr. Abdel-Moneim Said spoke about a few days ago in a seminar organised by the Ministry of Youth in collaboration with the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, SCSS. Dr. Said briefly talked about this mental map, its components and the elements shaping it including history, religion, science, our upbringing, etc.
His talk intrigued me to learn more about this mental or cognitive map, which should “help us make some sort of personal sense of the world,” and our perceptions of it; as it reflects “how humans look at the world around them and process that information, internally and externally.” Hence our experiences as well as other elements including what we read, hear, see or learn, shape and create our mental maps on daily basis. Looking deeper into the human and behavioural aspects of mental maps should help us “to track fear, stress, and excitement regarding different places worldwide” and I would add, regarding certain issues and incidents. What happened in 2012-2013 deserves a great deal of study; but definitely the majority of the Egyptians felt threatened and insecure. They were exposed to a different discourse, different behavioural attitude and mode of life. They could not relate to any of these. They have been since the dawn of history spiritual in their own moderate and peaceful way. The love of art in its different forms – music, painting, acting, etc – is engraved in their characters and obvious on the walls of their temples. Hence it was not difficult to instigate the deep state and the majority of the Egyptians when they were threatened with the distortion and loss of all that they believed in. They felt that they had to act and bring things to order. It was no wonder that with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, many felt like a horrible nightmare and a huge burden were taken off their chests. This fresh breath of freedom and life will always make the 30th of June a day of rebirth for Egypt and its people.The road is still long and the challenges are not over yet. Albeit that, June will always remain a special month for Egypt with its blessed beginning and end.
* Heba Sharobeem is a senator and university professor