As part of celebrations marking the anniversary of the Holy Family’s journey in Egypt beginning on 1 June, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has organised two exhibitions at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo under the joint title of “From Egypt, Care and Blessings”, reports Nevine El-Aref.
The exhibition in Tahrir displays a collection of eight Coptic-period artefacts showing three icons depicting the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus surrounded by angels and holding a copy of the Christian gospels in one hand. Two clay pots from Abu Mena and four photographs of Baweet are also on show, lent by the Coptic Museum.
The exhibition at the Coptic Museum displays 11 objects including manuscripts, icons, and stone and wooden artefacts.
At the same time as the two exhibitions and within the framework of Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities efforts to promote the Holy Family Trail in Egypt and develop its 25 stopping places, 10 stops were inaugurated in Sakha in Kafr Al-Sheikh, Tel Basta in Sharqiya, Samanoud in Gharbiya, the Wadi Al-Natroun Monasteries in Beheira, Gabal Al-Teir in Minya and the Virgin Mary Tree in Matariya this week.
The celebrations affiliated with the journey of the Holy Family in Egypt are now also registered on the UN cultural agency UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
“Take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt,” says the Gospel of St Matthew (2:13) in the Bible. But while it recounts how the Holy Family fled to Egypt seeking safety from King Herod in the early first 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 and Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, in the early fifth 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 Ahmed Al-Nemr, a member of the ministry specialising in Coptic 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 Tel 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 that took them to Samanoud. 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.
Al-Nemr said that an angel of the Lord then appeared to Joseph in Assiut and told him to return to Palestine because Herod was dead. The family 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,” al-Nemr 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 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.