The Holy Family's stops in Cairo: Images down memory lane

Ola R. Seif, Monday 6 Jan 2014

As Egyptians celebrate Coptic Christmas, Ahram Online examines rare photos of prominent landmarks on the Holy Family's journey through Cairo

Virgin Mary’s tree in Matariya

As Egyptians celebrate Coptic Christmas, Ahram Online showcases rare photos of landmarks on the Holy Family's flight to Egypt

Of the many sites that dot the path of the Holy Family's flight to Egypt two specific locations drew the most attention from Egypt’s early photographers. The legendary tree of the Virgin Mary in the Matariya suburb, in northeast Cairo, and the Church of Abou Serga in the fortress-town of Babylon, locally known as the Old Cairo district, in southern Cairo.

Although both locations are rooted in pre-Christian history, Matariya’s historical flavour is further pronounced due to its inclusion in the site of the Ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis, the town dedicated to the Sun god Ra. Its chief remaining attraction is Senusret I’s red granite obelisk captured by the lens of numerous 19th century photographers such as Pascal Sebah and Hyppolite Arnoux.

As the original tree that once sheltered the infant Jesus and the Holy Family has long died, the standing sycamore tree of the Virgin Mary (Shagaret Mariam) is, according to legend, one of its third-generation offshoots.

Although neither historic evidence from Jesus’ time nor supporting Biblical verses confirm his passing through Matariya, the Coptic Church has recently erected a chapel near the tree to host pilgrim tourists venerating the Virgin Mary and the memory of her visit to Cairo two millennia ago.

At the southern end of Cairo, and in close proximity to the Nile, stands the Old Cairo district -- or Masr Al-Adima, as it was referred to by El-Maqrizi, El-Gabarti and the more contemporary Ali Mubarak, to mention but a few prominent historians.

The area is characterised by the grouping of seven churches that predate the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas, built in the seventh century in order to convert the whole district from a Roman fortress into Egypt’s first Arab capital, Al-Fustat.

Although each of the seven churches boasts its architectural charm and they all retain the classical basilica layout composed of three aisles and a central apse at the east end, the fifth-century church popularly known as Abou Serga includes some unique peculiarities.

First, to the right of the altar it accommodates a crypt, which can be reached by descending the steps. As the Holy Family is believed to have taken refuge in this crypt, it has hence grown into the highlight of the site. Another remarkable feature is the intricate woodwork of its 13th-century wooden screen, along with its carved wooden panels, which originate from a much earlier date. While the 19th-century photographer Félix Bonfils captured images of the iconostasis of Abou Serga and St Barbara’s church, he missed the beautiful wooden carving panels to its side.

The earliest known photographs of those Biblical relief wood carvings are hand signed by Badr, a local photographer whose studio stood in Al-Ataba Al-Khadra Square and who published around the 1930s a series of Coptic art images focused on Abou Serga’s Church, its outer context, its priest of the time, the marble stepped altar, the crypt and the carved wooden panels including that of the nativity scene.

Abou Serga Church is officially named after and dedicated to the two Syrian soldiers Saint Sergius and Bacchus who were enrolled in the Roman army and were martyred for their Christian beliefs in the fourth century.

Merry Christmas!

Photos courtesy of Ola Seif

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