People gathered on Saad Zaghloul Street in the town of Sammanud in the Gharbiya governorate in the Delta this week to witness the inauguration of the area around the Church of St Abba Noub, one of the stops that the Holy Family made when travelling in Egypt at the beginning of the first century CE.
The inauguration took place on Monday ahead of Coptic Christmas, which is celebrated in Egypt on 7 January according to the Greorian Calendar.
The development, costing LE7.5 million, included the removal of encroachments on the site including a marketplace that had blocked the street near the church for decades. The pavement was retiled with interlocking bricks and the street was made pedestrian-only. Houses and shops along the street were repainted, and billboards were replaced to harmonise with the design of the church’s façade.
A fountain was installed at the end of the street and signage was put up. Mechanical cleaning of the Church’s façade, entrances, domes, and bell tower was carried out to remove dust and traces of rain.
The St Abba Noub Church, named after a martyr who died at Sammanud, was built on the ruins of an older church on the same site that carried the name of the Virgin Mary. In the church’s courtyard, there is a well thought to have been blessed by Jesus, which is now covered with glass to protect it from pollution. Water is pumped out of the well, purified, and offered to people to drink.
There is also a large granite bowl in which the Virgin Mary is thought to have baked bread. The bowl is covered for protection and filled with water that people can touch as a blessing. The Church contains a shrine containing the remains of St Abba Noub, one of about 8,000 martyrs from the same region.
The development is a milestone in the development of the Holy Family Trail in Egypt, said Khaled El-Enany, the minister of tourism and antiquities. The ministry has allocated LE60 million for the development of stops on the trail and restoring monuments on it. Facilities are being upgraded and infrastructure installed to assist tourists 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 tourists at sites along the trail. This is part of developing a spiritual type of tourism that can appeal throughout the year and not just at 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 gave the Egyptian Coptic Church a special position among other Christian churches, he said.
The Holy Family travelled in Egypt for 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 it, El-Enany said, and the Ministry of 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 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.
THE HOLY FAMILY IN EGYPT
“Take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt.” (Matthew 2:13)
While the Gospel of St Matthew recounts how the Holy Family fled to Egypt seeking safety from King Herod, it 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 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 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 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 later. 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 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 Mt 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.
Mt 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, a messenger 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 which 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 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.