The serenity of the Virgin Mary Monastery standing on top of the Gabal Al-Teir cliffs in the city of Samalout, Minya governorate, was disturbed late last week when the ministers of tourism and antiquities and local development arrived to inaugurate a new stop on the Holy Family Trail after restoration and development work.
The Holy Family travelled in Egypt at the beginning of the first century CE, and the stops they made are being linked together on a trail that presents their movement through the country.
After four years of restoration and development work, the monastery and its authentic church are now once again welcoming worshippers and visitors who will be able to enjoy not only the serenity of the area but also the distinguished architecture and wonderful view out across the Nile Valley with its carefully cultivated fields and lush palm groves.
The Holy Family visited the site and stayed there for three days during their journey in Egypt.
Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany expressed his happiness at opening a new point on the Holy Family Trail less than two months after the inauguration of a previous one in Wadi Al-Natroun in the Beheira governorate.
He said that various points on the trail had been restored and developed in Old Cairo, Sammanud, Tel Basta, Sakha and Wadi Al-Natroun, and now the Virgin Mary Monastery and Church in Minya.
“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. The Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt has great historical and religious significance for Egyptians. It has given the Egyptian Coptic Church a special position among other Christian churches,” El-Enany said.
He added that the Holy Family Trail is a tourist attraction that is unique to Egypt, and the ministry has allocated LE60 million for the development of stops on it and the restoration of monuments.
At Gabal Al-Teir, the ministry has allocated LE7.5 million for the development, which upgraded facilities 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.
At Gabal Al-Teir, roads leading to it have been extended and paved, sunshades, seats, and signage have been installed, and landscaping work has been done on the area surrounding the monastery.
Mahmoud Shaarawi, 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 cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Egyptian Coptic Church, with the support of 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 further stops in four governorates on the Holy Family Trail had been completed and there was more to come at four others in order to present the trail to the Egyptian public and the world as one of humanity’s most important heritage landmarks.
He described the opening of the Gabal Al-Teir stop on the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt as a further success to be added to other efforts to develop the trail. More stops would soon be added to underline Egypt’s readiness to welcome pilgrims and tourists from all over the globe wanting to seek blessings from these holy places, he added.
Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said that the Church of the Virgin Mary at Gabal Al-Teir was built in 328 CE by the Byzantine empress Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, in memory of the passage of the Holy Family in Egypt.
In 1938, Severus, the bishop of Minya, restored the church and removed the original stone roof in order to enlarge it.
The church consists of a nave with three sanctuaries and two side aisles and a western return aisle separated from each other by 10 rock-cut columns. On the south side of the church, the baptismal font is carved out of a column. The area in front of the middle sanctuary serves as a choir.
Hisham Samir, assistant to the minister of tourism and antiquities for archaeological projects, said that work on the restoration project at the monastery and church had begun in 2018 after the approval of the Permanent Committee of Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities.
The work was carried out in two phases, the first phase covering the western corridor and now being completely finished. The second phase includes the southern corridor.
The work has included the restoration of the walls and ceiling of the church, removing cracks, consolidating the walls, and repairing the bell in the tower and the building’s four arcades and domes.
The façades of the church have been mechanically cleaned, and the modern mosaic set up in 1987 on the eastern wall of its southern entrance has been replaced with another mosaic showing the journey of the Holy Family.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.