In the heavily populated Cairo district of Matariya stands an ancient sycamore tree, named the Virgin Mary Tree, which is now welcoming pilgrims and visitors after years of closure for restoration and development.
For decades, the site has attracted thousands of pilgrims because it is said to have offered shelter to the Holy Family during their stay in Egypt at the beginning of the Christian era.
According to fifth-century Coptic Pope Theophilus, Joseph possessed a wooden walking stick that the infant Jesus broke into pieces. Joseph then buried the pieces at the site in what today is Matariya, and when he placed his hand on the ground a spring burst forth beside a sycamore tree that had provided shade and respite for the Holy Family.
The pieces of the buried stick flourished and emanated a pleasing scent. Jesus drank from the spring and numerous balsam trees grew on the spot.
The Arab historian Al-Maqrizi later described the Holy Family’s journey in Egypt in the mid-15th century, mentioning that they had settled in Matariya by a stream. He recounts that when the Virgin Mary washed Jesus’ clothes in the stream, the water flooded the nearby land where balsam trees began to grow.
Al-Maqrizi adds that the balsam oil from the trees was prized for use in baptism.
It is said that when the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus tried to escape from two brigands who were pursuing them, the trunk of the sycamore tree also miraculously opened its bark, allowing them to hide inside and escape detection.
The tree is said to have medicinal properties, which is why its branches have been depleted by pilgrims over the years. Nearby, the spring where the Virgin Mary is said to have bathed Jesus is also part of the miracles of the place because of its healing water.
Today, the site of the Virgin Mary Tree boasts various archaeological and modern attractions including the well, the tree, and several stone water basins. As part of the site’s development, a visitor centre has been established with interactive screens to engage visitors and introduce them to the route of the Holy Family’s journey in Egypt and the restoration and development projects on related monuments.
It also displays a film relating the story of the Holy Family’s journey. A small museum displaying icons and other artefacts alongside a photogrammetric map of other places visited by the Holy Family in Egypt is also provided on site.
Under the development project for the site, a wooden fence now protects the tree, and the well has been cleaned and reopened. The roads around the archaeological area have been paved and upgraded, the empty area in front of the site has been converted into a garden, eco-friendly recycle bins, sunshades and wooden seats have been provided, descriptive street signs erected, new lighting and security systems installed, and tourist services upgraded.
Brochures in English and Arabic about the site are also provided along with one for the visually impaired.
Late last week, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ahmed Issa, Minister of Local Development Hisham Amena and Cairo Governor Khaled Abdel-Aal inaugurated the Virgin Mary Tree after the completion of the restoration and development work carried out at the tree and its surroundings.
The inauguration came within the framework of a project to revive the trail of the Holy Family in Egypt, upgrading the quality of the services offered to visitors. It is another milestone in the development of the Holy Family Trail, which has witnessed the inauguration of stops in Sakha in Kafr Al-Sheikh, Tel Basta in Sharqiya, Samanoud in Gharbiya, the Wadi Al-Natroun Monasteries in Beheira, and Gabal Al-Teir in Minya.
Facilities are being upgraded 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 all part of developing spiritual tourism that can appeal throughout the year and not just during special seasons.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.