Egypt, new dimensions, new frontiers

Introduction - Facts for the travellers - Where to go, what to see? - History: Pharaonic history -
Coptic history
- Islamic history - Modern history - Holy Family - Useful Arabic

The Holy Family

The Holy Family, when Christ was an infant, found haven in Egypt for nearly four years after their flight out of fear from the persecution of King Herod.

When the world is celebrating the bith of the Christ, together with the birth of the twenty first century, Egypt's re-paving of the route the Holy Family followed is part of a comprehensive policy to revive and give prominence to all the religious landmarks which constitute the spiritual heritage of the Egyptian civilization.


According to the sources of the Coptic Church, the Holy Family proceeded from Bethlehem to Gaza and thence to El-Zaraniq (also known as Flussiat) some 37 kms west of El-Arish. Then they threated their way along northern Sinai until they reached Farma (ancient Pelusium) mid-way between Al-Arish and present day Port Said.

It was their last stop in Sinai. And with the next leg of their journey they put the perils of the wilderness behind them.

Tel Basta which they now enter is a short distance from Zagazig, the main town in Sharqiah governorate about 100 kms north-east of Cairo. Here Jesus cause a water-spring to well up from the ground and his presence caused the idols to crumble, as foretold by the prophets of old. The townfolk, in consequence, turned malevolent and aggressive, wherupon the Holy Family turned their backs on the town and headed southwards.

In due course, they reached Mostorod (which came to be called, in those days "Al-Mahamma") only about 10 kms away from Cairo. Al-Mahamma means "the Bathing Place", a name given to the town because the Virgin Mary bathed the Christ Child and washed his clothes. It is worthy of note that, on their way back to Palestine, the Holy Family stopped once more at Mostorod and, this time, caused a spring to gush from the earth which still flows forth to the present days.

From Mostorod, the Holy Family made their way north-eastwards to Belbeis (ancient Philippos), back in Sharqiah Governorate, and at a distance of about 55 kms from Cairo. They rested there in the shade of a tree which came to be called "The Virgin Mary's Tree".

Having left their mark on Belbeis, the Holy Family sett off in a north-westerly direction and, reaching the small township of Meniet Samannoud (known also as Meniet Genah), they crossed the Nile to the city of Samannoud (or Jennoty) in the Delta, where the local population received them with a kindness and hospitality that earned them deserved blessing. There is in Samannoud, to this day, a large granite trough which, according to local belief, was used by the Virgin for kneading dough and a water-well which the Christ Child himself hallowed.

Again towards the north-west the Holy Family now travelled until they reached the city of Sakha, in the lake-district of Burullus, in the present day governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh. The coptic name of the town "Pekha-Issus" means "the foot of Jesus", for the holy Child's foot-print was marked here, in bas-relief on a rock. The rock was preserved, but hidden for centuries for fear of robbery, and only unearthed again 13 years ago.

Their trail from Sakha, is recorded in the documentation of PopeTheophilus's vision, ans attested to by Coptic practice in the Chritian era. For it was to Wadi El-Natrun (Natrun Valley) that they now came, after crossing the Rosetta branch of the Nile to the western Delta and heading south into Wadi El-Natrun (then called El-Asqeet) in the western desert of Egypt. In the earliest decades of christianity, the desert expanses of Wadi El-Natrun became the site of anchoretic settlement and, later, of many monasteries, in spiritual commemoration of the Holy Family's passage through the Valley.

Eventually they left the desert behind them and made their way southwards, crossing the Nile to its eastern bank, and heading for Matariyah and Ain Shams (ancient Heliopolis). Both these adjacent districts are outlying suburbs of present-day Cairo, only 10 kms or so from the city centre. At the time of the Holy Family's arrival there, Ain Shams was home to a large Jewish community, who had erected a temple -the Synagogue of Unias- for their workship. In Matariyah, a tree still stand to this day, still regularly visited, called Mary's tree, for the Holy Family is believed to have rested in its shade. Here too, the Infant Jesus caused water to flow from a spring from which he drank and blessed, and in which the Virgin washed his clothes. She poured the washing on to the ground, and from that spot, the fragrant balsam plant blossomed. Besides the healing and pain-soothing properties of this balm, its essence is used in the preparation of the scents and parfumes of which the holy Chrism is composed.

Setting out next towards Old Cairo, the Holy Family rested for a while in Zeitun, on their way, then proceeded along a course which traverses what are now crowded, bustling quarters of Cairo, within which the serene landmarks of an earlier Coptic heritage still stand, marking the paths the Holy Family followed.

The area now called Old Cairo, known as Misr El-Qadima, is among the most important locations visited by the Holy Family where the spiritual impact of their presence is most felt still. Though their stay was brief, for the Governor of what was then Fustat -enraged by the tumbling down of idols at Jesus's approach- sought to kill the child. But they took shelter from his wrath in a cave above which, in later years, the church of Abu Serga (St Sergius) was built. This, and the whole area of the Fort of Babylon, is a destination of pilgrimage not only for the Egyptians but for Christians from around the world.
After their short, but all-too-felt, stay in Old Cairo, the Holy Family moved in a southerly direction, reaching the modern Cairo suburb of Maadi which, in earliest Pharaonic times, was an outlying district of Memphis, the capital of Egypt then. At Maadi, they boarded a sailing-boat which carried them up the Nile towards southern Egypt. The historic church built upon the spot from which they embarked, also dedicated to the Virgin, is further identified by the denominative "El-Adaweya", the Virgin's church "of the Ferry". The stone steps leading down to the river's bank, and believed to have been used by the Holy Family, are accessible to pilgrims through the church courtyard.

The sail-boat docked at the village of Deir El-Garnus. Outside the western wall of the church of the Virgin there, a deep well is believed to have provided the Holy Family with the water they needed.

They went on from there to a spot later named Abai Issus, "The Home of Jesus", the site of present-day Sandafa village.

On towards the south they went from Sandafa to Samalout and crossed the Nile again from that town to the spot on the east bank of the River where monastery of the Virgin now stands upon Gabal Al-Tair (Bird mountain) east of Samalout. It is known by this name (Gabal El-Tair) because thousand of birds gather there. The Holy Family rested in the cave which is now located inside the ancient church there. Gabal El-Tair is also called Gabal El-Kaf (Palm Mountain). Coptic tradition maintains that, as the Holy Family rested in the shade of the mountain, Jesus stretched his little hand to hold back a rock which was about to detach itself from the mountain-side and fall upon them. The imprint of his palm is still visible. When they resumed their travels, the Holy Family passed a laurel tree a stone's throw south of Gabal El-Tair, along the pathway flanking the Nile and leading from the mountain to Nazlet Ebeid and the new Minia Bridge of today. It is claimed that this tree bowed for workship the Lord Christ as he was passing. The configuration of the tree is, indeed, unique: all the branches incline downwards, trailing on the ground, then turn upwards again, covered in a cloak of green leaves. They call the tree El-Abed ("The Worshipper").

Once more crossing the Nile, back to its west bank, the Holy Family travelled southwards to the town of El-Ashmounein or Hermopolis Magna, but it seems that they did not tarry long there. Leaving behind them the rubble of fallen idols, they continued still in a southerly direction, for another 20 kms or so to Dairout El-Sharif (which, like El-Ashmounein had an alternative Greek name: Philes), and thence to Qussqam (or Qost-Qoussia). Here, too, the recorded events testify that the townfolk were infuriated when the stone statue of their local deity cracked and fell, and evicted the Holy Family from the town. A historically recorded incident dating to that period refers to the devastation of Qussqam, and Coptic tradition asserts that the ruins that befell the town was the consequence of its violent rejection of the violent visitors.

We have an entirely different story in the warm welcome with which the holy refugees were met at their next stop at Meir only 7 kms west of Qoussia. Here, they found only consideration and hospitality wherever they went, for which treatment the town and its people were signally blessed.

Now it was time for the Holy Family to set out for what is, arguably, the most meaningful destination of all in the land of Egypt, the place where there would be "an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt". Gabal (Mount) Qussqam, which takes its name from the town nearby that was laid waste,is 327 kms south of Cairo, and stands in the governorate of Assiut. The monastery El-Muharraq nestles against the western foothills of the Mountain. It was built around the area where the Holy Family remained just over six months. Their time was spent mainly in a cave which became, in the Coptic era, the altar of the church of Virgin Mary, built at the western end of the monastery compound. The altar-stone was the resting place of the Child Jesus during the months he dwelt there. The whole area -the monastery and its surroundings- is redolent of the Coptic Christian ethos. So hallowed are its intimations, that the Copts of Egypt named the second Bethleem. It was here, at the very spot where El-Muharraq monastery stands, that the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said "Arise, and take the young Child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sough the young Child's life" (Matthew 2: 20 & 21).

The Return

And so they set forth on the return journey. The route they took deviated slightly from the one by which they had come. It took them to Mount Dronka, 8 kms south-west of the city of Assiut,and their blessing of this location was commemorated in the Christian era by the building of the mountain-top monastery of Dronka. Eventually, they arrived at Old Cairo, then Matariyah, and on to Mahamma, retracing more or less their steps on their outward journey across Sinai to Palestine.

Subsequent Biblical history says it all: at the end, they arrived home, Joseph's old house, in the small town of Nazareth, in Galilee, in the land of Palestine, from where the message of Christ would, in the fulness time, be heard.

The whole journey, from the initial flight from Bethlehem to the return to Nazareth lasted over three years. They had covered something like 2000 kms.

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© World INvestment NEws, 2000.
This is the electronic edition of the special country report on Egypt published in Forbes Global Magazine.
August 7th 2000 Issue.
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