The Refugee Savior: How Egyptian Christians Still Make Room for the Holy Family

Featured photo: Popko van Meekeren, Coptic deacons in procession.

The text below this introduction was sent to Christianity Today, in the USA and edited for publication in the December issue of Christianity Today , copyright Christianity Today.

Author: Cornelis Hulsman

Christianity Today had already asked me to write an article on the Holy Family in April 2000. That was postponed for various reasons, not least because I was seriously ill in June 2000 and needed a few months to recover.

The research for this article was done when I worked with Dr. Gowdet Gabra, director of the Coptic Museum, Prof. Dr. Stephen Davis, professor in early church history at the Coptic Evangelical Seminary in Cairo, Dr. William Lyster, art historian, and photographer Norbert Schiller on the book “Be Thou There: The Holy Family’s Journey in Egypt” [AUC Press, 2001].

Historicity of the Holy Family Tradition

In both the book and the article a balance needed to be made between historical reality and tradition. Many Copts are absolutely convinced this tradition is historical truth. They are convinced Jesus Christ indeed visited specific locations in Egypt. The only first century source we have is the Gospel of Matthew but Matthew doesn’t mention any specific location in Egypt. Those locations were only mentioned centuries later.

Westerners may call this tradition a legend but it is certainly an old one and one that is of tremendous importance for the church in Egypt. It would thus not be correct to brush it away because of lack of any historical and archaeological evidence that the Holy Family visited specific locations.

The tradition of the church depends to a great extent on medieval manuscripts. But a problem is that the surviving copies of those manuscripts are not that old. One of the main sources for this tradition is the Vision of Theophilus [most scholars who worked on this text believe it was attributed to Theophilus], Coptic patriarch from 385 to 412. This text was originally written in Coptic, but no Coptic manuscript has survived. The full text survives only in Arabic, Syriac (15th century) and Ethiopian (later than the Syriac) translations. The oldest surviving Arabic manuscript of this vision is found in the Vatican and dates to the 14th century. The oldest surviving manuscript in Egypt is in the Monastery of Al-Muharraq and dates only to the 19th century.

Other important sources for this tradition are the homilies attributed to Cyriacus and Zacharias. Dr. Stephen Davis believes “the sermon of Cyriacus is probably by him, but no one seems to know for sure in what century he lived (guesses have ranged from the 6th to the 15th).” Davis, however, doubts the authenticity of the sermon of the early eighth century bishop Zacharias of Sakha despite the arguments of some who accepted the sermon’s authenticity. See also the chapter of Davis in Be Thou There. The surviving manuscripts attributed to Cyriacus and Zacharias both date to the 15th century.

The dating of manuscripts does not reflect the dating of the sources

The dating of manuscripts of works attributed to Theophilus, Cyriacus and Zacharias does not necessarily reflect the dating of the original sources, or which manuscript tradition is to be preferred.

An additional issue is that the route of the Holy Family in Egypt has been expanding through the centuries. New locations are being added even until today. Two recent examples are the monastery of Durunka and the monastery of Dimyana. Prof. Dr. Otto Meinardus, the great western researcher in Coptic Church history, explained, during a visit to Egypt in March 2000, that Bishop Michael of Assiut first promoted Durunka as a Holy Family site after the monastery of Al-Muharraq was torn apart by internal rivalries of monks [described by Meinardus in one of his earlier publications – these rivalries later disappeared]. Meinardus also explained that Coptic businessmen in Assiut found it important to direct the revenues of pilgrimage to their own bishopric instead of a monastery which was so torn apart by strife. They thus encouraged the bishop of Assiut to develop a site in his own diocese. And so Durunka was developed as a pilgrimage site. Coptic businessmen from Assiut have been generously contributing to the development of this site and today Durunka surpasses Al-Muharraq in the number of pilgrims it attracts.
Another recent addition is the Monastery of Dimyana. Manuscripts linking Dimyana to the Flight-to-Egypt do not exist. When Prof. Meinardus visited this monastery in the 1960s no one brought to attention the site of this monastery in relation with the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. Today they do, claiming it to be based on an oral tradition Meinardus did not find. This resulted in the church placing Dimyana on the official itinerary of the flight to Egypt prior to the celebrations of the year 2000, and thus the visit of the Holy Family to this location has to many Coptic Orthodox become an undisputed historical fact.

Naturally this could not be mentioned in a text for the general public in the US. The importance of this tradition is not that we are dealing here with undisputed historical facts but with a tradition which has been important for believers in Egypt for many centuries. The belief that the Holy Family visited Egypt has been a source of great comfort for Christians in Egypt. Recent additions of sites show that Christians in Egypt want to be connected to this tradition.

I have shown a copy of the draft text for Christianity Today to Bishop Demetrius of Malawi and author on a booklet on the Flight-to-Egypt according to the Coptic tradition prior to sending this text to Christianity Today. Bishop Demetrius liked the text because he found it gave a good balance between Western skepticism on the one hand and showing the importance of the traditions for the Copts on the other hand. He suggested the insertion of the second paragraph under the subheading ’VISIONS.’ Christianity Today did not taken up his suggestion for lack of space. The text I had handed in was already too long and the suggestion of bishop Demetrius made it even longer.

The text has also been seen by Prof. Dr. Stephen Davis. He wrote that the text is well written and presented all historical evidence in a proper way.

Christianity Today has done a marvelous job in editing the text (a major difficulty was to provide readers with a good overview of both leaders with a limited number of words). This issue of Christianity Today was well received in Egypt and resulted in complements from Bishop Marcos and other Egyptian Christians who have seen this text. This in turn resulted in a request to Christianity Today to present us with many more copies of this issue to distribute to clergy on the locations of the Holy Family in Egypt.

Text as sent to Christianity Today:

Every year, Dayr Abu Hinnis, a small isolated Christian village 300 km south of Cairo, celebrates the arrival of the Holy Family some 2000 years ago. The village lies tuck between the mountains and the East bank of the Nile, only reachable by ferry from the West bank where most of the people live. On January 11 they remember the brutal murder of the children of Bethlehem and the escape to Egypt. God turned Herod’s evil into a blessing for Egypt.

Dayr Abu Hinnes’ poorly preserved sixth century murals show in detail the magi from the east asking King Herod “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2: 2). Herod found out He was to be born in Bethlehem, was troubled and asked the Magi to inform him where to find the young king, “so that I too may go and worship Him,” he lied. Yet, God prevented the evil plans of Herod when they returned to their own country without informing him.

An angel warned Joseph in a dream that King Herod wanted to kill Jesus, ” as the Dayr Abu Hinnis mural shows. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.” When Herod realized he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem (Matthew 2: 13-16).

The wall paintings, the yearly commemoration of the children’s murder and the celebration of the flight into Egypt link Bethlehem with this small, little known Egyptian village.

In January, thousands of Christians from the West bank come in busloads to their side of the Nile. They cross it with a government ferry, sing and clap with joy, trying to obtain a good viewpoint to see the Coptic Orthodox bishop of the town of Malawi cross the Nile in a splendidly decorated sailing boat and land on the east bank of the Nile, just as the Holy Family did 2000 years ago.

Photo: John Winston Chinnery, Coptc deacons offshore.

The procession with crosses and icons takes us through the village by the fifth century church to Kom Maria, an empty sand hill just outside the village. During the celebration, a festivity tent is pitched on the place where, according to tradition, the Holy Family rested on their flight from the soldiers of Herod who were following the Holy Family until losing track of them further south at the mountains of Qusqam where today the monastery of al-Muharraq is located.

A number of locations in Egypt boast that the Holy Family visited and blessed them. They organize moulids or pilgrimage festivals, primarily between May and September. The celebration in Dayr Abu Hinnis is just one of them.
Moulids can attract thousands and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, including a small number of Muslims. Pilgrims come to pray for anything that is important in their personal lives, from miraculous healings to children for childless couples.
Most Muslims come just to enjoy the atmosphere and join their Christian friends in the feast, but sometimes may request a prayer of a priest, a blessing over a child or a planned marriage.


The Gospel of Matthew mentions no specific locations in Egypt at which the Holy Family stopped, but church tradition does. Many Coptic Christians believe that – despite a lack of archeological evidence – the tradition linked to specific locations goes back to the first century.

Coptic Orthodox Bishop Demetrius of the city of Malawi, author of a widely distributed booklet about the Holy Family, explains “The church in the first centuries was persecuted by the Romans. Naturally putting oral traditions on paper wouldn’t be people’s first concern but you never know, perhaps we will later find documents of this period.”

The first location is mentioned in “A History of the Monks in Egypt,” a book describing the journey of seven pilgrims to Egypt around A.D. 394-95. People in Hermopolis (today al-Ashmunayn, 280 km south of Cairo) told these pilgrims about a temple where the idols had fallen down after the Savior had entered the city, a powerful story in a time when paganism was still strong.

Copts believe the next reference to specific locations is the Vision of Pope Theophilus (patriarch from 385 to 412). The Vision describes in great detail how the Holy Virgin told Theophilus in a dream about the miracles during their sojourn from Bethelehem to al-Ashmunayn and the mountains of Qusqam (the Monastery of al-Muharraq).

The historian Sozomon wrote around A.D. 450 in his “History of the Church” about an oral tradition of the visit of the Holy Family in al-Ashmonayn, but does not mention the Vision of Theophilus nor any of the other locations mentioned in this Vision.

Later, the Homily of Zacharias (an eighth century bishop) added sites in the Delta. Al-Bahnassa, Dayr al-Garnus and Ishnin al-Nasara are mentioned in a manuscript attributed to medieval Bishop Cyriacus. He wrote that father Antonius, a pious man, witnessed a miraculous light on a hill and was told in a vision this was the place the Son of God had visited. Father Shenouda of Dayr al-Garnus says the bishop also referred to a now lost manuscript of Joseph the Carpenter who wrote about their visit to this location.

Scholars believe these traditions were probably later attributed to these church leaders to give the stories greater authority. Coptic clergy and believers do not accept these doubts, in contrast to Western thinking.

Many Orthodox Christians in Egypt attach great value to the statements or revelations of important church leaders, who, they believe, would not make such statements if they were not supported by known facts and tradition. Unlike western scholars, most church people do not believe statements have been later attributed to their church leaders. They have also not developed a skeptical attitude if archaeology and manuscripts provide no convincing evidence.

Also in modern days additions are made to the tradition. Father Matta from Tammua in Giza claims that Pope Cyril VI (1959-1970) had a dream revealing the visit of the Holy Family to his church.

People in the church of Zaytun in Cairo claim the Holy Family must have visited that location because the Holy Virgin appeared there in 1968. Why would she appear at a site which had not been blessed before?

Metropolitan Bishoi argues his monastery of Dimyana was visited by the Holy Family according to an until-then not recorded oral tradition. Medieval manuscripts mention that the Holy Family visited al-Burullus, near the Mediterranean Sea, and thus they also must have visited nearby Dimyana. Dimyana has been accepted on the official itinerary of the church, but not Tammua nor Zaytun.

Tradition also developed through new findings on old locations. In 1984, a stone was found in front of the church of Sakha (135 km north of Cairo) during work on the sewage system. On one side was a small dark spot, on the other side the word Allah (God) was written in Arabic. Christian workers immediately believed this dark spot had to be the footprint of Jesus which was known from medieval documents but which had disappeared in the 13th century. The stone was brought to Pope Shenouda who prayed over it and decided it this was indeed the stone with the footprint of Jesus. Coptic expert Dr. Otto Meinardus, a former professor at the American University in Cairo, does not believe this is true.

Western scholars may doubt the historicity of the tradition, but it is certain that the tradition remains very important for the church and ordinary believers.

The Monastries of Muharraq and Durunka

Blessed be Egypt, my people

“The church in Egypt is the only church in the world which has been prophesied in the Old Testament” says Father Philoxenos of the Monastery of al-Muharraq. He explains that the tradition of the flight-to-Egypt is rooted in the prophecy of Isaiah 19. Verse one speaks about the idols of Egypt trembling before the Lord. “That was fulfilled when our Lord came to Egypt. Important too is verse 19: ’In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt.’ This verse refers to the altar in the Monastery of al-Muharraq that lies in the middle of Egypt. The flight of the Holy Family to Egypt was the beginning of the church in Egypt and made Isaiah say ’blessed be Egypt my people’” (Isaiah 19: 25).

The Monastery of al-Muharraq is also important because according to tradition an angel of the Lord appeared there in a dream to Joseph after Herod died and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 2: 19-20)

These important references to the Monastery of al-Muharraq made Copts compare this monastery to Jerusalem. Although al-Muharraq is the most important pilgrimage location on the route of the Holy Family, the monastery of Durunka, which is not mentioned in relation to the Holy Family in any medieval document, gradually overshadowed the monastery of al-Muharraq in the number of pilgrims visiting the site. As recently as the 1940s Durunka was not on the official itinerary of the church.

Bishop Michael of Assiut has been actively promoting Durunka since the fifties and says the Holy Family first went 60 km south before they sailed north because Durunka was situated near Lycopolis (Assiut) which had in those days the best port in the area. The bishop greatly improved and expanded the facilities, making it possible for a large number of pilgrims to visit the beautifully located monastery.

Durunka has also been blessed by miraculous appearances of the Holy Virgin in 1980, 1988, 1990 and August 2001. “Is that not proof the Holy Family indeed visited Durunka?” asked Brother Luke of the monastery of Durunka.

Monks in the monastery of al-Muharraq disagree and refer to Pope Theophilus whose Vision mentions al-Ashmunayn, 60 km north of their monastery, not Durunka which lies in the opposite direction.

The tradition of the village of al-Qusayr, seven kilometers east of al-Muharraq, on the West bank of the Nile, seems to agree with that of the Monastery of al-Muharraq. Villagers say the Holy Family appeared in the 19th century in their cave church, indicating the Holy Family must have been there. They believe the Holy Family took a smaller vessel from al-Qusayr north to al-Ashmunayn from where they took a larger boat and returned to Palestine.

Importance of the Tradition

The tradition links Jesus’ journey through Egypt with the church of today.

The infant Jesus showed the Egyptians He was indeed the son of God. He raised the son of a widow in Bilbeis from the death. That story is remarkably similar to that of the widow of Nain (Luke 7: 11-17). Wells were created, caves and trees were blessed. The Pharaonic priests and towns which rejected him were cursed. Those who received him well were blessed, a blessing remaining for those locations until today.

Many of the locations related to the Holy Family were once important Pharaonic cities. Early Christians were not afraid to witness for their faith in those centers and face the consequences of martyrdom. They knew from the prophecies of Isaiah 19, Jeremiah 43 and Ezekiel 29 and 30 that the Pharaonic religion would wither away.

Overcoming Evil

The tradition developed and expanded in medieval times. We know how important this tradition was but we do not know how this tradition played a role in strengthening the faith of local Christians who were at times persecuted, attacked by angry mobs, etc. How did they interpret the story in those days? Did they believe that those who attacked them would be cursed and those who helped them would be blessed just as Jesus did when he came to Egypt?

The head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda, explained in an article in the Christian weekly Watani the importance of the flight-to-Egypt for Christians today.

The people of Egypt did not pray for Jesus to come and they did not ask for His grace, but yet this grace was offered to them.

Evil should never be answered with evil, Pope Shenouda writes. The Holy Family did not resist Herod’s effort to kill them, but they escaped. Jesus did not resist the evil through fighting it but He conquered it through His sacrifice on the cross. In the same way martyrs did not resist the evil but conquered it through the perseverance in their faith as Jesus commanded “Do not resist an evil person.” (Matthew 5:39)

Pope Shenouda concludes his explanation of the flight to Egypt by making it personal. As Egypt opened its heart to Jesus and welcomed the Holy Family, so we should open our hearts to God.

What is the benefit if God comes for all Egypt, but does not come into your house?

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