Searching the Route: On the History and Present of the Holy Family Tradition

Featured photo: Norbert Schiller, a priest blessed a child and two women at Kom Maria just outside the village of Dayr Abu Hinnis.

The text below is an Egypt Today article from the year 2000, when H.H. Pope Shenouda and President Mubarak were still in power.


Author: Cornelis Hulsman

Egypt’s oldest churches and monasteries have always attracted many hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.” The Coptic Orthodox Church, to which 90 percent of Egypt’s Christians belong, has convinced authorities and the public of the flight’s importance, and the Ministry of Tourism has since actively supported religious tourism, publishing a photo book and distributing it worldwide. In the past year dozens of articles have appeared in the Egyptian press about the project, and Nile TV broadcast an awareness-raising documentary during Pope John Paul’s recent visit. The American University in Cairo Press is also publishing a book about the Holy Family.

But not all sites can be ready before deadline. “We need approximately LE 100 million to restore everything. We have raised LE 15 million mainly from the business community,” says Ghabbour. “The Ministry of Tourism promised to contribute LE 5 million for the groundwater now destroying Harit Zuweila Church. Once we receive that, the restoration can be carried out. The Ministry of Environment will provide LE 1 million. This is the first phase. We’ll need approximately five years to complete the project.”

According to tradition, the Holy Family went from Bethlehem to Rafah, El-Arish and Farma in North Sinai. Recent excavations in Farina yielded ruins of several ancient churches. Farma has no facilities for tourists and needs renovation, but this is soon to change says Ramzy Zaklama, chairman of the Skel-club, of which many tourist industry giants are members. “NEHRA is preparing the site for pilgrims. We want to build an auditorium, hotels and other facilities for tourists.”

the mighty Bubastis would turn into a heap of rubble.

From Farma the Holy Family continued to Bubastis, city of the pharaonic lion goddess Bastet, just outside modern-day Zagazig. “When Jesus entered the temple, the idols crumbled before Him, says Father Magar in Zagazig. “The idol worshippers wanted to kill Him and the city was cursed. The prophet Ezekiel (chapters 29 and 30) had prophesied the end of pharaonic Egypt, and that the mighty Bubastis would turn into a heap of rubble.”

The Holy Family escaped to Musturud, north of Cairo, where they were well received and stayed in a crypt which today is part of the church. Because the inhabitants of Mustorod were good to the Holy Family their village was blessed with a well. Today, Musturud hosts throngs of pilgrims who come to touch the walls of the crypt and drink from the blessed water of the well.

Fearing Herod’s soldiers, the caravan fled north, stopping briefly in various spots including Sakha. In 1984, locals working on a sewage system just outside the church suddenly hit a stone.Recalling the Coptic Synaxar (book of saints), they exclaimed, “This is the footprint of Jesus!” Since a man suffering with an eye disease washed in the water where the stone was found and was healed, it has been treated as an icon. It was sent to Pope Shenouda, at that time under house arrest in the Monastery of Bishoi, who confirmed its authenticity. Today the stone is displayed in a glass box in the church, where people come from all over the world to pray. “This discovery shows that the Holy Family is still living among us,” says Gabra. “It is part of people’s experiences.” Medieval manuscripts had mentioned such a stone, but also that it had disappeared.

Church of Sakha
Photo: Norbert Schiller, the Church of the Holy Virgin at Sakha, where the stone with Jesus’ footprint.

By some accounts, the Holy Family then went to Wadi al-Natrun, the center of monastic Coptic Orthodox Church life. This encouraged NEHRA to build a museum in the Monastery of Bishoi, which houses ancient monastic artifacts. The next destination was Cairo. In On (Heliopolis), center of the cult of Aton, idol worshippers chased the Holy Family out of the city. The prophecy of Jeremiah (43: 13) was fulfilled when On’s temples and sacred pillars were later destroyed.

Groundwater has damaged many sites visited by the family, including the churches of Harit Zuweila and Harit El-Rum and those of Old Cairo, which once boasted Egypt’s finest ancient churches. The area suffered greatly after the building of the Aswan High Dam, and much work still remains to be done to control the water. Until recently, the crypt of the Holy Family in the church of Abu Serga, once an important destination for medieval European pilgrims, had been submerged by groundwater. NEHRA is now working hard to control the water level and restore the crypt. UNESCO has channeled LE 50 million through the Ministry of Culture to restore the Hanging Church which, a few years ago, was on the verge of collapse due to the rising water.

Two thousand years ago the Holy Family were experiencing different problems. When the governor of Old Cairo heard of idols falling before Jesus, he plotted to kill Him and the group fled to Maadi. Maadi was thrust into the limelight when, in 1976, a deacon found a Bible floating in the Nile with the pages turned to Isaiah 19: “Blessed be Egypt my people.” For this month’s occasion, the Ministry of Tourism is putting on a high-tech laser show depicting the flight. Pope Shenouda, El-Beltagui and other dignitaries are expected to attend, and Ghabbour hopes President Mubarak will be there to inaugurate the festivities.

Church of St. Barbara
Photo: Norbert Schiller, Easter celebration at the Churh of St. Barbara, Cairo

Not much has been done to develop sites south of Cairo, but NEHRA and Egyptian authorities plan to work on them because of the important stops there. Bahnassa, once a powerful bishopric with tens of thousands of monks and nuns, is now an isolated Muslim village receiving only a few pilgrims. The blessed well of the Holy Family and the tree which provided them shade are still there. Muslim villagers are keen to show visitors around the ruins of a church which was discovered only a few years ago below a cemetery. In Deyr al-Garnus and Ishnin al-Nasara, the tradition of the Holy Family is very much alive among the Christian communities. Both villages have wells where the water rises at the beginning of June, when the family arrived in Egypt. Dr. Otto Meinardus, author of a number of works on Coptic Church history, believes these were once used as Nilometers to predict water levels.

Farther south lies Gabal al-Tayr (Mountain of the Birds). The cliff, boasting a marvelous view of the Nile, is also known as Gebel El-Kaff (Mountain of the Palm) because, according to a medieval manuscript describing the dream of Pope Theophilus who ruled the church from 384 to 412 A.D., this is the place where Jesus left an imprint of his hand in the rocks. The text depicts how pagan priests saw the idols falling down and tried to harm the Holy Family. Jesus placed his hand on a rock which split apart, allowing them refuge from the angry priests. The imprint of the hand no longer exists and some say the Crusaders stole it, while others believe it was taken by the British and kept in storage at the British Museum. The church at Gabal al-Tayr deserves a visit for its beautiful church door, a masterpiece hewn out of solid rock. According to a study by the western scholar E. Pauty in the Bulletin de la Societe d’Archeologie Copte, the magnificent door could well go back to the fifth or sixth century. Here it is not uncommon to see Muslim as well as Christian pilgrims. Recently, two Muslim couples from Cairo asked Father Matta for a prayer because it was their great desire to conceive. “We come with our Christian friends to the moulid of Saint Mary at Gabal al-Tayr in August,” says Ahmed, one of the men. After al-Ashmunayn, with its ruins of a huge fifth century basilica sided by pharaonic temples, the Holy Family crossed the Nile to the east. In the cemetery of the Muslim village of Sheikh Abada is Bir al-Sahaba, the well Jesus created. Radi, a villager from nearby Dayr Abu Hinnis, strongly believes in the miraculous capacity of the 23 m deep well. “Pregnant women and the sick come here to drink from the water for baraka (blessing). We know of many miraculous healings of people who drank from the well and prayed.”

Ashmunayn
Photo: Norbert Schiller, the colossal Corinithian columns of the basilica of Hermopolis (al-Ashmunayn).

After quenching their thirst at the well, the Holy Family continued on to Kom Maria, a lonely hill outside the Christian village of Dayr Abu Hinnis, where every year Bishop Demetrius of Malawi holds a Mass on June 1 to commemorate the Holy Family’s visit. Founded in the early fifth century, Deir Abu Hinnis was once a flourishing monastery. The oldest parts are its two altars and the Virgin Mary’s ancient offering table topped by a marble stone, which may once have been used as a funerary stela. Egyptian Christians believe blessings in the form of fertile land, wells and healing spots must be attributed to the Holy Family or other saints. In the case of Meir, they say their land is more fertile because it was blessed by Jesus. After this comes the undisputed highlight of the flight: Dayr al-Muharraq, 50 km north of Assiut. “Here the soldiers of Herod couldn’t find them and they stayed over six months, longer than at any other place in Egypt, until an angel told Joseph to return to Palestine since Herod was dead [Matthew 2:19],” says Father Philoxenos of Dayr al-Muharraq. “This church is the only one in the world whose existence was prophesied in the Old Testament because the altar refers to the Monastery of Muharraq in the middle of Egypt. Isaiah 19:1 speaks about the Lord coming on a cloud to Egypt. Who else is this but our Lord Jesus?” argues Father Philoxenos, explaining that the cloud is a metaphor for St. Mary. “Jesus made three promises to Deir El-Muharraq. The first is that it will never be deserted. This is true because we have never been without monks. In the last decades we have had many young men who have been called to the monastic life. This place will be inhabited and living until the last day of life,” Father Philoxenos says. “The second promise is that the holy service will be performed at this altar until the Day of Judgment. The third is that prayers of anyone praying sincerely in the Church of the Holy Virgin in our monastery will be heard.” Today it is one of Egypt’s most important Christian centers, attracting an estimated 200,000 pilgrims annually.

Dayr al-Muharraq
Photo: Norbert Schiller, Dayr al- Muharraq sits in the middle of the Nile Valley surrounded by farms

In 1995 the ancient cave at Dronka, through which the Holy Family might have returned to Cairo, attracted, according to Meinardus, hardly any pilgrims. Bishop Michael from Assiut started rebuilding the site, including hundreds of dormitories for guests and sanitary facilities for large crowds. Today, it frequently draws in up to 500,000 visitors, making it Christian Egypt’s largest pilgrimage center. The site sets an example for others as a number of tourist companies have started placing these stops on the path of the Holy Family in their programs. “We are especially focusing on Orthodox countries such as Greece and Russia, and Orthodox communities in the West,” says Zaklama. “We also expect a lot of interest from Catholics. Don’t expect groups to come specifically for the path of the Holy Family. That’s not possible because facilities on many locations are lacking. But visits to sites on the route of the Holy Family will become part of the normal programs that will also include Upper Egypt, Sinai and Hurghada,” he says. “The first groups are coming this summer, but in the coming winter season we will be able to see larger numbers.”

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