In Matariya the Holy Family found shade under a sycamore tree. At that spot Jesus created a well, blessed it and drank from it. The Holy Virgin also used its water to bath Jesus. On the place where she threw out the water, a ‘balsam’ plant grew which gave a beautiful fragrance, that is why it is called the Tree of the Holy Virgin.
Dutch professor Dr. Willem Kuiper of the University of Amsterdam wrote about the importance of Matariya for medieval Dutch and European pilgrims.You should visit this tree which is used today for the preparation of the Holy Mayron, or the holy oil which has been consecrated from apostolic times from generation to generation by adding a little of the old oil to the new oil which creates the ongoing succession of the blessing from apostolic times unto today.
The first ever travel account about Matariya is made by Bruchard of Mount Sion, a German Dominican monk who lived in the thirteenth century. Starting from 1232, he went on a series of travels throughout the East, including Egypt, Syria, and Cilicia (now Armenia). It is said that he stayed in the Monastery of Jerusalem for 10 years and did not return to Europe till late in life.
Bruchard mentions a garden of balsam in Egypt when invoked by his visit to Mount of Engaddi (Ein Gedi). Here are his words:
Near the Dead Sea, on its western shore, one league from Zoar, is the going up of Mount Engaddi, where we read that David once lay hid when Saul sought for him to slay him.
On this mount and round about it was garden of balsam; but in the days of Herod the Great, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, out of hatred for Herod and by favor of Mark Anthony, removed it to Babylon in Egypt. So there I saw it when I came into Egypt to the Soldan, who had me taken thither; and I carried off much balsam-wood, and bathed in the well which waters the garden. Then gardeners told me that from noon on Saturday even to Monday oxen would not draw from that well, even if they were cut in pieces.
This garden is two bow-shots long, and a stone’s throw or more wide. The garden of balsam in Egypt is tilled by Christian gardeners alone, and is watered from a well wherein the Blessed Virgin is said to have often dipped the boy Jesus.
Obviously, Bruchard’s account is not a direct record of his experience but rather a recollection for his description of Ein Gedi. Apart from this, Bruchard did not single out a cult of a one special tree, for him, the divine locus in Matariya is the well instead of the trees. Thus if we want a more direct record of the pilgrimage to the Tree of Matariya, we have to resort to Marino Sanuto. Coming from a noble and wealthy Venetian family, Sanuto sailed to quite a lot of biblical places. In his travelogue Secret For Ture Crusaders, Sanuto reports:
Near Cairo is an exceeding ancient palm-tree, which bowed itself to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she might gather dates from it, and then raised itself up again. When the heathens saw this they cut it down, but it joined itself together again in the following night and stood upright again. The marks of the cutting may be seen to this day. Round about this city there are many excellent orchards; one mile away from it is the Garden of Balsam, of the size of half a mansus (measurement of a place that can sustain one family). The bushes therein are of the size of a three-year-old vine-stock; the leaf is like that of small trefoil, or rue, but of a whiter color. When it is ripe, which is about the month of May, the bark of the wood bursts, and the liquor is collected in glass vessels. It is then laid in doves’ dung and dried, and thus right balsam is made. They say that there is yet another way of gathering it, which is to pluck a leaf on the side toward the sun; for the leaf joins the stem, and, albeit many stand on one plot of ground, they have only one stem. When the leaf is torn away, there straightway flows forth an exceeding transparent and sweet-scented drop. This garden can only be watered from one single fount, wherein the Blessed Virgin is said to have washed the boy Jesus’s swaddling clothes. At the season of Epiphany both Christians and Saracens assemble at this fount, and wash themselves therein out of devotion. Another miracle there is that the oxen that draw the aforesaid water would not draw any between mid-day on Saturday until the same hour on Sunday, not though you were to skin them alive.
An interesting detail reported by Sanuto is that he claimed to have seen a sacred palm tree at the site, and in fact the specie of the Tree of Matariya never settled down among the pilgrims. Originally the Arabic Infancy Gospel (9th to 11th century) identifies the tree as a sycamore, however the Arabic and Ethiopian Synaxaria (1175-1250) indicates that the tree is a balsam. And a later Dominican monk Felix Fabri claims that he has seen a fig tree with a hollow trunk near the gate of the enclosure. He also gives a different explanation for the origin of the balsam tree at Matariya. According to him, the balsam was originally a gift from the Queen Sheba to King Solomon; it was later transplanted to Egypt by Caesar Augustus, but it did not flourish until the arrival of the Holy Family.
Despite the confusion of the identity in regard to the unique Tree of Matariya, the specie of the other trees is certainly balsam, not only do we have conform reports from pilgrims, but also the reputation of balsam of Mtariyah in the Middle Ages is a self-contained-proof. Many medieval authors sought to differentiate between the balsam from Matariya and the products derived from similar trees in Arabia, known in Arabic as Basham. The true balsam from Matariya was so highly esteemed in medicine that it appears regularly in the works of authors from the third century BCE through to the eighteenth century CE.
If we broaden our researching scope to include the era prior to Christianity, we could see that the veneration to trees in Matariya is not a spontaneous practice. As part of the ancient city of Heliopolis, Matariya must have been influenced by the pharaonic worships in the area. In this case, Isis suckling infant Horus under the tree maybe the prototype of the Holy Family traditions lingered in the locus.
What is also remarkable in this area is that everything within the region of the tree is named after Mary. There is a Mary’s church, a Mary’s mosque, Mary’s well and even Mary’s housing blocks.