Crossing the Nile from Samalut, just as later Christian pilgrims have done for centuries, the Holy Family went to Gabal al-Tayr (Mountain of the Birds in Arabic) on the East bank of the Nile. The location is so named because of the migratory birds resting on its top. It is also called Gabal al-Kaff or Mountain of the Palm. Such nomenclature is attributed to the tradition that when the Holy Family came here, a pharaonic temple stood on the place where the church erects today. The idols of the temple collapsed in the presence of the true God, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 19:1. Consequently, the pagan priests turned angry and intended to avenge. So the little Jesus put his hand on the mountain, thus left the imprint of his palm, and split it in two to have a cleavage for the Holy Family to hide from the angry priests. Other tradtion says that Jesus protected the Holy Family from a stone falling upon them and consequently left his hand print.
Hewn out of the mountain side, the unornamented but sublime church overlooks the banks of the Nile from a steep cliff. It was reputed to have been built by Queen Helena around a cave that once sheltered the Holy Family. However, the alleged holy cave seems to be even younger than the church itself. Thus, it would be anachronistic to impose the Holy Family Tradition on the alleged “holy cave”.
From above the mountain, you certainly have a magnificent view of the Nile and its fascinating green valley. The church is one of Egypt’s most important pilgrimage sites. Close to the church are guest houses that are used by pilgrims during the church’s celebrations.
A few years ago pilgrims identified the worshipping tree several kilometers south of Gabal al-Tayr. Tradition says there was a tree bowing down to worship the Holy Family during their sojourn in Egypt. However, unfortunately the tree was cut down by squatters in January 2001, for they feared that the increasing interest in the tree could result in authorities pushing them off the land of their own.