A Re-examination of the Holy Family Tradition in Upper Egypt

Featured Photo: Shangyun Shen, Coptic monks walking on the boulevard in the Monastery of Dayr al-Muharrq.


Author: Shangyun Shen

Before the massive city of Cairo awoke from its slumber, we hopped on the minibus that would eventually take us all the way to the hinterland of Upper Egypt and back. We were embarking on a journey to visit the sites believed to be trodden by the Holy Family some 2000 years ago.

This field study was organized by Mr. Mounir Ghabbour, Chairman of NEHRA, the National Egyptian Heritage Revival Association. I did not know Mr. Ghabbour personally prior to this visit.  In fact, I only met him for the first time when we reached the city of Maghagha. Mr. Ghabbour, in spite of being in his seventies, was quite energetic and had travelled to the destination in advance of the whole delegation.

Maghagha is a little city surrounded by lush agricultural fields – a typical Upper Egyptian landscape in this season. We were warmly welcomed by the Center for Arab-West Understanding (CAWU)’s old friend Abuna Yu’annis, a priest from the nearby village of Qufadah. Brunch was already prepared on the table and all of us impatiently jumped into the banquet due to the draining 5 hours of travelling. Since we were in the Coptic period of lent, only vegetarian food was served.  I noticed in the following days that the Copts were pretty creative in making their fasting diet of diverse. I appreciated their culinary prowess–wonderful that people can still have a large range of food options during this ascetic time!

Enshrining a well is a very common custom.

The objective of this field study was to evaluate some of the major Holy Family sites in Upper Egypt so that with the support from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, NEHRA could draft proposals to promote the pilgrimage trail as a tourist destination. This explained why most of our party complained when we were navigating on the crooked and bumpy road leading to the congregational church in the village of Ishnin al-Nasara: the infrastructure was simply not ready for a touristic pilgrim influx. Entering from under a neon banner of the Virgin Mary, we found ourselves in a patio leading to a modest one-story church on the left, and a well on the right. In fact, the latter is the conceptual focus and the starting point of the whole compound. According to the tradition, the Holy Family drank from the well to quench their thirst caused by the tough flight from Palestine. Sooth to say, enshrining a well is a very common custom  among  Coptic Christians; it is quite sensible for the inhabitants of a hot and arid land like Egypt to cherish and even apotheosize sources of water. Moreover, the augural function of a well in Egypt as the Nilometer provides the additional symbolic function of a cherished messenger from God to people oft-exposed to Nile inundations. Not far from the church of Ishnin al-Nasara, another important Holy Family site, Dayr al-Garnus even clams to have three holy wells in total. According to the pamphlet distributed to us by the priests, one was created by Jesus himself. The other two, although not the miraculous handiwork of the Christ Child, are still alleged to possess healing powers.

Another similarity between the two neighboring parishes lies in the strong Christian influence in the etymology of their names. In light of a yet unpublished book entitled Un Fleuve d’eau vive, Trilogie sur l’Entrée du Christ en Égypte, Ashraf and Bernadette Sadek explains that Ishnin al-Nasara means the garden of the Christians. While the word Naṣārā is a title for Christians in Arabic, the word Ishnin’s origin remains obscure.  In the other site, the pamphlet from the local church suggests that al-Garnus is a phonetic corruption of the French word Argīnūs meaning “to check; inquire” because of the aforementioned Nilometer wells designed to measure the water level of the Nile. However I was unable to find such word in the French vocabulary. The closest correlation I was able to find is the Italian word Arginos, which has the same notion of checking and measuring.  But how does this word carry a Christian trace? To answer this question, we have to examine the historic names of the place — Pei-Isus (Coptic) or Bayt Isus/Dayr Bisus (Arabic)—that is to say the  “House of Jesus.”

local of Dayr Garnus showing the blessed well
Photo: Shangyun Shen, a local of Dayr al-Garnus showing the blessed well

Both churches erected on the holy sites were new constructions from the last century, “This is a problem of the Upper Egyptians”, said Father Maximous, a church archeologist on board with us in this trip, “they don’t believe in the firmness of stones, therefore, ancient buildings were usually subverted and rebuilt by mud bricks.”  Such renovations usually proceeded with a destructive or eliminative approach to the remains of the old monuments. This was the reason why we couldn’t see anything truly ancient in Ishnin al-Nasara and Dayr al-Garnus.

A little disappointed in the conditions of the sites in both areas, we continued on our trip to the third site of the day, Gabal al-Tayr, or “the Mountain of the Birds.”  Hewn out of the mountain side, the unornamented but sublime church overlooks the banks of the Nile from a steep cliff. We didn’t reach the Church by ascending the traditional 166 stone steps on the cliff side. Instead, we took the quite comfortable car path up from the other side. Although construction work was being carried out in full swing on the mountain top in order to improve the infrastructure around the monuments, we were reassured to see that the ancient Church was standing intact. The monolithic church was reputed to have been built by Queen Helena around a cave that once sheltered the Holy Family. Nevertheless both of these romantic claims were challenged by Father Maximous. He commented that the Upper Egyptians’ strong attachment to Queen Helena [the mother of Emperor Constantine, the Roman Emperor who turned his empire into a Christian empire] drove them to attribute churches in Upper Egypt to her, and the alleged holy cave seemed to be even younger than the church itself. Thus, it would be anachronistic to impose the Holy Family Tradition on the alleged “holy cave”. Despite these false claims, the spot itself, however, has been linked to the Holy Family Tradition since very early times.  It was the central focus in the Homily of the Church of the Rock (c.6th Century). The Homily recounts how the 5th century Coptic Pope St. Timothy met with the apparition of the Virgin Mary, who told him how the Holy Family trudged all the way to this holy mountain. According to the narrative the Virgin Mary then urged the Patriarch to build a church on the spot.

The recently published Coptic and Arabic manuscripts of The Homily of the Church of the Rock represents a watershed moment in the scholarship of the visit of the Holy Family. Remarkably, The Homily of the Church of the Rock directly cites and summarizes in details of the events of The Vision of Theophilus, an alleged primary account of the Holy Family tradition from the 4th century, despite the fact that no copy of manuscripts of it can be dated prior to the Middle Ages. The translators of the Homily remarked that “It is quite evident that the The Homily of the Church of the Rock is built on the same model. The composition is similar; the story of the Virgin is almost identical.”(Boud’hors and Botros, “La Sainte Famille” 65).

I (Lord) will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.

Gabal al-Tayr is also referred as Gabal al- Kaff (palm) in some manuscripts. This nomenclature was attributed to the story that the Christ Child left his handprint on one of the stones. Such story is relatively analogous with the one from Sakha, where Jesus left his footprint on a stone. Not only do these imprints serve as tangible marks of the divine presence, they also remind Egyptians of the blessings bestowed upon them, just as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “I (Lord) will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:15b-16) In response to this, Copts may engrave crosses and miniatures of saints on their flesh to interact and show their fidelity to Christ.

We reposed in the guesthouse of Gabal al-Tayr for a while after the visit to enjoy the breathtaking tranquility of the sunset over the Nile from the gazebos. Fatigue disappeared and we were refreshed enough to continue. H.G Bishop Paphnotius treated us to a fine dinner in the Church of St. Mark in Samalut. We then headed to the guesthouse in Mallawi to stay over. There, H.G Bishop Dimitrius of Mallawi handed us an Arabic booklet under the title of “Scrutinizing the Papyri” (Taḥqīq al-Bardiyyah). The 4th/5th century papyrus in topic, according to the booklet, contains the decisive historical attestation of the Holy Family tradition, for the date and duration of the Flight mentioned in it are consistent with the Tradition today. However the papyrus in fact slightly contradicts the conventionally held duration of the “flight into Egypt” of three and a half years by reading that “the childhood of my Son will be in you for three years and eleven months.” The Bishop then showed us his model for a planned theme park encircling the Holy Family site at Kom Maria. I personally found the idea promising, given the huge pilgrimage influx to the site each year in order to celebrate the Coptic mulid.

We visited the proposed site of the theme park the next morning. It is a large open area with a concrete hut in the center. Beside the rather shabby hut there is a stone cube in the resemblance of an altar. However, we were told it is only a monument to commemorate the unity of Egypt. Such vague wording might attest the rumor that local authorities have called a halt to the construction of a chapel on the spot. According to the Tradition, the Holy Family rested on this hill. In June of each year the locals from Abu Hinnis and the neighboring towns have a big celebration on this hill.

After Kom Maria, we headed to al-Ashmunin, where the ruins of ancient Hermopolis lie. Due to the rich archeological vestiges there, al-Ashmunin is already a touristic site. Still, the area is lacking some much-needed infrastructural work. Colossal columns and pillars are reminiscent of the ancient glory of the place as a worship center for the Egyptian god Thoth, and later a prosperous Christian city. It serves as an excellent example of the Christianization of Egypt, for Coptic ruins cover the Pharaonic ones almost entirely, leaving a very clear archeological stratrigraphy. Al-Ashmunin is also a place of importance with regard to the Holy Family Tradition, or more specifically, it was the first Egyptian city to be associated with the Tradition. For this reason, it didn’t come as a surprise to see that a church in the town claimed to have sheltered the Holy Family 2000 years ago.  The church was dedicated to the Holy Virgin and St. Wadamon, a martyr depicted in the Coptic Synaxarium, a compilation of hagiographies dated to approximately the 12th century. The martyrology narrates that this saint visited the Holy Family in al-Ashmunin and that the Christ Child blessed him by making his house as a place of worship.

Following in the steps of the Holy Family, we continued our journey to Dayr al-Muharraq, the most important site on the trail. It was my second time to visit this massive compound. Last time it was filled with pilgrims as a result of the Holy Virgin mulid. This time however, the monastery seized me by its serenity. Monks from the compound showed us around, Father Maximous grew emotional, even tearful when he saw that the ancient fragments of the Church of the Holy Virgin were irreverently embedded in the plaster without a deliberate attempt for preservation or proper display. He later explained to me that he felt pity for the ancient structures that had been lost in the latest renovation. This was a phenomenon we had witnessed throughout the whole trip. “People lack the awareness to protect the ancient remains,” he concluded.

Our trip ended in the “neophyte” to the itinerary of the Holy Family tradition – Dayr Durunka, The “neophyte,” because no ancient text suggests that this place was a stopover for the Holy Family. However, one of the charismatic features of the tradition is its dynamic development. Thus when one reads from the 6th century manuscript The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy that the Holy Family travelled further south in  fear of Herod ( despite the angel’s notification of all-clear to them). It is beyond reproach to say that the Holy Family might have been to this spot after their departure from Dayr al-Muharraq. Besides, Dayr Durunka is worth the visit for its beauty alone. For this reason, as the bus approached the mountain, our eyes all goggled due to the enormity of the complex nestling on the hillside. It is massive! The monastery has been built since 1955 Today it consists of many churches. The main one is in a huge cave that in pharaonic times probably served as a quarry. It reminded me of the other cave churches all over Egypt. One wouldn’t grasp the grandiosity of them until he stands at the top end of the amphitheater beholding the whole structure under him. They are impressive!

The Monastery of Dayr Durunka is better equipped than many of the other places on the route of the Holy Family to receive large numbers of pilgrims and visitors. For this purpose, several hundred houses have been built against the slopes of the mountain–about one hundred meters above the agricultural land. From there one has a splendid view of the Nile Valley.  Bathing in the beauty and spatiality of the complex, I conducted a brief interview with Father Maximous. When asked about his thoughts on the importance of the Holy Family tradition, he answered that this tradition was and will always be an integral part of the Coptic faith:

we read the visions, we exalt the stories, and we celebrated the events. The tradition even fused into our calendar and our liturgies!

I then challenged him with the lack of historical documentation of the tradition. He explained that it’s a tradition transmitted by mouths, and orality relies more on mnemonic approaches instead of transcription. Monks like him are trained even until today to memorize the indoctrinations from their forerunners.

On the morning of the third day, we headed back to Cairo in the early dawn. While Cairo was still in deep slumber, here in the monastic complex of Dayr Durunka, I could hear that the nuns had already risen to chant the canticles. Their voice was so dim as if it had travelled for 2000 years to reach my ears.

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