The Holy Family journey in Egypt information, tours and online booking
The advent of the Holy Family to Egypt, seeking refuge, is an event of the utmost significance in our dear country’s long, long history. Moved by the spirit of prophecy, Hosea foresaw the flight from Bethlehem where there was no safe place for the Christ Child to lay his head, and the eventual return of the holy refugees from Their sanctuary in Egypt, where Jesus had found a place in the hearts of the Gentiles, when he uttered God’s words: “Out of Egypt have I called My Son”. (Hosea 11:1) In the Biblical Book of Isaiah, the prophet provides us with a divinely inspired prediction of the effect the holy Infant was to have on Egypt and the Egyptians: “Behold the Lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt and the idols of Egypt will totter at His Presence and the heart of Egypt will melt in the midst of it”. (Isaiah 19:1).
The authority of Old Testament prophecy, which portended the crumbling of idols wherever Jesus went, further foreshadowed the singular blessing to be bestowed upon Egypt, for its having been chosen as the Holy Family’s haven, and upon its people for having been the first to experience the Christ’s miraculous influence. God’s message, also delivered through the prophetic utterance of Isaiah, “Blessed by Egypt, My People” (Isaiah 19:25) , was an anticipation of the coming of St. Mark to our country, where the Gospel he preached took firm root in the first decades of Christianity. For Isaiah goes on to prophecy: “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt; and a Pillar to the Lord, at its border. And it will be for a sign and for a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt”. (Isaiah 19:19&20).
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As for the “pillar at its borders… which will be for a sign and for a witness..” surely there can be no more demonstrable, concrete proof of the fulfillment of the prophecy than that the Patriarchal See of the Apostolic Church in Egypt, established by St Mark himself, is situated in Alexandria, on Egypt’s northern borders. But the prophecy, knitting a perfect pattern of things to come, does not stop there. It continues, “Then the Lord will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and will make sacrifices and offering”. (Isaiah 19:21). As Christianity in Egypt spread, churches were built throughout the length and breadth of the land, and the sites chosen were, primarily, those which had been visited and blessed by the Holy Family’s sojourns.
The New Testament records the fulfillment of these Old Testament prophecies as they unfold in their historical sequence. “…behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word, for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him”. (Matthew 2:13). Joseph complied. A donkey was fetched for the gently Mother, still so young in years, to ride with her new-born Child in Her arms. And so they set out from Bethlehem on their pre-destined journey, the hardened old carpenter, who was Mary’s betrothed, striding ahead, leading the donkey by its leash into the untracked paths of a wilderness dark as the desert nights, and unending as the months of never ending horizons. Such an arduous journey it was, fraught with hazard every step of the way.
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In those far-off days, there were three routes which could be followed by travelers traversing Sinai from Palestine to Egypt, a crossing which was usually undertaken in groups, for without the protection of well-organized caravans, the ever-present dangers – even along these known and trodden paths – were ominously forbidding. But, in their escape from the infanticide fury of King Herod, the Holy Family – understandably – had to avoid the beaten tracks altogether, and to pursue unknown paths, guided by God and His Angel.
They picked their way, day after day, through hidden valleys and across uncharted plateaus in the (then) rugged wastelands of Sinai enduring the scorching heat of the sun by day and the bitter cold of the desert nights, preserved from the threat of wild beasts and savage tribesmen, their daily sustenance miraculously provided, the all-too-human fears of the young Mother for her Infant allayed by the faith that infused her with His birth. And so they arrived, at last, safely, for God had pre-ordained that Egypt should be the refuge for the One who was to bring the message of peace and love to mankind.
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The tortuous trails they followed in their passage across Sinai, and their subsequent travels within Egypt, are chronicled by Pope Theophilus, 23rd Patriarch of Alexandria (384-412 AD). He testifies, in his celebrated annals that on the eve of the 6th of Hathor (the Coptic month corresponding roughly with November), after long prayer, the Holy Virgin revealed herself to him and, after relating the details of the Holy Family’s journey to, in, and from Egypt, bade him record what he had seen and heard. It is a source which no Christian believer would question. Besides, it is a virtual certainty that, at a time when happenings of a momentous or historical nature were transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to the next, the account of Pope Theophilus’ vision confirmed the oral tradition of supernatural occurrences which accompanied the arrival of a wondrous Child in the towns and villages of Egypt some 400 years earlier.
The Holy Family at El Zamalek and Farma:
According to the sources of the Coptic Church, chief among which is the vision documented by Pope Theophilus, and recorded in the Coptic Senexarium the Holy Family proceeded from Bethlehem to Gaza, and then to El-Zaraniq (also known as Floussiat), some 37 km west of El-Arish; then they threaded their way along northern Sinai until they reached Farma (ancient Pelusium) mid-way between El-Alish and present-day Port Said. It was their last stop in Sinai; and with the next leg of their journey they put the perils of the wilderness behind them.
The Holy Family at Basta Town:
Tel Basta – or Basta – which they now enter, is a short distance from Zagazig, the main town in the Sharqiah Governorate about 100 km north-east of Cairo. Here, Jesus caused a water spring to well up from the ground, and His presence caused the idols to crumble, as foretold by the prophets of old. The townsfolk, in consequence, turned malevolent and aggressive, whereupon the Holy Family turned their backs on the town and headed southwards.
The Holy Family at Mostorod Town:
In due course, they reached Mostorod (which came to be called, in those days, ‘Al Mahamma’) only about 10 km away from Cairo. ‘Al Mahamma’ means ‘the Bathing Place’, a name given to the town because the Virgin Mary bathed the Christ Child and washed his clothes. It is worthy of note that, eventually, on their way back to Palestine, the Holy Family stopped once more at Mostorod and, this time, caused a spring to gush from the earth which still flows forth to the present day
The Holy Family at Belbeis Town:
From Mostorod, the Holy Family made their way north-eastwards to Belbeis (ancient Philippos), back in Sharqiah Governorate, and at a distance of about 55 km from Cairo. They rested there in the shade of a tree which came to be called, “The Virgin Mary’s Tree’.
The Holy Family at Menyet Samanoud:
Having left their mark on Belbeis, the Holy Family set off in a north-westerly direction and, reaching the small township of Meniet Samannoud (known also as Meniet Genah), they crossed the Nile to the city of Samanoud (or Jemnoty) in the Delta, where the local population received them with a kindness and hospitality that earned them deserved blessing. There is in Samannoud, to this day, a large granite trough which, according to local belief, was used by the Virgin for kneading dough, and a water-well which the Christ Child Himself hallowed.
The Holy Family at Sakha Town:
The Coptic name of the town, ‘Pekha-Issous’, (vernacularized to Lysous) means, ‘the foot of Jesus’; for the Holy Child’s foot-print was marked, here, in bas-relief on a rock. The rock was preserved, but hidden for centuries for fear of robbery, and only unearthed again 20 years ago. The natural course of the Holy Family’s journey from Samannoud to Sakha would have taken them through many of the towns and cities now lying in both the Governorates of Gharbia and Kafr El-Sheikh and, according to some folk traditions, through the Belqas wastelands as well.
The Holy Family at Wadi El Natroun:
Their trail from Sakha, is recorded in the documentation of Pope Theophilus’ vision, and attested to by Coptic practice in the Christian era. For it was to Wadi el-Natroun (Natroun Valley) that they now came, after crossing the Rosetta branch of the Nile to the western Delta and heading south into Wadi el-Natroun (then called Al Asqeet) in the Western Desert of Egypt. In the earliest decades of Christianity, the desert expanses of Wadi el-Natroun became the site of anchoretic settlement and, later, of many monasteries, in spiritual commemoration of the Holy Family’s passage through the Valley.
The Holy Family at Matareya and Ein Shams – Cairo:
Eventually, they left the desert behind them and made their way southwards, crossing the Nile to its eastern bank, and heading for Matareya and Ain Shams (ancient Heliopolis, the site of the oldest ‘university’ in history called since earliest Pharaonic times, ‘On’). Both these adjacent districts are outlying suburbs of present day Cairo, only 10 km or so from the city center.
The Holy Family at El Zeitoun – Cairo:
At the time of the Holy Family’s arrival there, Ain Shams was home to a large Jewish community, who had erected a temple – the Synagogue of Unias, – for their worship. In Matareya, a tree still stands to this day, still regularly visited, called “Mary’s Tree”, for the Family is believed to have rested in its shade. Here, too, the Infant Jesus caused water to flow from a spring, from which He drank and blessed, and in which the Virgin washed His clothes.
She poured the washing water on to the ground, and from that spot, the fragrant balsam plant blossomed: besides the healing and pain-soothing properties of this balm, its essence is used in the preparation of the scents and perfumes of which the holy Chrism is composed. Setting out next towards Old Cairo, the Holy Family rested for a while in Zeitoun, on their way; then proceeded along a course which traverses what are now crowded, bustling quarters of Cairo, within which the serene landmarks of an earlier Coptic heritage still stand, marking the paths the Holy Family followed. A listing of these landmarks, at this point, may be of pertinent interest.
The Holy Family at the area of Old Cairo:
The area now called Old Cairo, known as Misr El Kadima, is among the most important locations visited by the Holy Family where the spiritual impact of their presence is most felt still, though their stay was brief, for the Governor of what was then Fustat – enraged by the tumbling down of idols at Jesus’ approach – sought to kill the Child. But they took shelter from his wrath in a cave above which, in later years, the Church of Abu Serga (St Sergious) was built. This, and the whole area of the Fort of Babylon, is a destination of pilgrimage not only for the Egyptians but for Christians from around the world. An air of piety and devotion pervades the whole district.
The Holy Family at the area of Maadi – Cairo:
After their short, but all-too-felt, stay in Old Cairo, the Holy Family moved in a southerly direction, reaching the modern Cairo suburb of Maadi which, in earliest Pharaonic times, was an outlying district of Memphis, the capital of Egypt then; and, at Maadi, they boarded a sailing-boat which carried them up the Nile towards southern Egypt. The historic church built upon the spot from which they embarked, also dedicated to the Virgin, is further identified by the denominative, ‘Al-Adaweya’, the Virgin’s Church ‘of the Ferry’. (In fact, the name of that now modern suburb, Maadi, derives from the Arabic word which means ‘the Crossing Point’).
The stone steps leading down to the River’s bank, and believed to have been used by the Holy Family, are accessible to pilgrims through the Church courtyard. An event of miraculous importance occurred on Friday the 3rd of the Coptic month of Baramhat – the 12th of March – 1976 AD. A Holy Bible of unknown provenance was carried by the lapping ripples of the Nile to the bank below the Church. It was open to the page of Isaiah 19:25 the page declaring, “Blessed be Egypt My People”. The Bible is now behind glass in the Sanctuary of the Virgin in the Church for all to see.
The Holy Family at Al Garnous Monastery in Maghagha City in Minya:
The sailboat docked at the village of Deir Al-Garnous (the later site of the Monastery of Arganos) 10 km west of Ashnein el Nassara (a small village near the town of Maghagha). Outside the western wall of the Church of the Virgin there, a deep well is believed to have provided the Holy Family with the water they needed.
The Holy Family at Al Bahnassa:
They went on from there to a spot later named Abai Issous, “the Home of Jesus”, the site of present-day Sandafa village, east of Al-Bahnassa which, itself, stand some 17 km west of the town of Beni Mazar.
The Holy Family at Al Teir Mountain, Samalout City – Minya:
On towards the south they went from Bahnassa to Samalout and crossed the Nile again from that town to the spot on the east bank of the River where the Monastery of the Virgin now stands upon Gabal El-Tair (‘Bird Mountain’) east of Samalout, 2 km south of Meadeyat Beni Khaled. It is known by this name (Gabal El-Tair) because thousands of birds gather there. The Holy Family rested in the cave which is now located inside the ancient church there. Gabal El-Tair is also called Gabal El-Kaf (‘Palm Mountain’). Coptic tradition maintains that, as the Holy Family rested in the shade of the Mountain, Jesus stretched His little hand to hold back a rock which was about to detach itself from the mountain-side and fall upon them. The imprint of His palm is still visible.
The Holy Family at Al Ashmounein, Mallawi City – Minya:
When they resumed their travels, the Holy Family passed a laurel tree a stone’s throw south of Gabal El-Tair, along the pathway flanking the Nile and leading from the Mountain to Nazlet Ebeid and the New Minya Bridge of today. It is claimed that this tree bowed to worship the Lord Christ – glory be to Him – as He was passing. The configuration of the Tree is, indeed, unique: all its branches incline downwards, trailing on the ground, then turn upwards again, covered in a cloak of green leaves. They call the tree, Al Abed – ‘The Worshipper’. Once more crossing the Nile, back to its west bank, the Holy Family traveled southwards to the town of Al-Ashmounein or Hermopolis Magna – but it seems that they did not tarry long there. Leaving behind them the rubble of fallen idols, they continued still in a southerly direction, for another 20 km or so to Dairout Al-Sharif (which, like Al-Ashmounein, had an alternative Greek name: Philes); and thence to Qussqam (or Qost-Qoussia).
Here, too, the recorded events testify that the townsfolk were infuriated when the stone statue of their local deity cracked and fell, and evicted the Holy Family from the town. A historically recorded incident dating to that period refers to the devastation of Qussqam, and Coptic tradition asserts that the ruin that befell the town was the consequence of its violent rejection of the gentle visitors. We have an entirely different story in the warm welcome with which the holy refugees were met at their next stop at Meir (or Meira) only 7 km west of Qoussia. Here, they found only consideration and hospitality wherever they went, for which treatment the town and its people were signally blessed
The Holy Family at Qussqam Mountain:
Now it was time for the Holy Family to set out for what is, arguably, the most meaningful destination of all in the land of Egypt, the place where there would be “an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt”. Gabal (Mount) Qussqam, which takes its name from the town nearby that was laid waste, is 327 km south of Cairo, and stand in the Governorate of Assiut. The Monastery of Al-Muharraq nestles against the western foothills of the Mountain. It was built around the area where the Holy Family remained just over six months. Their time was spent mainly in a cave which became, in the Coptic era, the altar of the Church of Virgin Mary, built at the western end of the Monastery compound.
The altar stone was the resting place of the Child Jesus during the months He dwelt there. The whole area – the Monastery and its surroundings – is redolent of the Coptic Christian ethos. So hallowed are its intimations, that the Copts of Egypt named it the Second Bethlehem. It was here, at the very spot where Al-Muharraq Monastery stands, that the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said “Arise, and take the young Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sought the young Child’s life” (Matthew 2:20&21).
The Holy Family at Dronka Mountain – Assyout (The Return of The Holy Family):
And so they set forth on the return journey. The route they took deviated slightly from the one by which they had come. It took them to Mount Dronka, 8 km south-west of the city of Assiut, and their blessing of this location was commemorated in the Christian era by the building of the mountain-top Monastery of Drunk. Eventually, they arrived at Old Cairo, then Matareya, and on to Mahamma, retracing more or less their steps on their outward journey across Sinai to Palestine. Subsequent Biblical history says it all: at the end, they arrived home, Joseph’s old house, in the small town of Nazareth, in Galilee, in the land of Palestine, from where the message of Christ would, in the fullness of time, be heard.
The whole journey, from the initial flight from Bethlehem to the return to Nazareth lasted over three years. They had covered something like 2000 km; their means of transport a weak beast of burden and the occasional sailboat on the Nile. But for much of the way, the delicate Mother and the rugged old Carpenter must have trudged on foot, enduring the fierce summer heat and the biting winter’s cold, suffering the pangs of hunger and the parching affliction of thirst … like hunted outlaws. It was a journey of indescribable agony and anguish which the Child Jesus, His Virgin Mother and the Sainted Joseph bore with inner joy, and survived, for the sake of mankind.
The Holy Family’s Journey in the land of Egypt:
On the 24th day of the Coptic month of Bashans, which corresponds to the 1st of June, the Coptic Church celebrates the entry of the Lord Jesus Christ into the land of Egypt. On that day, the churches throughout the length and breadth of the land that gave the Holy Family shelter resound with the words of the Doxology: “Rejoice, Oh Egypt; Oh, people of Egypt and all ye Children of Egypt who live within its borders, rejoice and lift up your hearts, for the Lover of all mankind, He who has been before the beginning of ages, has come to you”.