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An escape into Egypt

An escape into Egypt
By Samir Naoum
I started in northern Sinai at Al-Farama because this was the site of ancient Pelusiam where the most easterly branch of the Nile flowed into the sea. It is situated about 20 kilometres east of Port Said and was an important port and Roman granary depot, second in importance only to Alexandria. The Pelusiac branch has been dried up since medieval times. The land is somewhat desolate, and I could well imagine the Holy Family proceeding on their way on camels hired from the local Bedouin.
Greek, Latin and Arabic manuscripts mention many churches in the area which were later constructed in honour of their visit. Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, director of excavations in the Eastern Delta and Sinai, accompanied me to a ridge known as the Churches' Hill, where five ancient churches have recently been excavated and the search is still under way to uncover more. "Mohamed Abdel-Sami'e Abdel-Dayem, who studied at the Sorbonne, was the first person to start digging for this church," said Abdel-Maqsoud. "Its construction is quite complex. The church is divided into two parts: the west wing, which is designed for prayers, and the east, known as the Rotunda, where religious ceremonies were held." Of all the ruined churches I saw in the area, it was the Rotunda which really caught my attention. It has two round apses. Surviving marble columns bearing a few Greek inscriptions may once have supported either a gabled ceiling, or the south entrance to the church. I was also impressed by a church which was only excavated two years ago and which is perfectly circular in shape -- a rare form, though a church of similar design, Abdel-Maqsoud told me, is to be found in Jerusalem.
Travelling south along what was then the most easterly branch of the Nile, the Holy family would have come to Tel Basta, west of Zagazig, where they stayed for a short while. In ancient times, this was the only way to approach Egypt from the east, and it must have been a tedious journey. I made my way there by a somewhat different route -- by road from Cairo.
When the Holy Family arrived there, it is said, it was sunrise. They sat to rest in the shade of a tree, and while Joseph and the Child slept, Mary kept watch over them.
The people of Tel Basta were apparently not very hospitable. It is said that when Jesus asked for food and water, Mary walked to the village, but no one would give her anything and she returned empty-handed. Fortunately a farmer called Aqloum was just then returning home from his day's work in the fields, and asked if they were strangers. Mary explained that they were a poor Jewish family who had come from Palestine looking for the Fortress of Babylon (Old Cairo), and that they were only resting before taking to the road again. Aqloum invited them to his house to rest for the night, and they accepted his invitation.
The next day he took them to see a religious festival in honour of Bastet, the cat-goddess. According to hallowed tradition, as soon as Mary set foot inside the temple with the Child in her arms, the granite statues fell and shattered, thus fulfilling a biblical prophecy. As news of what had happened spread, Aqloum saw a number of soldiers coming towards them. He helped the Family hide in the fields before they could resume their journey.
The town of Bilbeis in the eastern Delta is said to have been the first community in Egypt to have welcomed the Holy Family as honoured guests. They believed in the divinity of Jesus, and today Muslim and Christian alike relate that the people kept company with the Virgin, played with the Child, and talked to Youssef El-Naggar (Joseph the Carpenter).
There was once a tree at Bilbeis known as the Virgin Mary's Tree. According to one of many accounts, it was cut down by Napoleon's soldiers in search of firewood. Tradition holds that at the first blow of the axe, the tree started to bleed. The soldiers were terrified and dared not touch it again. Near that sacred spot is the mosque of Osman El-Ansari, which was built in commemoration of the visit.
Not far from Bilbeis, in the Ismailia Lake region, is Mustorod, known in ancient times as Timoni Sorat. Here the Holy Family are said to have rested in a cave underneath a Pharaonic temple built by Ramses II. Traditions differ as to whether they passed Mustorod on the flight into Egypt, or on the return to Palestine, but they reputedly found a well there from which they drank, and where Jesus was bathed. The Al-Mehama Church on the site where the Child Jesus bathed owes its name to this incident. The historical church, which still stands today, was built in the 12th century.
Did the Holy Family stop in Daqadous, on the eastern bank of the Nile in Qalyubiya province, north of Cairo? The local population firmly believe that they did, though the original church which marked the spot disappeared during a particularly high flood at the beginning of the 19th century. Nevertheless, Daqadous is on the official Flight Route, and was thus my next destination.
I found that the church was rebuilt in 1888, apparently on the site of three earlier churches. This continuity has bolstered the local people's conviction that Daqadous was a most sacred place, and unquestionably related to the Flight. An ancient well in the church compound, still used to draw water, was already there, they claim, when the Holy Family stopped there.
The church, newly restored, is an elegant structure. The sanctuary screen is exquisite. There are the remains of several ancient altars beneath the eastern wall of the sanctuary, and Coptic graffiti can be found on the walls. The church boasts a valuable collection of icons that date from various periods, over 100 manuscripts, some from as early as the sixth century, a Bible exquisitely bound in silver, crucifixes and censers.
Samanoud (ancient Theb Nethr) was my next port of call. Famous for its production of statuary in Ptolemaic times, it was the scene of terrible massacres under the Roman emperor Diocletian. A manuscript in Deir Al-Suryan, the Monastery of the Syrians, in Wadi Al-Natroun states that 8,000 people, mostly young children, were killed there.
The Church of the Holy Virgin is built on the ruins of an older church where the Holy Family is believed to have spent between 14 and 17 days. Recent excavations have revealed that the original church was, in turn, built on the site of a temple dating to the time of the last pharaohs.
The present church is a two-storey construction with three domed altars, the high central dome being held aloft by four pillars. There is an ancient screen, intricately adorned with mother of pearl, with three doors.
The church was later associated with Saint Abanub, one of the martyrs of Samanoud, who was only 12 years old when he died. His relics are kept in the church, along with those of other martyrs. Samanoud boasts of having produced three patriarchs as well as having been honoured by visits from some of the country's most famous bishops.
It was at Sakha, however, that I at last found concrete evidence of the Holy Family's flight. This Delta city lies almost 135km north of Cairo between the Rosetta and Damietta branches of the Nile. The Holy Family are believed to have remained here for a full week. The name Sakha is derived from "Birkha Isous", or "Jesus' foot". According to the Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi, writing in the 15th century, it was once a city equal in importance to Jerusalem.
Today, the Monastery of Al-Maghtas where the church is located has become an important pilgrimage site. Christians travel there from all over the world on 1 June each year to commemorate the Flight, in the same way they go to the Church of the Ascension in Jerusalem. It is believed that a vision of the Holy Virgin once appeared in the church on this occasion. As a result, the celebration subsequently became known as the Feast of the Appearance of the Virgin Mary.
In 1988 excavations in the grounds of a house next to the church resulted in the discovery of two large blocks of stone, one beneath the other, in the form of a capital. A child's foot was imprinted on one side of the stone, while on the other side was inscribed the word "God". An old manuscript in the library of Deir Al-Muharraq in the Western Desert relates that the Virgin was thirsty when she reached Sakha. When the child Jesus touched the stone with His foot, water spouted forth and His foot left an imprint.
In the 13th century, a number of sacred relics were hidden for safekeeping in the monastery's courtyard. There they remained hidden, even as urban development began to impinge on the sacred land.
The columns at the church entrance are a relic of the original building. Inside, many objects caught my attention: candlesticks, a silver paten and chalice dating from year 1213 of the Coptic calendar, and a handwritten bible, as well as crosses and crowns dating from the 18th century.
Having departed from Sakha, the Holy Family are said to have crossed the Rosetta branch of the Nile and proceeded south to Wadi Al-Natroun. I couldn't have followed in their tracks even had I wanted to, because the eastern part of the Delta has undergone so much development that the route they took is now impassable. I approached instead from another direction, travelling to the remote rectangular valley by the Cairo-Alexandria desert road.
Wadi Al-Natroun derives its name from natron, the word for the sodium carbonate used in ancient times for mummification. I turned off the main road just beyond the rest house. At the time of the Flight into Egypt, the area was studded with caves where the early hermits lived. In its heyday in the 5th and 6th centuries, the monasteries in Wadi Al-Natroun were numbered in hundreds.
At Wadi Al-Natroun, the Virgin and the infant Jesus are believed to have 'disappeared', and Jesus is said to have blessed the four corners of the depression, known today as Qattara. Only four monasteries survive today. I visited them all and found that they are active communities, continuing the tradition of Egyptian monasticism. The monks are also involved in land reclamation and research into various kinds of cattle and crops.
From Wadi Al-Natroun the Holy Family proceeded southwards towards what is now Cairo, crossing the Nile to ancient Heliopolis, today's Matariya, and one of the most famous sites associated with their journey. I made my way to the celebrated Tree of the Virgin where Mary is believed to have washed the clothes of the Child, rested with Jesus in the shade of the tree and quenched their thirst. Although it is difficult to find one's way there through the maze of streets and flyovers that is the modern Matariya, the tree -- actually a sycamore planted in 1672 -- grows in a picturesque compound on the site of its venerable ancestor.
Continuing their journey southward, the Family soon came to the ancient fortress of Babylon where they hid in a cave beneath the Church of Saint Sergius. The church, which is believed to be one of the oldest in Cairo, dating to the 4th century, was restored in 1975, the subterranean chapel included. Unfortunately, water has since flooded Mary and Jesus' hiding place, and I found the church once more caught up in the throes of restoration.
Some 15 kilometres south of Old Cairo, at Maadi, is a distinctive fourth-century church with three cupolas, built at the place where the Holy Family descended to the river to take a boat to Upper Egypt. The Church of the Blessed Virgin has recently been restored, and the ancient stairway leading down from the courtyard of the church to the river is protected by a wrought-iron gate. According to the monks of Deir Al-Muharraq Monastery in Upper Egypt, Joseph got to know the boatmen who worked the Nile well through his extensive travels, which he was able to undertake thanks to the gold, frankincense and myrrh presented to the Christ child by the wise men of the east.
The Holy Family is also traditionally associated with a place called Al-Martuti, which has been identified with the locality of Badrashein on the western bank of the Nile, or ancient Memphis. This was the capital of Upper and Lower Egypt in ancient times and today it is more remarkable for its antiquities, than for any Christian churches. Having paused a moment, there was nothing for me to do, but head on southwards.
My next destination was Beni Suef. About seven kilometres west of the modern city is Ahnasya, which was the centre of a diocese in the sixth century and according to the Quran the site of a palm tree beneath which the Blessed Virgin felt the pangs of childbirth and cried out in pain until she heard from below her a voice saying: "Grieve not, thy Lord has placed a rivulet beneath thee.... shake the trunk of the palm tree towards thee, thou wilt cause ripe dates to fall upon thee" (XIX, 23-25). The palm tree in question has, of course, long since disappeared.
Al-Bahnasa, 17 kilometres west of Beni Mazar in Middle Egypt, is famous for the part it played in Coptic history. It was once home to a large number of thriving Christian communities, but all that remain today of this past are odd relics of pharaonic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic buildings that can be found in mosques and along village roads.
Father Palladius told me that Al-Bahnasa was once the seat of a diocese, and that "it was held in great esteem by the Copts in the early centuries." I found it hard to believe that there were once 30,000 monks and nuns in the region. Apparently the Arab historian Abul-Makarem wrote in the 12th century that there were 10 churches in the area in his time. In the 15th century, Al-Maqrizi spoke of the Church of the Virgin Mary as being the only one left. I found little evidence of anything, save for a very strong local tradition concerning the Flight.
According to a papyrus text written in Coptic, the Holy Family proceeded to the east of Al-Bahnasa, to a spot called Abay-Aysus, which in Coptic means the house of Jesus. Here, according to one of the sermons of Saint Keryakaus, bishop of Al-Bahnasa, the Family spent four days. The saint goes on to record the many miracles performed by the Messiah.
Many of the churches in the area were reputedly built by Saint Keryakaus himself, and it is said that what is known as the Messiah's Tree still stands in the village. This, we are told, was once just a piece of wood. The Child Jesus planted it in the soil and watered it from a nearby well, until it grew into a "green and fruitful tree."
The city council of Al-Bahnasa has erected a fence around the tree and placed a cover over the well.
A similar miracle occurred in a village known as Ashneen Al-Nassara, which is about nine kilometres west of Maghagha. In the courtyard of the village church is an old well from which, it is said, the Holy Family drank as they travelled to what is now Deir Al-Muharraq. The story of this visit is still told to this day by the villagers. They say that as Mary and Jesus neared the well, the Child felt thirsty and cried. The Virgin took His finger and held it over the well, which was very deep. The water instantly rose so the family could drink from its waters. On 22 August each year, it is said, the water still rises, and pilgrims to the church can drink from its water.
The church, now known as Mar Girgis, is mentioned by Arab historians of the 12th and 15th centuries. It has now been restored. It has 12 domes and three altars, and houses a number of ancient icons and manuscripts.
Taking to the river once again, the Holy Family proceeded south towards Gabal Al-Tair, the Mount of Birds, on the east bank of the Nile. This mountain was so called because migratory birds would rest on the cliff and peck at the rocks before resuming their flight. As they approached, a piece of rock fell off and would have fallen on the boat, had not Jesus lifted His hand and the rock stopped short of injuring anyone. His hand left an imprint on the rock. One of the names of the monastery on top of the mountain is, appropriately, the Monastery of the Palm.
I was accompanied round the church by Father Befnetios, the bishop of Samalout, from whom I learned that there are many different versions of what happened to the rock. According to one story, it lies buried in the silt of the Nile. Another holds that it was taken to Jerusalem by a king who wanted to hold an exhibition of relics of the Holy Family there. A third account relates that Salaheddin carried it off during the Crusader Wars and stowed it in some unknown place. The most credible account is that it is preserved in the British Museum where, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is kept under very close guard.
The original entrance to the Church of the Virgin Mary on Gabal Al-Tair is directly above a cave, near to the principal altar. From there, I passed through the nave of the impressive church, hewn out of the rock and surrounded by 12 columns. When I emerged from the relative darkness, I found myself looking out over one of the most beautiful stretches of the Nile valley. Dotted with islands, the river wends its way between fertile fields. As I stood there, I meditated on the Flight into Egypt, visualising the Family escaping from the wrath of Herod only to find such tranquillity awaiting them. No wonder they took to their boat once again, to cross the river to the other side.
Descending the mountain, I made my way to Shagaret Al-Abid (the Tree of the Worshipper) along the road which skirts the river. The tree itself is a member of the acacia family, though it looks somewhat different from other related species. Its branches seem to dip towards the ground before growing upward. According to a local tradition, the tree earned its name by bowing down to salute Christ as he passed on his way to the neighbouring town of Al-Ashmunein.
Site of the ancient city of Hermopolis, Al-Ashmunein is the next place associated with the Holy Family. I journeyed there in the company of Father Demitrios, the bishop of Mallawi and Al-Ashmunein. The local traditions of the Flight are extremely strong here. Different miracles are recorded, and certain Coptic manuscripts state that in Al-Ashmunein the Messiah raised the dead and expelled Satan. In the early Roman period the area was heavily populated, and there were numerous temples. During the Family's wanderings around the city, many idols are said to have spontaneously fallen from their plinths and broken. This angered the pagan priests, and the Family had to leave the city for their own safety. They headed on to Dairut.
Before following in their footsteps, I took a closer look round Al-Ashmunein.
It is an impressive site, whose centrepiece is a great basilica which has been excavated twice: first by a mission from Oxford University, and subsequently by the German archaeologist Peter Grossman in 1989. It is a complex site, with monuments of all periods, and a rich literary heritage. But I was most interested in the cathedral, with its colossal Corinthian columns. A Dutch mission is currently reconstructing it, replacing the architectural elements in their original positions as far as is possible.
Among the saints associated with Al-Ashmunein is Anba Sawiris Ibn El-Moqafa'a, who was elected Coptic Pope. During his 32 years in office, he authored no fewer than 12 manuscripts, which he presented to the church. Among his most significant achievements was the compilation of the biographies of the patriarchs who had preceded him, which he recorded in both Coptic and Greek.
According to a time-honoured tradition, the Holy Family travelled on from Al-Ashmunein to the village of Dairut, present-day Dairut Al-Sherif, some 20 kilometres further south, and remained there for a few days. This sacred site, like so many others in Egypt, has a tree that is associated with the Flight. It can be found in the compound of the church of Anba Sarabamoun, which is named after its founder, though it was originally built in honour of the Holy Virgin.
The village of Dairut is described in the Lexicon as situated at the fertile mouth of the Bahr Youssef canal surrounded by countless gardens. Today, the area is largely urban. The church, which was rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries, stands in the village cemetery. It has 12 towers, and houses many icons and manuscripts. The monastery, which was mentioned by 12th and 15th century Arab historians, lies at a distance of some five kilometres to the north-west.
Most Coptic sources mention the Holy Family's stay in Gabal Qusqam, present-day Al-Qusiyah. At that time, the town was an important name. The Family remained there for more than six months -- 185 days to be precise. It was the longest period they spent at any one site, and it is said that while in the area Jesus "roamed around doing good works." Al-Qusiyah is located 12 kilometres south of Al-Quseir in an arid and unpopulated area. When the Holy Family reached the foot of the mountain, they reputedly came across a deserted mud-brick house with a thatched roof and dried palm branches, outside of which was a well. Tired and weary from the journey, they repaired it and made it their home. They were supplied with food by the grace of God, and would often go to a nearby cave for meditation and prayer.
The house was later converted into a church, and a stone altar that survives to this day is believed to have served at the time as a seat for Jesus. Over the centuries, this most holy place has been often restored, and the monastic complex has earned itself the name Deir Al-Muharraq, literally, "the monastery scorched by fire", in reference to the repeated burning of invasive vegetation.
It was in Qusqam, according to biblical sources, that an angel appeared to Joseph urging him to take the young child and his mother and return to their homeland in Palestine, because "he who had sought to kill the child is dead".
The Holy family followed this advice and returned to Palestine by a zig-zag route, first proceeding south-east from Qusqam towards Assiut, the southernmost point they reached on their travels. I followed in their footsteps to the village of Drunka, where a cave in the mountains is known as the Monastery of the Virgin Mary. The monastic complex today consists of many churches, the oldest of which is the Church in the Cave which dates back to the first century. It is 100 metres above ground level. Many other caves close by were once inhabited by hermits.
The Monastery of Drunka probably derives its name from the village, although another theory holds that it is a Coptic word which means a "compound of monasteries", because it provided others in the region with their basic supplies.
During the annual festival in honour of the Holy Virgin, pilgrims can easily drive to the edge of the mountain where the cave is situated, but most prefer to walk, in line with a long-standing tradition. I joined them on their climb to the holy place, where we followed the white-gowned deacons who processed in four lines, preceded by another group of deacons carrying a huge icon of the Virgin and Child. Hymns were sung, and then the bishop appeared holding a large cross with which he blessed the gathering. Men clapped their hands, women ululated loudly, and four white birds were released as symbols of the Holy Virgin and of peace.
This joyous occasion made a fitting culmination to my own flight into Egypt.

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