5 June 2011
From time immemorial, the mountain of Gabal al-Teir, literally Mountain of the Birds, has loomed high above the lush green fields on the eastern bank of the Nile in Samalout, Minya, in Upper Egypt. From the western bank the view is one of breathtaking beauty. The Nile flows peacefully, its wide expanse at that spot positively majestic; the green fields dotted with copses of trees and date palms spread wide at the foot of the mountain, on the top of which can be seen the serene form of a distant church.
Until only about two decades ago, the church—famously known as al-Adra Gabal al-Teir (The Virgin at Gabal al-Teir)—could only be reached by taking a ferry from the western bank, traversing the long stretch of fields, and taking an arduous climb above a staircase that reaches up to the church. Today, however, a modern motorway on the eastern bank of the Nile makes it an easy task to reach the church or, as it is commonly denoted, the monastery of the Holy Virgin.
The church was built to mark a spot where, as tradition has it, the Holy Family rested for a few days during its first-century Biblical flight into Egypt. Notwithstanding the modern additions and renovations carried out to the church, its original fourth century walls and the holy crypt or cave where the Family resided still stand.
The story, according to the gospel of St Matthew, is that Herod the King of Judea wished to take the life of the newborn Baby Jesus for fear He would be the promised King who would save Israel and the world. As the future ‘king’, the Baby threatened the throne of Herod and his house. In his zeal to abort that threat, Herod decided to kill all the baby boys less than two years old in Bethlehem, where he had been told by his scholars that the Baby must be, and according to the time he had been informed of the Baby’s birth by the Wise Men of the East. But as divine Providence would have it, and even though the baby boys in Bethlehem were killed, Baby Jesus escaped unharmed. The gospel says: “the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt. And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Matt 2: 13 – 15)
Every year during the final days in May, Gabal al-Teir is the site of a mulid to celebrate the entry of the Holy Family in Egypt. The Coptic Orthodox Church commemorates the blessed occasion with a religious feast on 24 Bashans (1 June), but the mulid is a typical popular celebration, usually of a saint’s birth or death, which goes back to ancient Egyptian times. It usually involves camping around the saint’s shrine for a few days in a fair-like setting with a lot of fun, socialising, children’s games, singing, buying and selling, and cooking, eating and drinking, in a vintage holiday atmosphere. In Christian mulids they also pray in the nearby church, sing hymns, attend sermons, and baptise their babies.
The mulid at Gabal al-Teir this year came to a close last Thursday following a weekful of festivities. As is customary, thousands of Copts as well as Muslims take part. But this year, the festivities carried a distinct flavour. With some two million visitors around and a spirit of goodwill dominating, Egyptian flags were among the fastest-selling items on the stalls. Many of the usual pictures of Jesus Christ, the Holy Virgin and the saints, as well as banners of the Biblical verse “Blessed be Egypt my people”, also carried the flag of Egypt.
Minya governor Samir Sallam visited the mulid and made sure all security and first aid measures were in place. The governorate had ensured an adequate supply of bread to the Gabal al-Teir neighbourhood, and had maintained the roads and lighting that lead up to the monastery.
Father Daoud Nashed of Samalot bishopric told Watani that the huge number of visitors came as a pleasant surprise. “We did not expect the usual number of visitors this year, because of the general climate of unrest and unsafety. But Egyptians have proved their resilience time and again, and they took the challenge in stride. And the mulid went very well this year; we got not a single complaint.”
Hand in hand
The Minya NGO Hand in Hand organised a peaceful demonstration to denounce sectarianism and to call for national unity and equality. The demonstration headed to the main square in Minya, now named after the 25-January Martyrs, where the demonstrators stood and recited a public vow. “I vow by the Great Allah to maintain Egypt’s head high, to preserve her freedom, to work conscientiously for her good, and to strive to achieve my dreams and respect the dreams of my children. I am confident in the sun of my country’s future; I believe in the unity of her children; I am responsible for every grain of dust on her land; God be my witness.”
Several Facebook groups were formed calling for the Feast of the Entry of the Holy Family into Egypt to be proclaimed a national holiday, to stand for Egypt’s tolerance and diversity.