Recent news circulated online that the ancient tree known as “St Mary’s Tree” in the east Cairo district of Matariya had been cut off at the hands of Islamist terrorists and had fallen, caused serious consternation among the Egyptian public in general, and Copts in specific
The tree dates back to the first years of the first AD century, and is traditionally believed to have provided shelter for the Holy Family—St Joseph, St Mary, and the Baby Jesus—on their Biblical flight into Egypt. The Gospel of St Matthew says that Herod the King had intended to
kill the Baby Jesu and had for this purpose ordered that all the children under two in Bethlehem—where Jesus had been born, would be put to death. But the angel of the Lord had appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take the young Child and his mother and flee to Egypt and remain there till he gets word again from the angel.
Tradition has it that the Holy Family entered Egypt from the northeast, traversed the Delta, reached what is today Cairo, and proceeded south to Assiut, some 350km south of Cairo. They stayed there till the angel of the Lord again appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take his small family back to the land for Israel, since those who had wanted to kill the Child were dead. It is believed the stay in Egypt lasted for some three years.
The tree which fell is the third generation of the first tree under the shade of which the Holy Family rested on one of their stops during their visit. The site and the tree are holy to Copts, and to many Muslims since Islam reveres the Holy Virgin, who flock to it by thousands for blessings. It is also of great archaeological value.
Wataninet headed to Matariya to get to the bottom of the matter. The authorities in charge of the archaeological site ensured that the tree had not been cut. Hisham Abu-Deif, the security man in charge told Watani “We were sitting around as usual when, at around 4pm we heard the noise of something heavy crashing. We rushed to see what was the matter, only to discover that the tree that stood beside the original St Mary’s Tree had fallen full-length, uprooted, landing on the fencing wall surrounding the site.”
Hanaa’ Iskandar, the archaeological officer present at the St Mary’s Tree site, told Watani the tree which fell was more than 70 years old. It was the only one which still produced green leaves, and was the third generation of the original St Mary’s Tree. According to Iskandar, the ‘grandmother’ tree, the first generation, was the one under the shade of which the Holy Family took shelter. This fell in 1656, but the monks attempted to preserve it, nurturing it till a new one sprouted from the old tree roots in 1672. Franciscan monks had asked to take the fallen tree but the Coptic Church refused and instead allowed them to collect the branches from which they grew another daughter tree.
The third-generation tree, Iskandar says, fell due to weathering conditions, without any prior
warning. The agricultural expert Ibtihag Muhammad said that soil instability is mainly behind the falling of the tree, which can also be attributed to the low levels of underground water or to leaking sewage water. Mohamed explained that investigations and maintenance works are currently underway, and that there is a possibility to try to restore the tree to its original posture in a few days. “Personally I believe it is better to leave the tree as it is now,” Mohamed said.
Iskandar on the other hand pointed out that the fallen tree and its widespread branches are impeding the flow of the traffic in the area, especially that it is a residential area that boasts with traffic.
Al-Sayed Ibrahim of the local engineering department told Watani that the fence which was damaged because of the fall of the tree will be rebuilt, and the whole area will be restored and face-lifted jointly by the Church and the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
14 October 2013