Baby Jesus, St Mary, and St Joseph were here …
Egypt has historically been a safe haven for people seeking refuge from hard times or adverse political conditions. A number of Biblical characters came to Egypt in hard times; among them were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and his sons … the list goes on as the history of Israel unfolds in the Bible.
Perhaps the most famous refugee to Egypt, however, was none other than Jesus Himself. The Gospel of Matthew relates in the second chapter the story of the flight to Egypt of the Holy Family: Baby Jesus, His mother Mary, and St Joseph.
In Matt 2: 13-15 the story goes: “Now when they had departed, 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 be thou there until I bring you 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 for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Num. 24:8; Hos. 11:1 ‘Out of Egypt have I called My Son’.”
In verses 19-21, it resumes: “Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead’. Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.”
Well-charted, palpable blessing
The Bible mentions nothing about the time the Holy Family spent in Egypt. Tradition, however, has a lot to say about that. Backed by historical documents and manuscripts, the path Jesus and His family trod and the places they stayed at are well-charted. But they have remained a thoroughly Coptic tradition that much of the world knows little about.
The Coptic Church celebrates the Feast of the Entry of the Holy Family in Egypt every year on the 24th of the Coptic month of Pashons (Bashans), which coincides with the 1st of June. It is a feast exclusive to the Coptic Church. The traditional icon that depicts the flight into Egypt shows the Holy Virgin tenderly holding Baby Jesus as they ride on a donkey led by St Joseph.
The Holy Family, coming from the historical land of Israel, entered Egypt from its northeast outpost of what is today Rafah. They travelled southwest till the Nile Delta, then south to present-day Cairo. They went further south till Assiut, some 350km south of Cairo, where they spent the longest interval in their trip in a mountain grotto. When St Joseph was ordered to take the young Child and His mother back to Israel, the Family took a return trip north, during which they trod a slightly different path. Tradition has it that the trip throughout Egypt lasted for some three years.
Today, Egypt is dotted with numerous sites where the Holy Family is believed to have stayed or passed through. Churches or monasteries have sprung up in each of them, are in use for regular Coptic worship; very much churches of the people. They are moreover beloved destinations of pilgrimage for Egyptians who see them as sources of very special, palpable blessing.
The Holy Family: Your next-door neighbour
Altogether, the Holy Family trail in Egypt extends over 3,500km, and includes 31 sites, eight caves or grottos, 18 water springs or wells, and 13 trees.
Every site has a story to tell. These are not grand, noble stories, but stories of a poor nondescript family with a baby in a strange land, and their daily attempts to answer life’s basic needs. Here, they stop to rest under the shade of a tree…there, the mother gives Baby a bath…elsewhere she bakes bread for her family. And every spot carries vestiges of these down-to-earth stories, and also tales of time-honoured miracles.
Egyptians celebrate the Holy Family on their land as the family that was ‘your next-door neighbours’, neighbours close to your heart, neighbours that once shared your everyday experiences and to this day share them. It is a closeness many in the world may find hard to understand but, for Egyptians it is a real, living connection that extends over time and space.
Until recently, this gem of a heritage was known to very few outside Egypt. Now the country has decided to familiarise the world with it, and invite everyone to come to Egypt for pilgrimage to these wondrous sites and to partake of this amazing blessing.
On the ground, it was the Ministry of Tourism that sponsored the pilgrimage. Watani talked to Nader Girgis, Coordinator of the Tourism Ministry’s Committee for Reviving the Holy Family Trip in Egypt, on the topic.
What proof do you have?
Mr Girgis said that the first attempts to attract tourists began in 2011, through talks with the Catholic Church. “But no one recognised our version of the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt; they were unfamiliar with the tradition.
“In 2013 however, a number of events took place which helped give the kiss of life to our tourist project,” Mr Girgis recalled. In Rome, the Catholic Church got a new Pope, Pope Francis. In May 2013, Pope Tawadros II visited Pope Francis in Rome, reviving a move for better relations between the two Churches that had begun at the hands of Pope Shenouda III in 1973, the first such attempt since the grand rift between them in the AD451 Council of Chalcedon. Pope Tawadros’s 2013 visit marked the beginning of an era of love and understanding between the Coptic and Catholic Church.
In 2014, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi became Egypt’s President and, in August 2015, invited Pope Francis to visit Egypt. In 2016, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry arranged for the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb to visit the Vatican. “All these moves were taken within the political context of enhancing Egypt’s international relations, but had the added value of setting the stage for advancing the tourist project of pilgrimage to Egypt.
“In May 2016, Yehia Rashed became Egypt’s Minister of Tourism, a post he held till January 2018. He was assigned with prioritising the pilgrimage project with the Vatican. Less than one week in office, he headed to Rome to broach the topic with the relevant officials. “When he asked why they wouldn’t recognise the Holy Family Trail in Egypt, the reply was that there was no historical proof to Egypt’s claims about it; it could be, after all, no more than popular folklore.”
Italian tourism and media delegation on visit to Wadi Natroun monasteries
Documents, manuscripts and visits
Back in Egypt, Mr Rashed rushed to meet Pope Tawadros and told him of the predicament. “How can you prove what you claim about the Holy Family’s history in Egypt?” he said.
Pope Tawadros assigned the matter to the Institute of Coptic Studies, asking them to compile all the documents, manuscripts and facts that prove that the Holy Family spent more than three years in Egypt, and how and where they stayed. “This task was achieved,” Mr Girgis said, “and the historical facts were collected from manuscripts and documents of the Coptic Church, documents written by western clergy, and research done by international institutes and universities.”
Mr Rashed visited the Vatican more than once to discuss the matter.
“Before Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt,” Mr Girgis said, “a Vatican delegation came to explore the sites he would be visiting and coordinate arrangements with Egypt’s officials. We were also requested to translate into Italian the data we had on the Holy Family Trail in Egypt. I was assigned to head the group appointed to meet them.
“We handed them the data we had compiled, and discussed with them the pilgrimage project. They visited the sites and were amazed at their beauty and spirituality, and at the living faith still practised in them. They attended an End-of-Lent service officiated by Pope Tawadros at St Mark’s Cathedral and were moved by the praises and melodies.”
Pope Francis visited Egypt in April 2017, in what was labelled “Pope of peace in land of peace’. The visit was an astounding success on all levels: political, inter-religious, ecumenical, and spiritual. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/pope-francis-visits-egypt/19963/]
Preziosa Terrinoni, Chairman UNITALSI Sezione Romana – Laziale, at Surian Monastery in Wadi Natroun
Cav. Eugenia Benedetti Gaglio, President of SIB Charity Foundation Benedetti, at Surian Monastery in Wadi Natroun
Egypt: fifth Vatican pilgrimage destination
Back home, Pope Francis announced on 4 October 2017 from St Peter’s Square the endorsement of the icon of the Holy Family in Egypt, which would be used to promote pilgrimage to Egypt. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/pope-francis-blesses-pilgrimage-to-egypt/21499/]
The Vatican already had four approved pilgrimage destinations: Jerusalem in the Holy Land, Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, and the Vatican itself. Each of these sites receives 5 – 8 million visitors a year. Now Egypt has become the fifth destination.
There are 31 sites at which the Holy Family stayed in Egypt for various periods of time, in some cases for a mere day or two and at other points for prolonged periods. The sites stretch over five regions: six sites in North Sinai; seven in the Nile Delta; four in Wadi al-Natroun in the desert west of the Nile Delta; seven in Cairo; and seven in the Nile Valley till Assiut in the south.
“Not all these sites are at present fit to be tourist destinations,” Mr Girgis said. “Some have been victim of destruction, whether intentional where fanatics attempted to obliterate the Christian character of the place, or unintentional owing to non-planned urban expansion. North Sinai is at the moment out of question because of the precarious security situation.
“We are preparing eight destinations as a first phase for the pilgrims,” Mr Girgis told Watani; these include the most famous sites.”
Bible floating on the Nile
In Old Cairo, tourists can visit the Muallaqa (Hanging) church which was built on four columns of a Roman fort; and the church of Abu-Serga which houses a well and cave where the Holy family spent three months on its entry journey and three days on the return.
There is also the 4th-century church of the Holy Virgin in Maadi, Cairo, which lies on the Nile bank at the spot where the Holy Family boarded a boat to sail the Nile south. The church was also scene of a modern-day miracle in June 1976 when a Bible was found floating on the Nile water, open at the chapter in Isaiah that includes the verse: Blessed be my people Egypt. The Bible is displayed in a glass case at the church.
In Wadi Natroun, visitors can head to the three 4th-century desert monasteries, and can also visit Nabaa al-Hamra, the Red Spring, which is a spring of fresh water in the midst of a 700-feddan lake of sulphurous waters. Tradition has it that St Mary was thirsty, and Baby Jesus stretched His hand and sprung the fresh water for her to drink.
In the Nile Valley, there are three destinations. One is the church of Gabal al-Teir in Minya, situated atop a mountain that includes several vestiges of the holy visit, and which was built in the 4th-century by St Helena. There is also al-Muharraq Monastery in Assiut where the Family spent the longest interval of 198 days, and which includes the altar consecrated by Jesus Himself; and the Assiut Dronka Grotto which is the spot from which the Holy Family started their return journey. It is situated 120m above sea level and is the site of the beloved annual celebration of the Holy Virgin every August.
From religious to cultural tourism
The eight sites of phase one, Mr Girgis said, comprise 40 per cent of the journey. The tourists are expected once the upcoming Vatican circular is out, which will be next May. In reply to a question by Watani on who is the target tourist, Mr Girgis said it is the religious tourist who seeks spiritual needs. “We target tourists from South America, in addition to Italy and Germany as well as other places,” he said.
“A lot of work is underway to prepare the pilgrimage sites to receive tourists,” he explained. “Power lines have been installed, roads have and are being built, signposts are set up, medical services are established, in addition to hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and whatever a tourist might need.
“The Church has been doing its utmost to make the project a success,” he said. “Pope Tawadros is strongly supporting the project, and offering whatever aid is needed. Tourist guides receive training at the Institute for Coptic Studies which also prepares guiding programmes. The monasteries are collaborating very well and we, on our part, have promised to respect the privacy and seclusion of the monastic communities. This is why tours will only be available four days a week, from Monday through Thursday, and will end at 4pm.”
“Will UNESCO be involved in such a valued heritage project?” Watani asked. “We have approached UNESCO on that point,” Mr Girgis replied. “If our request is accepted, it would take us from the 2-billion-strong religious tourism to the 6-billion-strong cultural tourism. We would like people of all faiths, and those with no faith at all, to visit our sites for the deep-rooted cultural heritage they hold and the profound blessings.”
7 February 2018