The date 1 June, 24 Pashons on the Coptic Calendar of the Martyrs, marks an annual feast that is exclusively Egyptian and very close to the hearts of Copts: the Feast of the Entry of Christ into the Land of Egypt.
The feast commemorates the biblical story in Matthew 2: 13-22 of the Holy Family: the Child Jesus, His mother St Mary, and St Joseph fleeing into Egypt from the face of Herod the King who wished to kill the Christ Child. Tradition has it that they travelled southwards from the historic land of Israel, and entered Egypt at its northeast border.
Throughout some three years spent in Egypt, the Family headed southwest into the land of the Nile Delta and further south into the Nile Valley until they reached the site of present day Assiut, some 350km south of Cairo, where they stayed for the longest period of the journey. When Herod died, the angel of the Lord told Joseph to take the family back into Israel, so they left Egypt through a slightly different route.
Celebrating at ancient churches
Churches all over Egypt mark the eve of the Feast of the Entry of Christ into Egypt with festive Vespers services, and the feast day with special Mass. Spots where tradition has it that the Holy Family rested or resided, today host churches or monasteries that hold their own characteristic celebrations. Altogether, a joyful air prevails.
This year, Pope Tawadros presided over the feast Mass on 1 June at the 5th-century church of St Sergius and St Bacchus, famous as Abu-Serga Church, in Old Cairo. It is also known as the Church of the Cavern, since it was built above a cavern in which, according to tradition, the Holy Family spent some three months on its journey in Egypt. It also boasts a water well from which they drank.
On the evening of that day, the Pope attended an event held in honour of the occasion at the 4th-century church of the Holy Virgin at Maadi. This church stands on the eastern bank of the River Nile south of Cairo, and is believed to be the spot where the Holy Family boarded a boat and sailed the Nile southwards. An old staircase descends from the church courtyard down to the Nile bank.
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 Egypt my people. The Bible is now displayed in a glass case at the church.
Holy Family sites open for tourists
The Egyptian government has recognised the trail of the Holy Family in Egypt and the various spots on it as potential tourist destinations. This trail extends over 3,500km, and includes 31 sites, eight caves or grottos, 18 water springs or wells, and 13 trees. Copts, and many Muslims, know these places very well and frequent them in pilgrimage as sources of blessings.
The government is joining efforts with the Coptic Church to upgrade and develop these sites, and open them to tourists, benefitting thus entire local communities. So the Feast of the Holy Family in Egypt is now one that concerns not only Copts, but all Egyptians. So far, three destinations have been opened, all of them in the Delta region and all opened during 2021. They include Sammanoud on the eastern branch of the Nile Delta where Mother Mary baked for her family and Baby Jesus sprung a well; Sakha in the north Delta where a footprint of the little Child was imprinted on a rock; and Tell Basta in Zagazig east of the Delta, where the Egyptian idols at the temple of the cat goddess Bastet fell upon the entry of Jesus and where He was thirsty so struck the ground and a water spring came up.
Zagazig University and Coptic Church
Apart from the religious celebrations of the Feast of the Entry of Christ into the Land of Egypt, another three-day celebration was held jointly by the Coptic Orthodox Church and Zagazig University to mark the occasion. The celebration, under the auspices of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, started with an official event on the eve of the Feast, the evening of Monday 31 May. On 1 June, a celebratory event was held at the Bishopric of Zagazig jointly with Zagazig University, which Sharqiya Governor Dr Mamdouh Ghorab attended. The event concluded with a visit to the open museum of the site of the Bastet temple and the holy well at Tell Basta.
The third day was devoted to a showcase of academic and archaeological work done by Zagazig University’s Higher Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Studies and the Institute of Coptic Studies (ICS) on Tell Basta’s Holy Family heritage. At Zagazig University, research papers were discussed, including one on the discovery of the well at Tell Basta by Zagazig University’s Dr Mahmoud Omar in 1990s. The university’s museum that displays all the university’s archaeological finds was opened.
The eve of the Feast saw Pope Tawadros in his capacity as Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark, also as the Supreme Head of the Institute of Coptic Studies (ICS), co-host with Dr Osman Shaalan, President of Zagazig University an event in honour of the occasion. The event was held at the Anba Rweiss theatre at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo. The event was held to commemorate the entry of the Holy Family into Egypt and their stop at Tell Basta in Zagazig, and came within the framework of the cooperation protocol between Zagazig University and ICS.
Egypt: land of refuge
Guests of the event included more than 50 Senators and MPs, among them Ms Phoebe Fawzy, deputy to Egypt’s Speaker of the Senate; General Khaled Abdel-Aal, Governor of Cairo; Dr Mona Aziz of the President’s Advisory Council; and Dr Kamal Sharobim, Secretary-General of the Specialised Councils affiliated to the presidency.
A number of Cabinet Ministers attended the event, among them Dr Khaled al-Anani, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities; Ms Nabila Makram, Minister of Emigration and Expatriate Egyptians; Dr Ali Messeilhi, Minister of Supply; and Dr Ashraf Sobhy, Minister of Youth and Sports.
The guests settled down, and Pope Tawadros was ushered in by a chanting deacon procession. He started by opening an exhibition of art works on the topic of the Holy Family in Egypt, held in the atrium of the theatre. The exhibition displayed 35 works by 15 artists. The works included paintings, mosaics, and handcrafts.
Pope Tawadros took his place in the hall, and the Egyptian national anthem was played.
A word of welcome was given by Ishaq Agban, Dean of ICS, who said that Egypt, the land that gave refuge to the Child Jesus, His Mother, and St Joseph, had always been and will always be a land of safety and security.
Peace and love will forever prevail among her children, Dr Agban said, because love never fails.
Story of discovery of holy well
A 10-minute documentary on ICS was then screened.
Dr Shaalan gave a word about Zagazig University’s archaeological and academic efforts, and the cooperation protocol it has with ICS.
He thanked Pope Tawadros, and said the University was proud of having discovered the well at Tell Basta, which had been mentioned in old manuscripts on the Holy Family’s journey in Egypt. Dr Shaalan thanked the Egyptian government for having adopted the project of the Holy Family trail in Egypt. He said that it is now 30 years on the start of the archaeological work that led to the discovery of the well, work that the university is especially proud of.
A documentary on Zagazig University was screened, and another on the discovery of the well. The documentary started off with a word by Anba Timotheus, Bishop of Zagazig and Minyal -Qamh who, in warm poetic words, said that Tell Basta was the first stop on the Holy Family’s Egypt journey which endowed the entire land with fragrant blessings.
The story of the discovery of the well was narrated by its discoverer Dr Mahmoud Omar who started excavation in 1991 and went on till 1997. The well yielded a large number of artefacts which Zagazig University is now showcasing in a special museum on campus. The museum was opened on Wednesday 2 June.
Tourism Minister Dr Anani started his word by expressing how much he loved to attend this annual celebration of the Entry of the Holy Family in Egypt. “This was the day Egypt opened her blessed arms to receive the Holy Family,” he said.
The Minister cited the three Holy Family sites already opened by the Ministry, and explained that the Ministry works along three axes: Restoration works, and upgrading the regions around the Holy Family trail sites; developing the infrastructure at the sites; and handling the promotion and marketing of the trail.
A musical show followed, a panorama of the Holy Family’s Journey in Egypt. Its production was supervised by Anba Demetrius, Bishop of Mallawi and Head of the Coptic Language Department at ICS. The show was designed and performed by young men and women from the diocese of Mallawi in Minya, some 300km south of Cairo.
Land of bountiful goodness
It was then time for Pope Tawadros to speak. The Pope welcomed the guests, and gave tribute to Zagazig University and ICS for holding that splendid celebration to mark a beautiful point in Egypt’s history.
“The attention the State is giving to the trail of the Holy Family in Egypt reflects a unique image of our country and emphasises a point that can be used to promote Egypt to the world,” the Pope said. To flee the tyranny of Herod, the Holy Family sought refuge in Egypt and blessed her land, he said. He reminded of an Egyptian vernacular expression of Amaar ya Masr used to describe Egypt as a land of goodness and bounty. He said that the stay of the Holy Family in Egypt filled it with just that.
Pope Tawadros went on to explain that what is most special about Egypt is that for centuries on end and ever since ancient times Egyptians have lived in the Nile Valley, gathering together around the river that flows in the very heart of Egypt all along the length of the land. The Nile, the Pope said, “has watered us and united us as one family. It grew in us a strong sense of family … We came to cherish the concept of the large family home warmly hosting parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren.
“Holy Family came into Egypt, and blessed every family on her land.”
Shields of honour
Before the event came to a close, all who had played pivotal roles in bringing to fruition the national project of developing the trail of the Holy Family in Egypt were in for receiving honours.
In that context, the Pope handed shields to the Cabinet Ministers involved and their aides, the academicians and researchers. Finally, Dr Shaalan and Dr Agban joined hands to hand Pope Tawadros his own shield.
The Pope also graced the event held at the idyllic setting at the Maadi church of the Holy Virgin on the Nile Bank the following evening, 1 June 2021. The event was organised by the NGO Martyria Foundation for culture and development, and featured a documentary that focused on the significance of oral tradition as a reliable, authentic source—in addition to old manuscripts—for the history of the Holy Family’s journey in Egypt. The event was attended by senior officials, public figures and clergy.
Pope Tawadros gave a word in which he lauded the participation of government officials, academicians, and other Egyptian figures in celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family in Egypt. This feast, he said, has been for ages a time-honoured Coptic Church celebration, but now it is becoming more of the Egyptian event that it should be.
The evening concluded on a magnificent note of music performed by the charming Ayoub Sisters, Sarah and Laura, who started off by saying how happy they were to be in Egypt which they loved so dearly. The beautiful young women were born in Scotland to Egyptian parents.
That evening, their tunes of Egyptian and Coptic melodies rang in the legendary evening breeze of Egypt’s cool summer night, transporting the audience into a world of charm never to be forgotten. They concluded with Egypt’s national anthem in a majestic rendition that will forever remain in Egypt’s ears.
2 June 2021