It is a Biblical fact that the Holy Family—the Child Jesus, His mother Mary, and St Joseph—fled into Egypt to escape from Herod the King who wished to kill the Child. That much is mentioned in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew, also that when Herod died, the angel of the Lord told St Joseph to take the Child and His mother back to the historical land of Israel, which he promptly did. The gospel says nothing, however, on the period the Holy Family spent in Egypt or their whereabouts there. Tradition fills that gap, but it is a tradition backed by historical manuscripts and documents.
According to tradition, the Holy Family entered Egypt from its northeast border with Israel, heading southwest into the Delta, the Western Desert at Wadi al-Natroun, then eastwards to the site of present day Cairo from where they sailed the Nile southwards to what is today Assiut some 350km south of Cairo. Some three years later they travelled back to Israel, crossing the same territory but in a slightly different route and resting at various stops. Their journey to and from Egypt is well charted, cited in old manuscripts and steeped in Egyptian tradition; it 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. These sites dot the Egyptian countryside, towns, and even desert; they lie amid present-day rural or simple urban communities that live in traditional lifestyles which go back centuries in time. The locals are friendly, generous, warm hearted people. Thriving monasteries or churches still in use today for regular worship stand on these spots. Each site has its own time honoured story of the poor family that took refuge there more than two millennia ago and lived an everyday life no different than any other family: nurturing the Baby and caring for Him, bathing Him and washing his clothes, cooking, baking, and moving around. But there was one difference, given that this was in fact no ordinary family: the Child Jesus worked many miracles wherever His family set foot.
Developing the sites
Since the tradition of the Holy Family’s Egypt journey is hardly known outside Egypt, the Egyptian government spearheaded the opening of the sites on the Holy Family’s trail to international tourism, working closely with the Coptic Church to achieve that end. Even though the idea was introduced in 2000 to mark the second millennium on the Biblical story—it was then promoted by Culture Minister Farouk Hosny, Tourism Minister Mamdouh al-Beltagui, and the NGO National Egyptian Heritage Revival Association (NEHRA)—the project was interrupted owing to the political turmoil of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. Once Egyptians were able in 2013 to overthrow the Islamist regime that came to power on the wings of the Arab Spring, and to establish a secular State, matters settled down and in time the Holy Family project again took off.
According to Khaled al-Anani, Egypt’s current Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, this effort necessitated cooperation and coordination among several government authorities: the ministries of Tourism and Antiquities, and of Local Development; also local government in the various governorates that include Holy Family trail sites.
The task was no simple one. Roads to destinations had to be built or paved, tourist bus parking areas provided, infrastructure had to be developed or installed, security provisions made, guide signposts and guest facilities were required, cleaning and restoration efforts were necessary and, perhaps most important, local communities had to be made aware of the expected tourist influx so they could deal with it graciously and also benefit from it.
Two more sites
This year 2021 started auspiciously with the official opening of the first spot on the Holy Family trail in January. That was in Samannoud on the eastern branch of the Nile Delta some 140km northeast Cairo where the Holy Family is believed to have stayed for 17 days, and where the Holy Virgin is said to have helped an old woman with her baking. The locals warmly welcomed the Holy Family, and gifted the Mother with a large magoor, a granite trough that according to tradition she used to knead dough. That magoor still stands at the church of the Holy Virgin and the Martyr Abanoub in Samannoud where there also exists a water-well which the Christ Child Himself hallowed.
The development project at Samannoud cost EGP7.5 million.
Last March saw the opening of two more sites on the Holy Family trail following upgrades by the government and Church. These spots are in Sakha in Kafr al-Sheikh in the North Delta, some 130km north of Cairo; and in Tell Basta in Sharqiya east of the Delta, some 85km northeast Cairo.
Idols trembled, and Jesus printed His foot
Sakha is famous as a spot where the Holy Family spent seven days, and where a footprint of the Child Jesus was imprinted on a rock. That rock is today the prize possession of a church built on the site and named after the Holy Virgin.
The rock is 60 centimetres long and 15 centimetres wide; it is of a sandy yellow colour, whereas the footprint is brownish.
As to Tell Basta, the site carries the notorious story of the fall of the idols of Egypt upon the coming of the Christ Child. The prophesy in Isaiah 19:1 says “See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before Him”. Present-day Tell Basta is the site of ancient Bubastis, a name which derives from Bastet, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess. A great temple had once stood there in honour of the goddess. Today, however, not one relic stands; the vast grassland site is strewn with remains of huge walls, columns and statues that must have weighed several tons each.
Coptic tradition holds that the Bubastis idols were spontaneously destroyed upon the arrival of the Christ Child. Obviously, the locals were hostile to the Holy Family which then quickly left the place and rested under a leafy tree outside. There the Child, who needed to drink, struck the ground, and water sprung up; it is now a well. The entire area has been turned into an open air museum which was opened last March.
The two sites at Sakha and Tell Basta were opened on 22 March by Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani, and Local Development Minister Mahmoud Shaarawi, together with senior local government and Church officials.
Witness to history
At Sakha, the two ministers were received by Governor of Kafr al-Sheikh General Gamal Nour Eddin who accompanied them to the Church of the Holy Virgin to see the rock that boasts Christ’s footprint. At Tell Basta, the ministers were received by Sharqiya Governor Mamdouh Ghorab later on the same day. Also at hand to welcome them at the open museum site was Anba Timotheus, Bishop of Zagazig and Minya-Qamh.
Dr Anani said how happy he was that the two-year effort started by the State to prepare the Holy Family trail in Egypt is finally bearing fruit. “Last January,” he said, we opened the site at Samannoud, and today we are opening two more sites.” At Sakha, he said that the Church of the Holy Virgin was not listed as an antiquity site because a fire had destroyed the old church 15 years ago, and the one standing now was built on the same site in the style of the original one. “The church,” he said, “stands as witness to Egypt’s ancient history; the place was capital of northern Egypt during the 14th Dynasty in 1725 – 1650BC”.
At Tell Basta, Dr Anani said that in 2018 he had opened the Tell Basta museum and the site of the open museum, and that “now we are adding a spiritual aspect to this site and opening the site of the well sprung by the Holy Family.”
The year 2021, the Antiquities Minister said, should see the opening of other sites on the Holy Family trail, including churches in Old Cairo; Mary’s tree in Mattariya, Cairo; Wadi al-Natroun in the Western Desert; Gabal al-Teir in Minya; and al-Muharraq and Drunka in Assiut. “It is very important to market these sites worldwide as tourist destinations,” he stressed.
General Shaarawi, Minister of Local Development, expressed how happy he was to see the fruit of the effort his Ministry did with the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry in order to render the spots and surroundings on the Holy Family trail fit to receive international visits. “It is a miraculous trail,” he said, “which covered a large part of Egypt; it was honoured and blessed by the Holy Family”.
For their part, the two governors expressed pride at the Holy Family sites in their respective governorates, and at the way these sites were developed. Sharqiya Governor Mamdouh Ghorab said that Egypt had a history of providing asylum to the men of God; it offered safe refuge to Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and to the Holy Family. “In doing so,” he said, “Egypt was blessed with a spiritual seed that has grown and flourished through all times”. The Holy Family trail development project, Mr Ghorab said, is receiving full official support since it has the strong potential of promoting tourism, and providing local job opportunities.
Kafr al-Sheikh Governor explained the huge amount of work that went into upgrading the area around Sakha church, saying that it involved connecting the main road leading to the church to two other cultural edifices: the Sakha museum and Kafr al-Sheikh University campus, “the university being the pride and beacon of the governorate,” he said. General Noureddin said that the roads directly leading to the church were turned into pedestrian promenades lined with trees and benches, and fitted with guideposts and active maps. The nearby public garden, he said, was replanted and upgraded so as to provide visitors with a pleasant lush space and shady gazebos. A parking lot was built to accommodate tourist buses. The development work, he said, cost close to EGP6.7 million.
According to Adel Guindy, general manager of the strategy administration of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, and national coordinator of the project of the Holy Family trail in Egypt, the project is going on as planned. “Three sites have already been fully developed and opened,” Mr Guindy told Watani, “and eight more are scheduled for opening this year. The Ministry has completed more than 70 per cent of the project’s investment plan, in preparation for inviting the private sector and development NGOs to participate in it.
“The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities is discussing the possibility of merging other tourist products in the project of the Holy Family trail,” Mr Guindy said. “In Sharqiya, this includes the village of al-Qaramous close to Tell Basta; the village is the mainstay of papyrus cultivation and manufacture worldwide. There are also the annual camel racing events Sharqiya hosts, as well as the hunting lake the region is famous for.
“The Ministry,” Mr Guindy said, “is not waiting for COVID-19 worldwide conditions to ameliorate, but has already been contacting tour operators to add the Holy Family trail to their travel itineraries. With the psychological and mental torment caused by the pandemic, spiritual tourism is set to act as a direly needed soothing, therapeutic activity.”
Mr Guindy was honoured by Sharqiya Governorate for his outstanding work on the Holy Family trail project.
“Egypt, melody of love”
Local Coptic Church leaders were elated at the respective opening of the two religious sites. In warm, poetic language Bishop Timotheus said that Egypt, which was blessed by the Lord in Isaiah 19: “Blessed be Egypt my people” has “since the beginning of history sung a melody of love on every inch of her land … love which translated into heroic compassion that invited and protected all who sought refuge on her soil and among her people. This love is today manifested by the strong, peaceful bond between her Muslims and Christians.
“Most important” the Bishop said, “is for us to always realise that love is God Himself.”
Today, Bishop Timotheus said, Egypt continues to be a source of spiritual and cultural light that beckons the world to come and bask in the blessings bestowed on her by the Holy Family. He thanked Egypt’s “enlightened President Sisi for his outstanding work for the welfare of Egyptians, work done with love and patriotism,” and Ministers Anani and Shaarawi for their ardent, meticulous, diligent, knowledgeable efforts in upgrading the spots on the Holy Family trail. He also thanked Governor Ghorab for his wise leadership and understanding.
Bishop Timotheus said that Egypt was constantly in the Church’s prayers. “We pray,” he said, “That God preserves her as the pillar of faith she has always been, lit by love and tolerance, and her perpetual renewal as a source of cultural and spiritual radiation.”
5 May 2021