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The Holy Family in Egypt  

The flight of the Holy Family to Egypt: “And when they [the wise men from the east] were departed, behold the angel of the Lord appeareth 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 I called My Son” (Matt. 2:13-15).

– The Journey of the Holy Family from Palestine to Sinai

Before the Holy Family, together with Salome, the midwife, left Bethlehem, they remained for a while in a grotto, known to the Arabs as “Magharat El Sayyidah”, which is situated south-east of the Basilica of the Nativity. The Holy Family first went to the ancient Philistine, a city and a seaport of Ashkelon. From Ashkelon, the Holy Family proceeded in an almost easterly direction to Hebron. About 40 kilometers further on, in a westerly direction, there was the site of the ancient Canaanite stronghold of Gaza. By taking the route which ran parallel to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the Holy Family would have crossed, within two hours, the Wadi Gaza. A day’s journey from Gaza brought the Holy Family to the ancient township of Jenysos. Today, this village, which is part of the Gaza Strip, is known as Khan Yunis. The next town on the Holy Family’s route would have been Raphia (Rafah), the frontier town between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, continuing another 44 kilometers, along the caravan-route, about two days of traveling. The Holy Family crossed a stream, the Wadi al-Arish, which, at all times formed the natural boundary between Egypt and Palestine. A little further on, the Holy Family would have arrived at the city of Rhinocolura, the present El-Arish. The first town, which would have been reached after Rhinocolura, was Ostrakini. Ostrakini has since disappeared, though there is a village called Straki, which is situated at the vicinity of El-Arish. Almost at the south-western end of the caravan-route from Judea to Egypt, there is the celebrated city of Pelusium (Al-Farama), sea-port and key to Egypt. The Greek monk, Epiphanius (Ninth century), and Bernard the Wise (870 AD), mention the tradition according to which the Holy Family visited this historical city.

 

 

– The Journey of the Holy Family from Sinai to Delta

It was at the time when Gaius Turranius (7- 4 BC) (a Roman Prefect of Egypt) that the Holy Family crossed the narrow isthmus at El-Qantara, today a small village along the Suez Canal. It was over this isthmus (which separates Lake Manzala from Lake Ballah) that the ancient caravan-route from Judea to Egypt passed. This route had, centuries before, been used by Abraham and Jacob and his sons. In the steps of the patriarchs, the Holy Family entered the province of Goshen. The first town they visited in the Delta was Bubastis (Tell Basta), two kilometers south of Zagazig. There, however, they were not well received and, disappointed by their reception, they went for a day’s journey further southwards reaching the towns of Bilbais, alongside the modern Ismailiya Canal. Today, there is only one Coptic Church at Bilbais, the Church of Saint George, which is situated in the north-eastern part of the town, about one kilometer from the main road. The site, which commemorates the visit of the Holy Family to Bilbais, is the Uthman Ibn El-Haris El-Ansari Mosque, in the centre of the town. The Holy Family continued northwards along the Nile Delta till they reached the town of Sebennytos (Samannud), which is situated along the Damietta branch of the Nile. A local tradition in Samannud relates that the present Church of Apa Nub was built on the ruins of an ancient church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, which, in turn, was built on the site where the Holy Family stayed. Having crossed the Damietta branch of the Nile, the Holy Family traveled westwards. On the way, Jesus put His foot upon a stone, and the mark of the sole of His foot remained upon the stone, and the place became known as Bikha Isous, that is to say the footprint of Jesus. Bikha Isous might be the town of Sakha, about two kilometers south of Kafr El-Shaikh. After Bikha Isous, the Holy Family traveled westwards and crossed the Rosetta branch of the Nile. Continuing their journey, they saw, from a far, the Desert of Scetis (the Wadi an-Natrun), and Jesus blessed it. The town which is nearest to the Desert of Scetis is Terenouti (at-Tarrana), actually about 40 kilometers from the Monastery of St. Macarius. Continuing southward, the Holy Family reached the City of On, the Biblical BethShemesh (Heliopolis), near Matariyah, the modern suburb of Cairo. From the City of On, the Holy Family went to a locality, where the Church of the Blessed Virgin in the Haret Zuwayla of Cairo now stands. It is situated in the north-eastern district of Cairo. Annexed to the Church is a convent of nuns. The nuns relate the tradition that, when the Holy Family rested there, Jesus blessed the water of the well and the Blessed Virgin drank from it. This well is situated in the floor, before the southern sanctuary of the lower church, and the water is still used for healing the sick. Continuing southwards, the Holy Family passed the Fortress of Babylon, which commanded the route to Upper Egypt and where they halted on their return to Palestine.

– Journey of the Holy Family from Delta to Upper Egypt

Some twelve kilometers south of Cairo, at Maadi, on the bank of the Nile, is situated the Church of the Blessed Virgin with its three cupolas. From Maadi, the Holy Family took a sailing boat further southwards along the Nile. Situated twelve kilometers south-west of Maghaagha is the village of Ishnin an-Nasarah. In earlier times, many people offered prayers in Ishnin, so there were as many churches in this locality “as there were days in the year”. A local oral tradition relates that the waters of the well, about 50 meters north of the Church of St. George, was blessed by Jesus, when the Holy Family passed through this village, on their way to Baysus (Dair El-Ganus), about seven kilometers west of Ishnin. The sacred well of Dair El-Ganus is situated at the western end of the south aisle of the Church of the Blessed Virgin. Ten kilometers in a southerly direction, on the edge of the desert, there is the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, the present town of El-Bahnasa. A commentator of the Quran says that the passage “and we have made the Son of Mary and His Mother a portent, and we gave them refuge on a height, a place of flocks and water-springs,” (XII, 50) refers to al-Bahnasa. Today, Al-Bahnasa possesses only one church that is dedicated to St. Theodore. Near the ancient Cynopolis, the present village of al-Kais, the Holy Family took a boat to travel southwards. Thirty five kilometers onwards, they passed the Gabal At-Tair, which is almost opposite to Samalut and Bayahu. When the Holy Family passed this mountain, a large rock was about to fan on the boat, and the Blessed Virgin was very frightened. Jesus, however, extended His hand and prevented the rock from falling, and the imprint of His hand remained on that rock. When Almeric, King of Jerusalem (1162-1173 AD), invaded Upper Egypt, they cut away the piece of the rock, and took it back with them to Syria in 1168. The Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Gabal At-Tair was built in commemoration of the visit of the Holy Family. From Gabal El-Tair, the Holy Family sailed southwards, passing on their way first the port of Khoufou, the present Minya, then the rock temple of the goddess Pekhet, caved by the Greeks Speos Artemidos, on the site of which is the present village of Beni Hassan El-Shuruq. Finally, they passed the Temple of Ramses II, on the ruins of which the Roman Emperor Hadrian built the town of Antinoupolis in 130 AD. This site is occupied by the present village of Ash-Shaikh Abadah. Opposite to the ruins of Antinoupolis, there is the town of Ar-Roda, which is built on the site where the Holy Family disembarked in order to proceed to the famous city of Khmunu, the Hermopolis Magna of the Greeks, at present the village of Al-Ashmunain. The ruins of the Basilica of Hermopolis Magna are situated just outside the village of al-Ashmunain. About ten kilometers southwards, the Holy Family stayed for a few days in Manlau, the present town of Mallawi. There are numerous Coptic churches in this town, two of which are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Further two days of traveling in a southerly direction brought the Holy Family to the town of Philes (the present Dairut Ash-Sharif) in the Thebaid. The inhabitants of this town were very charitable, and the Holy Family remained there for several days. From Philes, the Holy Family traveled via Pepleu, the present Beblaw, to the town of Sanabo Thereupon, the Holy Family entered the city of Qusquam, nowadays the village of Al-Qusla. After Jesus had cursed the town of Cusre and its inhabitants, the Holy Family went on a short distance south (actually six kilometers west) of the town and rested for a while in the locality of the present village of Meir, because of their weariness and fatigue. Not far away, about eight kilometers south of Meir, the Holy Family discovered a well. There, the Holy Family sojourned for six months in a certain house. This holy place, blessed on account of the Holy Fami1y’s presence in it, was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and is known as the Deir El-Muharraq. According to a tradition, the Church of the Blessed Virgin at the Deir El-Muharraq was the first church built in Egypt. The most southern place visited by the Holy Family was ten kilometers south-west of the ancient Lycopolis (Asyut), at Establ Antar, a mountain range rising west of Asyut. The Holy Family stayed there in the large rock-tombs of the Ninth to the Twelfth Dynasty. The Church of the Blessed Virgin at Dair Al-Adhra is situated east of the cave in which the Holy Family rested.

 

– The Journey of the Holy Family back to Palestine

From Asyut, the Holy Family returned to the site of the present Dair al-Muharraq. On their return, the Holy Family lodged in a cave, which is today situated beneath the Church of St. Sergius in Old Cairo, the ancient Babylon of Egypt. This cave of the Holy Family was a site which was included in the itineraries of medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land. From Babylon, the Holy Family continued their way northwards, stopping again at On, near the site of the present village of AL-Matariyah. There, they bathed Jesus, and the well was blessed thereby. A sycamore tree, under which the Holy Family is supposed to have found shelter, still stands, in a small garden enclosed by a wall, just before the Catholic Church of the Holy Family of Matariyah. The next place the Holy Family visited on their return to Palestine was al-Mahammah (or the place of bathing). In the Church of the Blessed Virgin at Musturud, about three kilometers west of Matariyah, on the western bank of the Ismailiya Canal, there is, to this day, a well which was blessed by the Holy Family. The well is situated at the north-east corner of the church, east of the cave where the Holy Family found shelter. From al-Mahammah, the next halting-place of the Holy Family was Leontopolis, known today as the ruins of Tall al- Yahudiyah and referred to (in old Roman maps) as Vicus Judreorum. From Tall al- Yahudiyah, the Holy Family returned to Palestine along the same route they had used to come to Egypt, passing through Bilbais, crossing the isthmus at Al-Qantara, and then traveling on the caravan-route from Egypt to Palestine, along the Mediterranean Coast. According to a local tradition, the Holy Family rested for several days near Gaza, in a garden between the Gabal Muntar and Gaza. When the Holy Family entered Palestine, Joseph heard “that Archaelaus did reign in Judrea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither, notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: and he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22-23).

 

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