Before I explain the ancient journey of the Holy Family in Egypt, I have to say that I admire my friend Mounir Ghabbour because of his dedication to his religion and his extraordinary achievements. His first great achievement was producing a film about the Holy Family’s journey in Egypt in English that was directed by a US director.
I invited Ghabbour to show the film on the premises of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in Zamalek in Cairo. After that, he was going to produce an opera about the Holy Family and show it in Paris, but the Covid-19 pandemic prevented the organisation of the event.
More recently, Ghabbour invited me to visit the Virgin Mary Tree in the Matariya district of Cairo and the development work being done to upgrade the area. I believe that this man’s achievements are recognised by all Egyptian Christians.
Egypt had the honour to host the Holy Family when they escaped from the oppression of king Herod after the birth of Jesus. In fact, God chose Egypt to be connected with the three Ibrahimic or Abrahamic religions: Sinai was chosen as the place where Moses talked to God, and it later witnessed the arrival of the Arab armies bringing Islam to Egypt.
But our concern is with the journey of the Holy Family in Egypt. All these religious events are an honour to our great country, showing that it has always been a place of safety for those facing difficulties.
The arrival of the Holy Family was not the choice of a king, but it was the choice of God. It is a story kept in the hearts of all Christians everywhere. When Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II came to Egypt and met Pope Shenouda III, the former pope of Alexandria and the patriarch of all Africa in the Coptic Orthodox Church, he said that the purpose behind his visit was to make a pilgrimage to Egypt.
The Holy Family arrived in Egypt on the 24th day of the Coptic month of Pshnece, or on 2 June in 2 CE. This was when Jesus entered Egypt, a great occasion for all Christians and especially for Coptic Egyptians.
The journey began from Bethlehem in Palestine and was undertaken on instructions received by Joseph, or Youssef, who was told to take Jesus and Mary and escape to the land of Egypt.
In spite of the fact that the trip was a difficult one, the Holy Family travelled around 2,000 km on foot and sometimes by donkey or sailing on the Nile. One can imagine all the difficulties they faced.
They stayed in Egypt for three years and 11 months. This period is mentioned in a Coptic papyrus that says that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take the baby Jesus with his mother back to Palestine as Herod had died.
Earlier, the Virgin Mary left Bethlehem with the infant Jesus, just two years old at the time, accompanied by Joseph. This was the beginning of the Holy Family’s journey, making the places they visited in Egypt destinations for pilgrimage.
The journey inside Egypt began from Al-Farama in the east and continued to Assiut in the south. The family stopped at 25 sites, as mentioned below.
RAFAH: All the sources that mention the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt say that they avoided the northern road through Sinai because they were afraid of the soldiers of king Herod. They also all say that the Holy Family entered Egypt from near the village of Al-Farama (ancient Peluzium).
Other sources say that they took the shore road because it was safer and was the oldest road in Sinai. The road was used by immigrants to Egypt because it had less sand, good weather, and was not in danger from Bedouins.
The road was also used by Christians in the sixth and seventh centuries CE. Recently discovered sites found on it indicate Christian monuments dating to the Byzantine period. This supports the idea that the Holy Family also used this road, which now runs through Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayed, Arish, Al-Flosiat, Al-Kels, Al-Mohamdian, Al-Farama, and Tell Al-Makhzon.
The road starts from Rafah and runs to Wadi Al-Arish before continuing to Al-Zranick, an archaeological site also known as Al-Flosiat located west of Arish about 40 km near the Mazar village on the shore of the Bardawil Lake.
This area is important strategically because it is located at the point where the road connects with Al-Farama and the military road that began from Al-Qantara and ended at Rafah and is known as the Horus Military Road.
The people of Sinai say that between Rafah and Arish there is a tree that is part dry and part green and that dates back to the time of the Holy Family.
AL-FARAMA: This is the second station of the Holy Family in Egypt and was once identical with ancient Peluzium. It is near Qantara and is located between Arish and Port Said.
This was the point where the Holy Family entered Egypt from the northeast. Excavations at the site have revealed several churches dating to the fifth and sixth centuries CE.
TELL BASTA: The Holy Family continued to Tell Basta, the ancient city of Bubastit that was once the centre of the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bastet. It was the capital of the 22nd Dynasty and was previously the capital of the first nome (district) of Lower Egypt.
A group of temples dedicated to Bubastit has been found at the site dating from the Old Kingdom to the Late Period. The most important was built by Ramses II and the kings of the 22nd Dynasty such as Osrkon.
It is said that when the Holy Family entered the city, all the statues decorating it fell down. Jesus asked for a drink of water while he was sitting under a tree at the site, and Joseph struck the ground with his staff, causing a well to appear that the Holy Family drank from. There is a church on the site today dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The Holy Family then continued south until they reached Belbeis, where they had a rest under a sycamore tree. Later, people began to make pilgrimages to this tree and called it the Virgin Tree. It is said that when Napoleon Bonaparte came to Egypt in 1798, he also visited this tree.
MOSTOROD: The Holy Family turned south from Tell Basta, eventually reaching Mostorod. Not far from here there is a cave said to have been used by the Holy Family with a well that Jesus drank from.
SAMANOUD: From Mostorod, the Holy Family travelled north-west until they arrived at Samanoud where they crossed the Nile.
This city was once the ancient city lived in by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who is the source for our record of the ancient Egyptian dynasties. There is a church there built during the fourth century CE and named after the Virgin Mary and a later church built in the 13th century in honour of St Abanoub Al-Bahnai, a place of pilgrimage each 21 July.
In the church, there is a block of granite connected to the Holy Family and a wooden kiosk said to be the oldest of its kind in Egypt.
SAKHA: The Holy Family then went northwest to the area of Borollos and the city of Sakha in the Kafr Al-Sheikh governorate.
This area was a capital of Egypt during the ancient Egyptian 14th Dynasty, and inside a local church there is a stone bearing the mark of the footprint of a boy that is said to be the footprint of the infant Jesus.
From Sakha, the Holy Family crossed the Nile to the Western Delta and moved south to Wadi Al-Natroun in the Beheira governorate about 110 km from Cairo and today hosting four great monasteries.
HELIOPOLIS: Matariya, today neighbouring the Cairo district of Heliopolis, contains a Mary Tree in honour of the Virgin Mary. It is near the ancient town of On, called by the Greeks Heliopolis or the “city of the sun”.
After the Holy Family left Wadi Al-Natroun, they journeyed south to Matariya. Some sources say that a stick carried by Joseph, cut into pieces, later became a tree. From Matariya, the Holy Family then travelled to Old Cairo and passed the area of Zaytoun and Bab Zuweila, where a well is sacred to the Holy Family and attracts pilgrims each 20 June.
OLD CAIRO: The site of Babylon in Old Cairo contains a group of churches. Inside the Church of St George, there is a cave once used by the Holy Family. Some people think that the Holy Family hid there, waiting for the opportunity to return to Palestine.
The Church of Abu Sirga is located in the middle of the Roman fortress at Babylon, and it carries the names of two famous saints, St Sergius and St Bacchus.
The Holy Family then left Old Cairo and arrived in Maadi, eventually coming across a Jewish synagogue by the Nile. Some believe that this site was where the Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in the Nile and took him in to raise him, as described in the Old Testament of the Bible.