Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Route of the Holy Family through Egypt

In 2000, Egypt launched a major tourist initiative to remind people throughout the world of one of the major events of biblical history: the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. The programme encourages travellers to retrace the steps of Jesus Christ with his mother, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph in Egypt.

According to the New Testament, the Lord warned Joseph that King Herod, the King of Israel, was planning to kill Jesus. The Family thus decided to flee Bethlehem and escape to Egypt. "Take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt" (Matthew 2:13).

Jesus Christ lived in Palestine, and the only other country he travelled to was Egypt. During their time in Egypt, Jesus, Mary and Joseph visited many places. The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism is now urging travellers to follow the route taken by the Holy Family in their 'great escape' from King Herod.

In order to promote this initiative, the ministry published a book, with the approval of Pope Shenoudah III of the Coptic Orthodox¤ Church, describing the route taken by the Holy Family. The book has been translated from Arabic into English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Greek and Japanese.

The ministry also carried out a major renovation project in Old Cairo, believed to be one of the major stations of the Holy Family in Egypt. The area includes major Islamic, Coptic and Jewish sites including the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As, the Hanging Church and the Synagogue of Ben Ezra. The $15- million project, focussing on social, economic and constructural development of the area, started in May 1999 and was inaugurated in April 2001.

Shabby plaster walls have been re-faced with rough stone; about 350 houses and 80 shops were renovated and repainted inside and out, taking care to maintain the historical atmosphere of the area by adding traditional mashrabiya (wooden lattice) windows and lanterns for adornment. The walls of the Greek Orthodox Cemetery have been suitably restored.

All the main streets have been upgraded; a new police station built; the metro station and the local youth centre renovated and decorated; and a new bus station and a fire station established. A new tourist bazaar and a pottery village have also been built to revive the traditional crafts of Egypt.

Businessmen were also enthusiastic about drawing attention to the route of the Holy Family in Egypt. They have established the National Egyptian Heritage Revival Association (NEHRA) responsible for restoring the icons of Harit Zuweila Church, the oldest church in the world. They have also restored the tomb and church of Dimyana in Mansoura, the icons of the Holy Virgin Church in Maadi and an underground passage way to the Nile from where the Holy Family travelled to Upper Egypt.

According to tradition, the Holy Family went from Bethlehem in Palestine to Rafah, Al-Arish, and Farama in north Sinai. From Farama the Holy Family continued to Tel Basta, city of Pharaonic lion goddess Bastet, just outside modern-day Zagazig in Sharqiya Governorate. It was here that, when Jesus entered the temple, the idols crumbled before him. They then travelled to Mostorod, north of Cairo, where they stayed in a crypt which today is part of the church. Mostorod is also called Al-Mahamma which means 'the Bathing Place', a name given to the town because Mary bathed the Christ Child in this place.

Fearing Herod's soldiers, the caravan fled north, stopping briefly in various spots including Sakha in Kafr Al-Sheikh Governorate, where a rock, with the footprint of Jesus, has been unearthed. The Holy Family then went to Wadi Al- Natrun, the centre of monastic Coptic Orthodox Church life. They then left the desert behind and made their way southwards, crossing the Nile to its eastern bank, and heading for Matariya and Ain Shams. In Matariya, a tree still stands to this day which is called "Mary's Tree" since it is believed that the Family rested in the shade of its branches.

The next destination is the area that is now called Old Cairo where the Family took refuge in a cave. In later years, the church of Abu Serga (St Sergious) was built at this site. This, and the whole area of Babylon, is a place of pilgrimage, not only for Egyptians, but also Christians from around the world.

When the governor of Old Cairo heard of idols falling before Jesus, he plotted to kill the Child, and the Family fled to Maadi. At Maadi they boarded a sailing boat which carried them up the Nile towards southern Egypt. A historic church, dedicated to the Virgin, is built upon the spot where they embarked. The stone steps leading down to the river bank, believed to have been used by the Family, are accessible to pilgrims through the Church courtyard. The sailboat docked at the village of Deir Al-Garnous, a short distance from Ashneen Al-Nasara, a small village near the town of Maghagha in Minya. Both villages have wells where the water rises at the beginning of June -- the time the family arrived in Egypt.

They then travelled southward, crossing over to the east bank of the Nile to Gabal Al-Teir (Bird Mountain), also known as Gabal Al-Kaf (Mountain of the Palm). The Family rested in a cave which is now located inside the ancient church there. It is believed that Jesus left an imprint of his hand in the rocks. From that spot, the Family once again crossed the Nile back to the west bank, heading towards Qussqam where, 50 kms north of Assiut, lies Al-Moharraq Monastery. The Family stayed there for more than six months, longer than at any other place in Egypt, until an angel told Joseph to return to Palestine as Herod was dead: "Arise, and take the young child and His mother and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sought the young child's life" (Matthew 2:20&amp21).

On their way back to Palestine, they passed Mount Dronka, eight kilometres south of Assiut, where they stayed in a cave. A monastery was built around the site of the cave. They then travelled to Old Cairo, Matariya, Mostorod, across Sinai and back to Palestine, where they settled in Al-Nasserah(Nazareth).

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