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(ISAIAH 19:25)

On the 24th day of the Coptic month of Bashans, which corresponds to the 1st of June, the Coptic Church celebrates the entry of the Lord Jesus Christ into the land of Egypt. On that day, the churches throughout the length and breadth of the land that gave the Holy Family shelter resound with the words of the Doxology:
“Rejoice, Oh Egypt; Oh, people of Egypt and all ye children of Egypt who live within its borders, rejoice and lift up your hearts, for the Lover of all mankind, He who has been before the beginning of ages, has come to you”.

The Holy Family , in their escape from the infanticidal fury of King Herod , chose their way to Egypt. They had to avoid the beaten tracks altogether, and to pursue unknown paths, guided by God and His Angel. They picked their way day after day, through hides valleys and across uncharted plateaus in the (then) rugged wastelands of Sinai, enduring the scorching heat of the sun by day and the bitter cold of the desert nights, preserved from the threat of wild beasts and savage tribesmen, their daily sustenance miraculously provided, the all-too-human fears of the young Mother for her infant allayed by the faith that infused her with His birth.

And So they arrived, at last, safely, for God had pre-ordained that Egypt should be the refuge for the one who has to bring the message of peace and love to mankind.

The tortuous trails they followed in their passage across Sinai, and their subsequent travels within Egypt, are chronicled by Pope Theophilus, 23rd Patriarch of Alexandria (384-412 AD). He testifies, in his celebrated annals, that on the eve of the 6th of Hathor (the Coptic month corresponding roughly with November), after long prayer, the Holy Virgin revealed herself to him, and after relating the details of the Holy Family’s journey to, in, and from Egypt, bade him record what he had seen and heard. It is a source which no Christian believer would question.

Besides, it is a virtual certainty that, at a time when happings of a momentous or historical nature were transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to the next, the account of Pope Theophilus’s vision confirmed the oral tradition of supernatural occurrences which accompanied the arrival of a wondrous Child in the towns and villages of Egypt some 400 years earlier.

The route of the Holy Family:
According to the sources of the Coptic Church, the Holy Family proceeded from Bethlehem To Gaza, and thence to El-Zaraniq (also known as Floussiat), some 37 kms west of El-Arish; then they threaded their way along northern Sinai until they reached Farma (ancient Pelusium) mid-way between El-Arish and present-day Port Said. It was their last stop in Sinai; and with the next leg of their journey they put the perils of the wilderness behind them.

Tel Basta or Basta lies about 100 kms north-east of Cairo. Here, Jesus caused a waterspring to well up from the ground, and His presence caused the idols to c rumble, as foretold by the prophets of old. The townsfolk, in consequence, turned malevolent and aggressive, whereupon the Holy Family turned their backs on the town and headed south.

In due course they reached Mostorod (which was called in those day Al Mahamma) only about 10 km away from Cairo. Al Mahamma means the Bathing Place, a name given to the town because the Virgin Mary bathed the Christ Child and washed his clothes.

Eventually, on their way back to Palestine, the Holy Family stopped once more at Mostorod and this time, caused a spring to gush from the earth which still flows forth to the present day.

From Mostorod , The Holy Family took the way north-eastwards to Belbeis (ancient PHilippos) at a distance of about 55 km from Cairo. They rested there in the shade of a tree which was therefore named as “The Virgin Mary’s Tree”.

Afterwards, the Holy Family took the north-west direction reaching the small township of Meniet Samannoud ( known also as Meniet Genah), they crossed the Nile to the city of Samannoud (or Jemnoty) in the Delta, where the local population received them with a kindness and hospitality that earned them deserved blessing. There is in Samannoud , to this day, a large granite trough which, according to local brief, was used by the Virgin for kneading dough, and a water-well which the Christ Child Himself hallowed.

Again towards the north-west, the Holy Family traveled until they reached the city of Sakha in the lake district of Burullus. The Coptic name of the town “Pekha-Issous” means “the foot of Jesus” for the Holy Child’s foot-print was marked, here in bas relief on a rock. The rock was preserved , but hidden for centuries for fear of robbery and only unearthed again 13 years ago.

After Sakha, the Holy Family crossed the Rosetta branch of the Nile to the western Delta and heading south into Wadi el Natroun (Natroun Valley) in the Western Desert of Egypt. In the earliest decades of Christianity, the desert expanses of Wadi el Natroun became the site of anchoretic settlement and , later , of many monasteries, in spiritual commemoration of the Holy Family’s passage through the Valley.

Eventually, they left the desert behind them and made their way southwards, crossing the Nile to its eastern bank and heading for Matariyah and Ain Shams (ancient Heliopolis, the site of the oldest ‘university’ in history called since earliest Pharaonic times ‘On’). Both these adjacent districts are outlying suburbs of present-day Cairo, only round 10 km far from the city centre.

At the time of the Holy Family’s arrival there, Ain Shams was home to a large Jewish community, who had erected a temple – the Synagogue of Unias, for their worship. In Matariyah, a tree still stands to this day, still regularly visited, called “Mary’s Tree”, for the Family is believed to have rested in its shade. Here, too, the Infant Jesus caused water to flow from a spring, from which He drank and blessed, and in which the Virgin washed His clothes. She poured the washing water on the ground, and from that spot, the fragnant balsam plant blossomed: besides the healing and pain-soothing properties of this balm, its essence is used in the preparation of the scents and perfumes of which the Holy Chrism is composed.

Setting out next towards Old Cairo, the Holy Family rested for a while in Zeitoun, on their way , then proceeded along a course which traverses which are now crowded bustling quarters of Cairo, within which the serene landmarks of an earlier Coptic heritage still stand, marking the paths of the Holy Family followed.

* In central Cairo:
• The Church of the Virgin Mary in Zuweila Alley.
• The Church of St George the Martyr.
• The Church of St. Mercurios Abu Sefein (‘meaning he of the two swords’)
• The Convent of the Virgin Mary.
• The Convent of St. George.

* In the down-town district of Clot Bey:
• The Cathedral of St Mark in Azbakieh.
• Numerous Churches attached to the Cairo headquarters of many Egypt’s monasteries
• The Church of the Virgin Mary (known by the name Ezbaweya)

The area now called Old Cairo, known as Misr El Kadima is among the most important locations visited by the Holy Family where the spiritual impact of their presence is most felt still, though their stay was brief, for the Governor pf what was then Fustat - enraged by the tumbling down of idols at Jesus’ approach – sought to kill the Child. But they took shelter from his wrath in a cave above which, in later years, the Church of Abu Serga (St Sergius) was built. This, and the whole area of the fort of Babylon, is a destination of pilgrimage not only for Egyptians but for Christians from around the world.

List of the sites which are visited in the Fortress of Babylon:
• The Church of Abu Serga and the Crypt of the Holy Family beneath it.
• The Hanging Church (Al Muallaqa) dedicated to the Virgin Mary
• The Church Of St Barbara
• The Church of St George
• The Church of the Virgin, identified by its alternative name of Qasriet Al-Rihan (Basil Pot)
• The Convent of St George
• The Coptic Museum and the ramparts of the Fortress of Babylon.
• The Greek Orthodox Church of St George
• The Jewish Synagogue of Ben Ezra.

The Fustat section of Old Cairo, which lies west of the Mosque of Amr Ibn’l As includes:
• The Church of St Mercurios Abu Sefein
• The Church of Abba Shenouda
• The Church of the Virgin Mary of Al-Demshiria
• The Convent of Abu Sefein
• The Church of the Virgin of Babylon El Darag
• The Church of Saints Abakir and Yohanna
• The Church of Prince Tadros Al Mishriqi
• The Church of the Archangel Mikhail (known also as Ala Malak Al Qibli or ‘Southern Angel’)
• The Church of St Mena in Zahraa- Misr El Kadima

After their short stay in Old Cairo, the Holy Family moved in a southerly direction , reaching the modern Cairo suburb of Maadi which, in earliest Pharaonic times, was an outlying district of Memphis, the capital of Egypt then; and at Maadi, they boarded a sailing-boat which carried them up the Nile towards southern Egypt. The historic church built upon the spot from which they embarked, also dedicated to the Virgin, is further identified by the denominative ‘Al-Adaweya’, the Virgin’s Church ‘of the Ferry’.

The stone steps leading down top the River’s bank and believed to have been used by the Holy Family, are accessible to pilgrims through the Church courtyard.

An event of miraculous import occurred on Friday the 3rd of the Coptic month of Baramhat, the 12th of March 1976 A.D. A Holy Bible of unknown provenance was carried by the lapping ripples of the Nile to the bank below the Church. It was open to the page of Isaiah 19:25 the page declaring “Blessed be Egypt My People”. The Bible is now behind glass in the Sanctuary of the Virgin in the Church for all to see.

The sail-boat docked at the village of Deir Al-Garnous (the later site of the Monastery of Arganos) 10 km west of Ashnein el Nassara (a small village near the town of Maghagha). Outside the western wall of the Church of the Virgin there, a deep well is believed to have provided the Holy Family with the water they needed.

They went on from there to a spot later named Abai Issous, “the Home of Jesus”, the site of present-day Sandafa village, east of Al Bahnassa, the latter which stands some 17 km west of town of Beni Mazar.

On towards the south they went from Bahnassa to Samalout and crossed the Nile again from that town to the spot on the east Bank of the River where the Monastery of the Virgin now stands upon Gabal El-Tair (‘Bird Mountain’) or also called Gabal El Kaf (‘Palm Mountain’) east of Samalout. Gabal El-Tair is known by this name because thousands of birds gather there. The Holy Family rested in the cave which is now located inside the ancient church there. In this site it is said that the Holy Family rested in the shade of the Mountain then Jesus stretched His little Hand to hold back a rock which was about to detach itself from the mountain-side and fall upon them. The imprint of His palm is still visible.

When they resumed their travels, the Holy Family passed a laurel tree a stone’s throw south of Gabal El Tair, along the pathway flanking the Nile and leading from the Mountain to Nazlet Ebeid and the new Minia Bridge of today. It is said that this tree bowed for worship the Lord Christ as He was passing. The configuration of the tree is indeed unique: all its branches incline downwards , trailing on the ground, then turn upwards again, covered in a cloak of green leaves. They call the tree Al Abed “the Worshipper”.

Once more crossing the Nile, back to its west bank, the Holy Family traveled southwards to the town of Al-Ashmounein or Hermopolis Magna but it seems that they didn't tarry long there. Leaving behind them the rubble of fallen idols, they continued still in a southerly direction, for another 20 Km or so to Dairout Al-Sharif (which, like Al-Ashmounein, had an alternative Greek name: Philes); and thence to Qussqam (or Qost-Qoussia). Here, too, the recorded events testify that the townsfolk were infuriated when the stone statue of their local deity cracked and fell, and evicted the Holy Family from the town. A historically recorded incident dating to that period refers to the devastation of Qussqam, and Coptic tradition asserts that the ruin that befell the town was the consequence of its violent rejection of the gentle visitors.

We have an entirely different story in the warm welcome with which the holy refugees were met at their next stop at Meir ( or Meira ) only 7 Km west of Qoussia. Here, they found only consideration and hospitality wherever they went, for which treatment the town and its people were signally blessed.

Now it was time for the Holy Family to set out for what is, arguably, the mast meaningful destination of all in the land of Egypt, the place where there would be "an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt". Gabal (Mount) Qussqam, which takes its name from the town nearby that was laid waste, is 327 kms south of Cairo, and stands in the Governorate of Assiut. The Monastery of Al-Muharraq nestles against the western foothills of the Mountain. It was built around the area where the Holy Family remained just over six months. Their time was spent mainly in a cave which became, in the Coptic era, the altar of the Church of Virgin Mary, built at the western end of the Monastery compound. The altar-stone was the resting place of the Child Jesus during the months He dwelt there.

The whole area-the Monastery and its surroundings – is redolent of the Coptic Christian ethos. So hallowed are its intimations, that the Copts of Egypt named it the Second Bethlehem.

It was here, at the very spot where Al-Muharraq Monastery stands, that the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said "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 &21).

And so they set forth on the return journey. The route they took deviated slightly from the one by which they had come. It took them to Mount Dronka, 8 Km south-west of the city of Assiut, and their blessing of this location was commemorated in the Christian era by the building of the mountain-top Monastery of Dronka.

Eventually, they arrived at Old Cairo, then Matariyah, and on to Mahamma, retracing more or less their steps on their outward journey across Sinai to Palestine.

Subsequent Biblical history says it all : at the end, they arrived home, Joseph's old house, in the small town of Nazareth, in Galilee, in the land of Palestine, from where the message of Christ would, in the fullness of time, be heard.

The whole journey, from the initial flight from Bethlehem to the return to Nazareth lasted over three years.

They had covered something like 2000Km their means of transport a weak beast of burden and the occasional sail-boat on the Nile. But for much of the way, the delicate Mother and the rugged old Carpenter must have trudged on foot, enduring the fierce summer heat and the biting winter's cold, suffering the pangs of hunger and the parching affliction of thirst like hunted outlaws. It was a journey of indescribable agony and anguish which the Child Jesus, His Virgin Mother and the Sainted Joseph bore with inner joy, and survived, for the sake of mankind.

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