The visitor who passes through Cairo and studies the folders for the myriad tours offered by the various sightseeing agencies will notice that, in addition to the excursions to the pyramids and Saqqara and the trips to the Muhammad 'Ali Mosque and the Mosques of Sultan Hassan and Ibn Tulun, a visit to the ancient Coptic churches of Old Cairo is offered.
Many visitors are only now being exposed for the first time to Coptic Christianity, which represents one of the most ancient churches of Christendom. Those tourists who decide to take the tour to Old Cairo are singularly rewarded, for here they are confronted with some of the most ancient monuments of Christianity, dating as far back as the fifth century. Here, for example, they discover the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, which was built on the traditional site of the visit of the holy family to Babylon, as Old Cairo was once called. To this day, thousands of pilgrims enter the church to offer prayers to Him who came to bless the land of the pharaohs. The flight of the holy family into Egypt is a significant, living tradition for the people of this land.
According to the Gospel of Saint Matthew, the holy family, fleeing from the wrath of Herod the Great, sought refuge in Egypt, where, according to local tradition, they stayed for a period of three years, until Herod's death in 4 b.c. Many Copts believe .that even prior to the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus Christ, Egyptians accepted the Divine Child as Lord over their lives. In fact, a wealth of stories and legends has been transmitted to us about the wondrous works wrought by the Christ child in the Delta and the Valley of the Nile.
"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed" (Luke 2:1). This general census took place every fourteen years throughout the Roman empire, which at that time included Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. As regards the Roman province of Syria, "this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria" (Luke 2:2). The governor was the well-known Roman senator Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, who during the period between 10 and 7 B.C. commanded the legions in the war against the Homonadenses, a tribe from the Taurus Mountains in Asia Minor. During these three years, Quirinius had his headquarters in Syria.
Quirinius was later appointed legatus of Syria, and a census was taken in A.D. 6 or 7. This census, however, cannot be the one referred to by Saint Luke, as the first census took place at the time of the birth of Christ, while King Herod was still living, that is to say, before 4 B.C.
In connection with this, it should be noted that in the change from the ab urbe condita (Roman era) to anno Domini (Christian era) dating made by Dionysius Exiguus in 526, an error of four years occurred in his calculations. He placed the birth of Christ in the year 754 A.u.c. But Herod the Great, who slew the innocents of Bethlehem, died in April of the year 750 A.U.C.
Now, if we add the three and a half years residence of the holy family in Egypt (according to Coptic tradition) to the date of the death of King Herod (4 B.C.), we arrive at the date of 7 B.C. for the birth of Christ, which was the very period when Quirinius first held office in Syria. Furthermore, if we count back fourteen years from the census made in A.D. 6 or 7, we discover the date of the first census to be 7 B.C., the year of the birth of Christ.
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 have I called my son (Matt. 2:13-15).
Before the holy family, together with Salome, the midwife, departed from Bethlehem, they remained for a while in a grotto situated southeast of the Basilica of the Nativity. This grotto, known to the Arabs as
Magharat al-Sayyida ('the grotto of the lady'), is an ancient sanctuary venerated by Christians and Muslims alike. An Armenian tradition relates that the Holy Virgin Mary stopped here and suckled her child. Some drops of her milk fell on the rock, and it immediately turned white. A church was built on this site by Saint Paula, who lived in Bethlehem and died there in 404. Though first dedicated to the Virgin Mother, the church was later known as that of Saint Paula. In the fourteenth century, it belonged to the Greeks and was dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and eventually it passed into Latin (Roman Catholic) hands. This grotto has supplied the soft white stones known as 'Virgin's Milk' that are found in many Latin churches throughout Europe. The present church built over the grotto was dedicated in 1872. The grotto is a favorite place of pilgrimage for women on account of the milk-white rock, which is prized for its healing power and as an aid for lactation. Women pilgrims take away pieces of this soft rock, which they grind into a powder, mix with water, and drink.
When the Russian abbot Daniel visited the Byzantine monasteries in the Plain of Jericho in 1106, he stayed in a monastery known as Kalamonia, for "here the Holy Virgin passed the night with Jesus Christ, Joseph, and James at the time of their flight into Egypt." It was then that the Holy Virgin named this place Kalamonia, which means 'good abode.' The laura built on this spot in the Middle Ages has been taken over by the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Gerasimus in the Plain of Jericho, one kilometer southwest of the oasis of 'Ain Hagla. Here, on the ground floor, below the narthex of the Church of Saint Gerasimus, the tradition is still honored in the Church of the Holy Family, which commemorates their visit to this site.
According to the Armenian Infancy Gospel, the holy family went to the ancient city and seaport of Ashkelon, where Samson went to kill thirty Philistines (Judges 14:19). At the time of the visit of the holy family, Ashkelon was a strong and beautiful center of Hellenistic culture with a special cult to Dercetus, or Atargates, a goddess with the body of a fish and the face of a woman.
From Ashkelon the holy family proceeded in an easterly direction to Hebron, one of the oldest towns in the world. The city was founded seven years before Zoan (Num. 13:22), the present village of San al-Hagar in Lower Egypt. Hebron's chief interest is its haram, an enclosure built over the traditional site of the cave of Machpelah (Gen. 23). Within the enclosure is a mosque, formerly a twelfth-century Crusaders' church, which in its turn was built on the site of a basilica from Justinian's time. Within the mosque are the cenotaphs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. Since 1967 a synagogue has been built into the Islamic sanctuary. The Armenian Infancy Gospel informs us that the holy family remained here in hiding for a period of six months.
About forty kilometers further west is the site of the ancient Canaanite stronghold of Gaza (Gen. 10:19). If the holy family had followed the caravan route from Judea to Egypt, they would have passed this city, in which Samson was enticed and finally overcome by the beautiful Delilah (Judges 16:21-31). At the time of Christ, this city had acquired a certain amount of splendor and magnificence, as it had become a center of Hellenistic culture.
By taking the route that runs parallel to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the holy family must have crossed, after another two hours, Wadi Gaza. A day's journey from Gaza brought the holy family to the ancient township of Jenysos, which is mentioned by Herodotus. Today this village, which is part of the Gaza Strip, is known as Khan Yunis.
The next town on the holy family's path would have been Raphia (Rafah), at present the border town between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Raphia, which had been the battle ground of the contending forces of Ptolemy IV and Antiochus the Great in 217 B.C., was conquered by Alexander Jannaeus the Maccabee and annexed to Judea. It was restored to Egypt, however, by Gabinus. During the Byzantine period, Raphia, like Gaza, was the seat of a bishop.
Continuing on the caravan route for another forty-four kilometers, the holy family crossed the river of Egypt, Wadi al-'Arish, which has always formed the natural boundary between Egypt and Palestine. What the ancients called the 'river of Egypt' was not the mighty Nile, but a small stream. By crossing this inconspicuous trickle, the holy family must have thought of the many occasions in the history of their people when this 'river of Egypt,' with its 'goings out' at the sea, served as the boundary, from the days of the conquest of Canaan (Num. 34:5) to the calling of Solomon's assembly (I Kings 8:65). A little further on, the holy family reached the city of Rhinocolura, the present al-'Arish. Criminals and those accused of high treason were sent to this city to receive their punishment, which consisted of their noses being cut off.
We possess no evidence, either written or oral, as to the exact route followed by the holy family in their flight from Bethlehem to Egypt. The particulars given about it are purely conjectural, but we may reasonably suppose that once the holy family was out of danger of pursuit, they would have traveled along the usual caravan route between Judea and Egypt, which passed through towns and villages where they could have obtained food and shelter.
Near the southwestern end of the caravan route was the celebrated city of Pelusium (Tell al-Farama), metropolis of the province of Augustamnica, a seaport and gateway to Egypt. To this city, which is identified with the biblical Tahpanhes, Johanan, the son of Kareah (588 B.C.), "took all the remnant of Judah . . . men, and women, and children, and the king's daughters, and every person that Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, had left with Gedaliah. . ., and Jeremiah the prophet" (Jer. 43:5-6). Sixty-three years later, in 525 B.C., Psammetichos III was defeated at Pelusium by Cambyses, the King of Persia, and Egypt became a Persian province. At the time of the holy family's visit, Pelusium was still an important city and seaport.
Both the Greek monk Epiphanius (ninth century) and Bernard the Wise (870) mention the tradition according to which the holy family visited this historical city, which Maqrizi (fifteenth century) reckoned among the wonders of Egypt. In 1994, archaeologists discovered among the medieval ruins of Pelusium the foundations of a "circular church," testimony to an early (fifth century) Christian community at this site.
That many of the pilgrims passed through Farama is attested to by the itineraries of travelers like Jacques de Vitry (1180) and Marino Sanuto (1321). Abu al-Makarim considered Farama "exceedingly wonderful, and one of the most ancient foundations of which there is a record. There were at Farama many churches and monasteries, which were wrecked by the Persians and the Arabs." In fact, this city was occupied by 'Amr ibn al-'As on his way to conquer Egypt. Subsequently, it was fortified again by al-Mutawakkil around 853. In 1117, Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, occupied the city, but when he was unable to hold it, he laid it waste.
In the Nile Delta When Gaius Turranius (7-4 B.C.) was Roman prefect of Egypt, the holy family crossed the narrow isthmus at al-Qantara ('the bridge'), which separates Lake Manzala from Lake Ballah. It was over this isthmus that the ancient caravan route from Judea to Egypt passed, a route that centuries before had been used by Abraham (Gen. 12:10) and Jacob and his sons (Gen. 16). In the steps of the patriarchs, the holy family entered the province of Goshen.
By the land of Goshen (Gen. 45:10) we are to understand approximately the triangle of land which has as its apex the modern town of Zaqaziq, and as its base Bilbais and Tell al-Kabir. However, as the city of Pithom, the site of which is marked by the mounds near al-Mahsama, was also in the land of Goshen, Wadi Tumilat must likewise have formed part of Goshen. Moreover, both the Septuagint and
Flavius Josephus include On, that is to say, Heliopolis, with Pithom and Rameses. If On really lay in Goshen, this would extend the district in which the Hebrews lived almost to the outskirts of the present city of Cairo. It should be remembered that it was Asenath, a daughter of a priest of On, whom Joseph married (Gen. 41:45).
There is good reason to assume that the holy family entered the Nile Delta through the Wadi Tumilat. One of the first towns they would have reached on their way would have been Pithom or Pi-tum, the abode of Turn, the setting sun. We read in Exodus 1:11 that the children of Israel built for Pharoah the treasure cities Pithom and Raamses (Rameses) in the land of Goshen. The construction of these military storehouses, of Nile mud mixed with chopped straw, was evidendy ordered by Ramses II, the pharaoh of the oppression. The ruins of Tell al-Maskhuta, near al-Mahsama, mark the site of the biblical Pithom.
About fifteen kilometers west of the ancient Pithom was the township of Succoth, the first halt of the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt (Exod. 12:37, 13-20). This site is generally identified with the village of al-Qassasin. A day's journey from Succoth would have brought the holy family to the other treasure city built by the children of Israel, Rameses, the present village of Tell al-Kabir.
At Rameses, the holy family entered the fertile Nile Delta. Traveling further west, they passed the ancient city of Pi-Sopt, the present village of Saft al-Hinna, and thence to Bubastis, the Pi-Beseth of the Bible (Ezek. 30:17-18). Most probably, the court where Joseph had his headquarters was at Bubastis. This city, of which only the ruins remain today, must have been very important in the past. The deity of Bubastis was the great goddess Bast, who is represented with a disk encircled by a uraeus on her head and a lotus scepter in one hand.
According to the Coptic Synaxarion, the official calendar with the Lives of the Saints, Basata (Bubastis, Pi-Beseth, Basta, or Tell Basta), which is two kilometers southwest of Zaqaziq, was the first town in the Delta that the holy family and Salome visited. They were not, however, well received, despite the fact that they revealed a spring of water, which became a source of healing for all, except for the inhabitants of Basata.
Details of this story are given in the Vision of Theophilus, where we read that in Basata, the holy family met two brigands, Titus, an Egyptian, and Dumachus, a Syrian:
And the Syrian brigand said to the Egyptian, "I should have liked to plunder the garments that are on this woman and her son, because they resemble the garments of kings." But the Egyptian brigand said to him,
"Let us proceed on our way. I have never seen a child like this since I was born."
When the brigands saw the Holy Virgin and her son entering Basata, they came back to Joseph, and while he was asleep, they absconded with Jesus' gold and silver sandals. When the Holy Virgin realized this, she was much distressed and wept. When Jesus saw his mother weeping, however, he wiped away her tears and stretched his small finger and made the sign of the cross on the earth, and instantly a spring of water jetted forth and flowed on the ground. And they drank this water, which was as sweet as honey and as white as snow. Then Jesus blessed this water and said, "Let this water help make whole and heal the souls and bodies of all those who shall drink of it, with the exception of this town's inhabitants, none of whom shall be healed by it."
According to Dr. Mahmud 'Amr of the University of Zaqaziq, archaeologists discovered in 1997 "the well in the Temple of al-Basta which the Lord Jesus blessed." This Roman well has a depth of four meters. The Coptic Church of Saint George in Zaqaziq is said to be built on the traditional site of the house of Klum and Sarah. According to a local tradition, the holy family turned to the house of Klum in dire need. When the Holy Virgin knocked at the door, Klum apologized, saying that his poor wife could not receive them because of an illness that had kept her in bed for many years. When the Christ child heard this, he said, "Thy wife Sarah is not ill," and immediately Klum's wife arose and welcomed the holy family, and Klum and Sarah served them for the time of their stay. Before the holy family departed, the Divine Child said to Sarah, "Blessed art thou and blessed is thy house."
The holy family went on a day's journey further south and reached the town of Bilbais, past which the modern Ismailia Canal flows. As the holy family entered the town, a funeral procession came out, and Jesus, who had compassion for the mourners, raised the dead man to life. He was the son of a widow and having been brought back to life, he declared, "This is the True God, the Savior of the world, who is born of the Holy Virgin, who accomplished a mystery the human intellect cannot comprehend." And all the inhabitants of Bilbais believed in Jesus.
During the Middle Ages, the pilgrims who passed through Egypt on their way to the holy places stopped at Bilbais to kneel at the foot of the great tree, which, according to both Christians and Muslims, commemorated the stay of the holy family at Bilbais. The Muslims called it the Tree of the Virgin, and they had such respect for it that they reserved the space around the tree as a necropolis for their venerated saints.
Today, there is only one Coptic church in Bilbais, the Church of Saint George, which is situated in the northeastern part of the town. The site that commemorates the visit of the holy family to Bilbais is the 'Uthman ibn al-Haris al-Ansari Mosque, in the center of the town, at the corner of Shari' al-Ansari and Shari' al-Baghdadi.
According to the Ethiopic and Coptic synaxaries, the holy family left the Sharqiya province and went on their way in a northerly direction until they reached the town of Samannud (Gamnudi), the ancient Sebennytos or Zeb-nuter, which is situated on the Damietta branch of the Nile. Here they crossed the river toward the west. 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 Holy Virgin, which, in its turn, was built on the site where the holy family stayed. The Christians of Samannud point to a place in the nave of the church where there was once a well, the water of which was blessed by Jesus.
Having crossed the Damietta branch of the Nile, the holy family traveled westward to al-Gharbiya, the province situated between the Rosetta and Damietta branches of the Nile. On the way, Jesus put his foot on a stone, imprinting it with the sole of his foot, and the place became known as Bikha Isous, that is to say, the footprint of Jesus. I have been unable to locate this place, which is mentioned by the Ethiopic and Coptic synaxaries. It has been suggested that Basus may be a contraction of the name Bikha Isous, but it is most unlikely that Bikha Isous should be identified with the village of Basus, which lies between Cairo and Qalyub.
Continuing their journey, they saw from afar the Desert of Scetis, or Wadi al-Natrun, and Jesus blessed it, saying to his mother, "Know, O my Mother, that in this desert there shall live many monks, ascetes, and spiritual fighters, and they shall serve God like angels."
Today, there are only four monasteries left in Wadi al-Natrun, namely, the Monastery of the Romans (Dair al-Baramus), the Monastery of the Syrians (Dair al-Surian), the Monastery of Saint Bishoi (Dair Anba Bishai), and the monastery of Saint Macarius (Dair Abu Maqar).
Continuing their journey south, the holy family eventually reached the city of On, or Heliopolis (Jer. 43:13). At the time of Strabo, about sixteen years before the visit of the holy family to Heliopolis, the city was entirely deserted, not having recovered from the destruction incurred at the time of the Persian invasion in 525 b.c. Various temples and buildings of historical interest were still standing, however, and were pointed out to Strabo by a dragoman. The holy family naturally would have avoided lodging in this deserted pagan city, and consequently they sought some dwelling place nearby in which there would most likely have been Jewish families living, on account of its proximity to the Jewish center at Leontopolis. Thus they halted at the site of the present village of Matariya, now a suburb of Cairo. The visit to Matariya is not only well attested by the Apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Coptic and Ethiopic synaxaries, but it is also mentioned by medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land. According to the Ethiopic Synaxarion, when the holy family approached Matariya:
There was a staff in the hand of Joseph wherewith he used to smite Jesus, but Joseph gave him the staff. Then said Jesus unto his mother: "We will tarry here" and that place and its desert and the well became known as Matariya. And Jesus took Joseph's staff, and broke it into little pieces, and planted these pieces in that place, and he dug with his own divine hands a well, and there flowed from it sweet water, which had an exceeding sweet odor. And Jesus took some of the water in his hands, and watered therewith the pieces of wood which he had planted, and straightaway they took root, and put forth leaves, and an exceedingly sweet perfume was emitted by them, which was sweeter than any other perfume. And these pieces of wood grew and increased, and they called them 'balsam.' And Jesus said unto his Mother, "O my Mother, these balsam, which I have planted, shall abide here forever, and from them shall be taken the oil for Christian baptism when they baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."
The Apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew replaces the balsam with a palm tree, a tradition that is also preserved in the Quran. According to the Quranic version, the Holy Virgin saw a palm tree and wished to rest under it, and she said to Joseph that she would like to have some of its fruit. Then Jesus, sitting in his mother's lap, with a joyful countenance, bade the palm tree give his mother of its fruit. The tree bent as low as her feet, and she gathered as much as she wanted. He told it to rise again and give them the water concealed below its roots. A spring came forth, and all rejoiced and drank from it.
The village of Matariya enjoyed great popularity among pilgrims to the Holy Land. This site must have seemed like a paradise to these pilgrims who had crossed the desert from Mount Sinai, for the well, with its beautiful surroundings, was a resort for such wealthy Mamluks as the emir Yashbak, who built a domed house here in which, from time to time, he entertained his master and friend Qayt Bey (1467-96). In 1480, the Dominican friar Felix Fabri made note of an immense fig tree close to the gate. In its hollow trunk two lamps hung, as in a small chapel, for the tree had once opened to provide refuge for the Holy Virgin. There is a tradition that the holy family was pursued by two brigands, and that the tree miraculously opened to conceal them.
The sycamore tree that now stands at Matariya was planted in 1672. Due to old age, this venerable tree fell on June 14, 1906, but fortunately a living shoot from it remains to this day.
From Matariya the holy family went to the place where the Church of the Holy Virgin now stands in Harat Zuwayla in Cairo. It is situated in the northeast district of Cairo, at the end of a lane leading off Shari' Bain al-Surayn, and was probably first erected in the tenth century. From the fourteenth century to the year 1660 it served as the patriarchal church in Cairo.
Annexed to the Church of the Holy Virgin of Harat Zuwayla is a convent. The nuns of this convent relate the tradition that when the holy family rested at this site, Jesus blessed the water of the well, and the Holy 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 southward, the holy family passed the Fortress of Babylon (now known as Old Cairo), which commanded the route to Upper Egypt and where they also halted on their return to Palestine. They would have certainly seen the pyramids of Giza, which may have seemed to them, as they did to pilgrims several centuries later, to be Joseph's granaries.
According to al-Hafiz Abu Bakr ibn Thabit al-Khatib, who received the tradition from Nabit ibn Sharit, there used to be at Giza the palm tree under which the Holy Virgin suckled Jesus, and this palm tree was said to have been the only one in the region that bore any fruit. On their way south, the holy family would have seen the site on the bank of the Nile where Moses was hidden in an ark of bulrushes and discovered by Pharaoh's daughter (Exod. 2:3-5).
Some twelve kilometers south of Cairo, in Ma'adi on the very bank of the Nile, is the Church of the Holy Virgin with its three cupolas. Here, according to an oral tradition, there was a synagogue that the holy family attended. Joseph became acquainted with the sailors of the Nile boats, and the holy family was offered to be taken south to Upper Egypt.
Al-Maqrizi, the fifteenth-century Muslim historian, mentions a palm tree in Ihnasya al-Madina, the ancient city of Heracleopolis, in the province of Beni Suef, which was seen there until the end of the Umayyad dynasty (A.D. 750). This palm tree is supposed to have been the one mentioned in the Quran:
And the pangs of childbirth drove her [the Holy Virgin] unto the trunk of the palm tree. She said, "O, would that I had died ere this, and had become a thing of naught, forgotten." Then [one] cried unto her from below her, saying, "Grieve not, thy Lord has placed a rivulet beneath thee. And shake the trunk of the palm tree toward thee, thou wilt cause ripe dates to fall upon thee" (XIX:23-25).
According to al-Maqrizi, the Copts are in agreement that the holy family visited al-Bahnasa, some fifty kilometers south of Ihnasya, and a commentator of the Quran asserts 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" (XXIIL50) refers to al-Bahnasa.
Another commentator adds that at the time of their arrival at al-Bahnasa, the holy family went to the place of the famous well, and Joseph returned, leaving the Holy Virgin near the well. Then Jesus asked for water, and he began to weep because of his thirst. There was no water at that time, but the level of the water rose, so that Jesus could drink, and since that day Christians have celebrated this event.
Muhammad al-Baqir (676-731), the Fifth Imam of the Shi'ites, says that when Jesus was nine months old, his mother took him to school in al-Bahnasa:
The teacher said to Jesus, "Say the alphabet." Jesus lifted up His head and said, "Dost thou know what these words mean?" The teacher wished to strike Him, but Jesus said, "Do not strike me, but if thou dost not know, ask me and I shall explain to thee." "Speak," said the teacher. "Come down from thy desk," answered Jesus. The teacher came down and Jesus took his place and began to say, "The Alif stands for the good deeds of God, the Da for the glory of God, the Gim for the splendor of God, the Dal for the religion of God, the Ha for the abyss of Hell, the Wa indicates the misery of those living in Hell, the Ha means the remission of sins of those who ask for forgiveness, the Ka is the word of God which will never change, the Sad is the measure for a measure, and the Ta stands for the serpents of hell." "Well," said the teacher to the Holy Virgin, "take thy Son and watch over Him, for God hath given to Him wisdom and He doth not need a teacher."
This tradition should be compared with the almost identical story in the Gospel of Thomas the Israelite (c. 140-60).
Wahb ibn Munabbih (d.728) relates that the holy family stayed at a hospice for the poor at al-Bahnasa, which was supported by a diqhan, a nobleman of the king. One day, an important part of the diqhan's treasure was stolen, and the Holy Virgin was pained by the misfortune.
When Jesus realized His Mother's distress, He said to her, "Mother, dost thou wish me to show where the diqhan1s money is?" The Holy Virgin informed the diqhan of what Jesus had said. When they were all gathered together, Jesus approached two men, one of whom was blind and the other lame, the latter being carried by the blind man. Then Jesus said to the blind man, "Arise!" "This I cannot do," said the blind man. "How then was it possible for you to steal?" When they heard this, they struck the blind man until he showed Jesus where the treasure was. This then was their trick. The blind man used his strength and the lame man his eyes. The stolen treasure was restored to the diqhan.
Near the ancient Cynopolis, the present village of al-Qays, the holy family boarded a boat to travel south. After 35 kilometers they passed Gabal al-Tayr, which is almost opposite Samalut and Bayahu. Abu al-Makarim recalls that when the holy family passed this mountain, a large rock threatened to fall on the boat, and the Holy Virgin was very frightened. But Jesus extended his hand and prevented the rock from falling, and the imprint of his hand left a fine perforation, large enough to admit a collyrium needle. When the needle is inserted and pulled out, it brings upon it a black collyrium that makes an indelible mark.
According to the Vision ofTheophilus, the holy family found images of horses at all four corners of the gate leading into Hermopolis Magna (present-day al-Ashmunain). But these fell down and broke when the holy family entered the city.
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which also attests the holy family's visit to Hermopolis Magna, mentions that when Aphrodosius, the governor of the city, saw that the idols were destroyed, he adored the child and said to those present, "Unless this were the God of our gods, they would not have fallen. If we do not adore Him, as they have done, we are in danger of such destruction as fell upon Pharaoh, who was drowned with his army." On the following day, great multitudes of sick people assembled around Jesus, and Jesus laid his hand on each of them and healed them of their infirmities.
Today, there is no trace left of the holy family's visit to al-Ashmunain, nor is there even a Coptic Orthodox church.
Two days further traveling south brought the holy family to the town of Kenis (Nikyas, Funkus), the present Dairut al-Sharif. The inhabitants of this town were very charitable, and the holy family remained there for several days. Jesus wrought innumerable miracles in that place, and all those who had diseases or afflictions came to him with faith to be healed. After this, Dianos, a carpenter who had known Joseph in Jerusalem, invited the holy family to stay with him. He had a son who was possessed by a devil. Then Jesus said, "O accursed devil, shut up thy mouth and come out of him." And the child was healed in that very hour, and many people believed in him. After Jesus had performed these miracles, the idols in the town were broken up and smashed to pieces.
Then the holy family entered the city of Cusae, now the town of al-Qusiya. At the time of the holy family's visit, there was a temple of idols surmounted by one idol covered in seven veils.
When Jesus reached the gate of Cusae, the seven veils were rent asunder, and the idol fell to the ground and was dashed to pieces. Then the devils who were in the idol threatened the priests and cried, "If you do not pursue that woman and the Child who is with her, they will put an end to your service, and we will leave the town." When the priests of the idols, who were a hundred in number, heard this speech of the idols, they pursued the holy family with rods and axes in order to strike them. Thereupon the holy family left the town, and after they had traveled a little distance, Jesus turned and cursed the town, saying, "Let its people be in an estate lower than that of all other people, and let them be more lowly and suppressed than all the inhabitants of the Land of Egypt."
After Jesus had cursed the town of Cusae and its inhabitants, the holy family went on a short distance south of the town.
That evening the holy family went up to a mountain, and the two brigands whom the holy family had met at Basata (Tell Basta) came toward them. They had followed them from one place to another, and when they saw the holy family in this deserted mountain, they approached them with drawn daggers, unsheathed swords, and their faces masked and said, "You have exhausted us, because we have pursued you for many days and have not found you. Today, we will strip you of your garments and rob you." And they snatched Jesus from the arm of his mother and stripped him of his garments. Then they took the garments of the Holy Virgin, and they even took her veil. Then they also stripped Joseph, who was standing by speechless as a lamb. As for Salome, when she perceived what was taking place, she threw her garments to them before they came to her.
While the Holy Virgin was lamenting and weeping, her tears streamed down her cheeks. Then one of the brigands looked toward her and saw her weeping, and he spoke to his companion who was a Syrian Jew and said to him, "O my companion, I beseech thee today not to take the garments of these strangers, because I perceive on their faces a light greater than that on all the faces of mankind. This child resembles a prince, the likes of whom I have never seen." The Jewish brigand said to the Egyptian brigand, "I will not listen to you this time. I will take their garments, because they are royal garments that will bring us much wealth for our living." Then the Egyptian brigand asked for his portion of the garments, for he was much distressed at the nakedness of the holy family, and he returned his portion of the garments to them. When Jesus had put on his garments, he looked at the brigand and stretched out his finger and made the sign of the cross over him, and said to his mother, "O Mary, the Jews will crucify me in Jerusalem. And these two brigands whom you see, one of them will be crucified on my right hand, and the other on my left hand. The Egyptian will be crucified on my right hand, and the Jew on my left, and the brigand who has returned our garments will confess to me and believe in me on the cross, and he will be the first to enter Paradise, even before Adam and all his descendants."
Not far away, about eight kilometers south of Meir, the holy family discovered a well, though it was dried up. But when the Holy Virgin took Jesus to the well and he stretched out his finger and blessed it, it became full. While searching around, Salome came upon a wash basin and a water jug, as if they had been placed there specifically for them. It was always Salome who bathed Jesus and his mother who gave him milk. And often while her nipple was in the mouth of Jesus, she saw the angels and celestial beings prostrating themselves and worshiping Jesus.
The holy family sojourned for six months in this house. Then Jesus said to his mother, "This house in which we are shall contain holy monks on whom no rule in this world shall be able to inflict any injury, because it has been a refuge to us. Any barren woman who beseecheth me with a pure heart and calleth to mind this house, unto her will I give sons. There shall, moreover, be in this place a blessed congregation who shall remember and bless my Name, and pray unto me at all times, and so gain strength against all their adversaries. Those women in travail who shall be mindful of me and of the labor which thou didst endure with me, their prayers will I hear, and they shall be relieved."
This holy place, blessed on account of the holy family's presence in it, was dedicated to the Holy Virgin and became known as Dair al-Muharraq, or the Monastery of the Holy Virgin. Pilgrimages to this church have been made by multitudes of people from all districts of Egypt from ancient times to the present day, due to the signs and wonders manifested here.
According to tradition, the Church of the Holy Virgin at the Monastery of the Holy Virgin in al-Qusiya was the first church built in Egypt, and the monks believe that this church was built immediately after Saint Mark the Evangelist's arrival in Egypt, sometime around A.D. 60. The present church may be assigned to the twelfth or thirteenth century. It lies about 1.2 meters below the present ground level of the inner court of the monastery, and it is used for the daily celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
An oral tradition in Asyut, the ancient Lycopolis, asserts that the southernmost place visited by the holy family in Egypt was ten kilometers southwest of Asyut. Today, about eighty thousand pilgrims assemble annually at the foot of Istabl 'Antar ('Antar's stable,' a mountain range west of Asyut) to commemorate and celebrate the stay of the holy family in the large rock tombs dating from the Ninth to the Twelfth dynasties.
The Church of the Holy Virgin at Dair al-'Adhra' at Durunka was built by Bishop Michael in 1955. The church is situated east of the cave in which the holy family supposedly rested.
And it came to pass that during their sojourn at the place where the Monastery of the Holy Virgin now stands, the Angel of the Lord appeared unto 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 (Matt. 2:20).
Obeying the voice of the angel, the holy family thereupon returned to Palestine.
There is good reason to believe that the holy family returned to Palestine by the same way they had come. According to the Coptic Synaxarion, on their return the holy family lodged in a cave situated beneath what is today the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Sarga) in Old Cairo, the ancient Babylon of Egypt.
For the medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land, a visit to the Cave of the Holy Family was included in their itineraries. In 1421, John Poloner went out of his way to visit the underground chapel, where he saw a cross over the place where the Christ child had slept. At the time of Poloner's visit, the church was called the Church of Our Lady of Cana in Babylon. That western Christians also accepted this tradition is confirmed by the fact that until the eighteenth century, the Franciscan friars used to celebrate mass on the altar in the crypt.
In the Church of the Holy Virgin at Musturud, about three kilometers west of Matariya, on the western bank of the Ismailia Canal, there is to this day a well blessed by the holy family. The well is situated in the northeast corner of the church, east of a cave where the holy family found shelter. Stairs from the east and the west lead down to the cave, to which thousands of people come for the annual fair (:mulid) held August 7-22.
From al-Mahamma, the holy family's next halting place was Leontopolis, known today as the ruins of Tell al-Yahudiya and referred to in old Roman maps as Vicus Judaeorum. An oral tradition of the Christians of Shibin al-Qanatir (two kilometers northwest of the ancient Leontopolis) states that the holy family visited their countrymen, who had settled around the Temple of Onias. The high priest Onias IV went to Egypt in 154 B.C. to seek aid against the tyranny of the Seleucids at the court of the Ptolemies, who were their political enemies. With the permission of Ptolemy IV (Philometer), he built at Leontopolis a temple modeled on the one in Jerusalem, though it was relatively small.
When the holy family entered Palestine, Joseph heard "that Archelaus did reign in Judea 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 a Nazarene" (Matt. 2:22-23).
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