EPISODE 3: Holy Family Route through Egypt

Introduction

It would be hard to find a more passionate group of travelers than the Christian travel market. Egypt has many Christian sites that can be combined into a stirring multi-day faith-based itinerary. 

Christian travel is most often group travel, consisting of like-minded members of a local church. Group travel equals group bookings, and Christian travelers have the potential to become loyal, repeat customers.

Most authorities agree that Egypt is the cradle of human civilization. Egypt is one civilization woven of many strands. Of these civilizations, the most luminous are the Pharaonic, the Greco-Roman, the Islamic, and the Coptic Christian. “Coptic” means “Egyptian,” and Christians living in Egypt identify themselves as Coptic Christians.

The Holy Family sought refuge in Egypt, and this is considered to be an event of the utmost significance in Egypt’s long history. 

Egypt was, and still is, the land of refuge in the widest sense of the word, a place of tolerance for peoples, races, cultures and religions. On this land of Egypt, Moses and Jesus lived. 

Tap on the Video icon to watch a short clip about how this journey begins.

In the Biblical Book of Isaiah, the prophet provides a divinely inspired prediction of the effect Jesus was to have on Egypt and the Egyptians.

“Behold, the Lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt, and the idols of Egypt will totter at His Presence, and the heart of Egypt will melt in the midst of it”. (Isaiah 19:1). 

Your Christian clients will find it a stirring experience to relive Old Testament prophecy. They’ll learn firsthand about the singular blessing Egypt received on being chosen as the Holy Family’s haven. 

Tap the Agent Insight icon to hear another agents perspective on why her religious clients book Egypt. 

Tour operators offer a variety of Christian-based tours to Egypt, with one of the most popular being tours that retrace the Holy Family’s travels through Egypt. These tours include major sites such as Mt. Sinai, the monasteries at Wadi El Natroun, and a variety of Coptic churches, along with overnights in Cairo. Tours typically use private buses, English-speaking guides, and provide lodging in five-star hotels along the route.

The Journey Begins

For your faith-based Christian clients, Egypt is a dramatic destination filled with emotional sites associated with the Holy family. Tap on the Agent Insight icon to hear why this is an ideal itinerary for your Christian clients, but Egypt is also ideal for broader faith-based travelers as well.

Many Egyptian and international tour operators offer what is commonly called the Holy Family Tour. Depending on its duration, such a tour will take your faith-based clients to the historic sites believed to have been visited by the Holy Family on their way through Egypt. For the true believers, God’s message was delivered through the prophetic words of Isaiah:

“In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt; and a Pillar to the Lord, at its border. And it will be for a sign and for a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt”. (Isaiah 19:19 & 20).

According to the traditions of the Coptic Church, ‘the altar’ mentioned in Isaiah is that of the Church of Virgin Mary, in Al-Muharraq Monastery. This is a site where the Holy Family settled for a period of more than six months; and the altar-stone was the bed upon which the Infant savior lay. Al-Muharraq Monastery is located “in the midst of the land of Egypt”, standing at its exact geographical center.
 
“....behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word, for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him”. (Matthew 2:13).

Joseph complied. A donkey was fetched for the gentle Mother to ride with her newborn Child in Her arms. They set out from Bethlehem on their predestined journey. Your clients will feel an emotional connection, as they set off on their own journey, retracing the steps of the Holy Family.

As Christianity in Egypt spread, churches were built across the country. Most were built upon sites which had been visited and blessed by the Holy Family’s sojourns.

Tap the Video icon now to continue the story.

A Difficult One

The Holy Family was faced with challenge after challenge during their arduous journey across Egypt. Modern day travelers will find it a much different experience, where they can access these important religious sites, while still enjoying modern comforts in a private van or tour bus, with five-star hotels waiting for them at the end of the day.

In those times long ago, there were three well-known routes which could be followed by travelers traversing the Sinai Peninsula from Palestine to Egypt. The crossing was usually undertaken in groups, under the protection of well-organized caravans The Holy Family had an even harder time of it, since they were on their own. They had to avoid the beaten tracks altogether. Instead they had to pursue unknown paths, picking their way across the rugged Sinai landscape through hidden valleys and across uncharted plateaus. Your clients will thrill walking along the Holy Family’s footsteps.

The tortuous trails they followed in their passage across Sinai, and their subsequent travels within Egypt, are chronicled by Pope Theophilus.

Pope Theophilus’s account came at a time when happenings of a momentous or historical nature were transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to the next. His account of the Holy Family’s journey through Egypt is a source which Christian’s take on faith. Pope Theophilus’s vision confirmed the oral tradition of occurrences which accompanied the arrival of the Christ child in the towns and villages of Egypt some 400 years earlier.

Sinai Desert

According to the sources of the Coptic Church, chief among which is the vision documented by Pope Theophilus, and recorded in the Coptic Senexarium the Holy Family proceeded from Bethlehem to Gaza. From there, they traveled to El-Zaraniq (also known as Floussiat), some 23 miles west of El-Arish. They then threaded their way along northern Sinai until they reached Farma (ancient Pelusium) mid-way between El-Arish and present-day Port Said. This was their last stop in Sinai; and with the next leg of their journey they put the perils of the wilderness behind them. 

Itineraries retracing the Holy Family’s journey through Egypt can vary from tour operator to tour operator. Often they use Cairo as the starting point, and as a home base for sites close to the city. Below are some of the customary sites that make up a Holy Family itinerary.

Tap on the Video icon for a brief glimpse into the challenging journey.

Mostorod lies about six miles away from Cairo. Mostorod came to be called ‘Al- Mahamma’), which means ‘the Bathing Place’. The name was given to the town because here the Virgin Mary bathed the Christ Child and washed his clothes. On their return to journey to Palestine, the Holy Family stopped once more at Mostorod, and this time caused a spring to well up from the earth. The spring still flows to the present day. 

Itineraries often make a stop at the Ancient Egyptian city of Pelusium, in the Sinai Peninsula, 20 miles southeast of Port Said. Here your clients can view a restored church dating back to the 1st century.

Traveling on, the journey will proceed to Tel Basta, which is about 62 miles northeast of Cairo. The faithful believe that it is here that Jesus created a fresh water spring, and your clients can visit the well on the site. The townspeople of Tel Basta didn’t react favorably to Jesus creating the well, which caused their idols to crumble. The Holy Family turned their backs on the town and headed southwards.

Wadi el-Natroun, Matariyah & Ain Shams

The progress of the Holy Family’s trail is recorded in the documentation of Pope Theophilus’s vision. It was to Wadi el-Natroun (Natroun Valley) that they now came, after crossing the Rosetta branch of the Nile to the western Delta. They then headed south into Wadi el-Natroun (then called Al Asqeet) in the Western Desert of Egypt. In the earliest decades of Christianity, the desert expanses of Wadi el-Natroun became the site of a settlement. Later it saw the building of many monasteries, in commemoration of the Holy Family's passage through the Valley. 

Tap on the first Video icon for a short clip to help bring the story to life.

Eventually, the Holy Family left the desert behind them and made their way south, crossing the Nile to its eastern bank, and heading for Matariyah and Ain Shams (ancient Heliopolis, the site of the oldest university in history). Matariyah and Ain Shamsare outlying suburbs of present day Cairo, roughly six miles from the city center. 

At the time of the Holy Family’s arrival, Ain Shams was home to a large Jewish community that had erected a temple for their worship, named the Synagogue of Unias.

In Matariyah, a tree stands to this day, still regularly visited, called “Mary’s Tree.” The Holy Family is believed to have rested in its shade. It was here that the Infant Jesus caused water to flow from a spring, and in which the Virgin washed her child’s clothes. She poured the washing water on to the ground and from that spot the fragrant balsam plant blossomed. The healing and pain-soothing properties of the plant is used in the preparation of the scents composing the holy Chrism, one of three holy oils necessary for the sacrament of confirmation.

Tap on the Video icon for a short clip of this area.

The Area of Mid-Cairo

Setting out next towards Old Cairo, the Holy Family rested for a while in Zeitoun. They then proceeded along a course which crosses modern Cairo. These crowded, bustling quarters of the city contain the still-standing landmarks of an earlier Coptic heritage, marking the paths the Holy Family followed. 

These landmarks include:

In Central Cairo 
  • The Church of Virgin Mary in Zuweila Alley
  • The Church of St George the Martyr
  • The Church of St. Mercurios Abu Sefein 
  • 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 Azbekieh
  • Numerous churches attached to the Cairo headquarters of many of Egypt‘s monasteries
  • The Church of the Virgin Mary (known by the name Ezbaweya). 

Old Cairo

The area now called Old Cairo, historically known as Misr El Kadima, is among the most important sites visited by the Holy Family. 

It is here where the governor of what was then Fustat became enraged by the tumbling down of idols at Jesus‘s approach. The governor gave the orders to kill the Christ child and the Holy Family was forced to take shelter in a cave. Above this cave the Church of Abu Serga (St. Sergius) was later built. This, and the whole area of the Fort of Babylon, is an important destination of pilgrimage for Christians from around the world. Tap on the video icon for a quick glimpse.

Visitors to the Fortress of Babylon section of Old Cairo can take in these sites: 

  • The Church of Abu Serga and the Crypt of the Holy Family beneath it. 
  • Al-Muallaqa (Hanging Church), dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Patriarchal See of the Coptic Church in the early centuries
  • The Church of St Barbara
  • The Church of St George (in the Palace of Waxworks)
  • 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 AL-Aas, includes: 

  • The Church of St Mercurios Abu Sefein
  • The Church of Amba 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 Al-Malak Al-Qibli, or 'Southern Angel')
  • The Church of St. Mena in Zahraa - Misr El Kadima

Tap on the Video icon for a brief clip before moving on.

Maady

After their short stay in Old Cairo, the Holy Family moved in a southerly direction, reaching the modern Cairo suburb of Maady. In earliest Pharaonic times, Maady was an outlying district of Memphis, which was then the capital of Egypt. 

At Maady, the Holy Family boarded a sailboat which carried them up the Nile towards southern Egypt. An historic church was built upon the spot from which they embarked. The church was given the name Al-Adaweya, the Virgin’s Church of the Ferry. Maady is now a modern suburb, and its name derives from the Arabic word meaning “The Crossing Point”. Today Maady has a reputation for being green and more serene than urban Cairo.

The stone steps leading down to the river’s bank are believed to have been used by the Holy Family. These steps are accessible to pilgrims through the church courtyard. An event that many consider a miracle occurred here in 1976. On that date a Holy Bible of unknown origin floated down the Nile River 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 within the Virgin’s Church of the Ferry, displayed for all to see.

Upper Egypt

The Holy Family’s sailboat then docked at the village of Deir Al-Garnous (the later site of the Monastery of Arganos) six miles west of Ashnein el Nassara, a small village near the town of Maghagha. 

Outside the western wall of the Church of the Virgin lies a deep well that is believed to have provided the Holy Family with water. 

They continued on to a spot later named Abai Issous, “the Home of Jesus”, the site of present-day Sandafa village, East of Al-Bahnassa. Sandafastands some 10.5 miles west of the town of Beni Mazar

Your Christian clients will then head south, in the footsteps of the Holy Family, traveling from Bahnassa to Samalout. From this point they crossed the Nile again to the east bank of the river, where the Monastery of the Virgin now stands upon Gabal El-Tair, east of Samalout, about1.2 miles south of Meadeyat Beni Khaled. It is known by the name Gabal El-Tair (Bird Mountain) because thousands of birds gather there.

The Holy Family rested in a cave which is now located inside Gabal El-Tair’s ancient church. Coptic tradition maintains that as the Holy Family rested in the shade of the mountain, Jesus stretched his hand to hold back a rock which was about to detach itself from the mountainside and fall upon them. The imprint of the Christ child’s palm is still visible upon the rock. 

When the Holy Family resumed their travels, they 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 claimed that this tree bowed to worship the Lord Christ as he was passing. The configuration of the tree is unique, with all of its branches inclining downwards, trailing on the ground, and then turning upwards again. They call the tree Al Abed, “The Worshipper”. 

Mount Qussoam (Assiut)

It was now time for the Holy Family to set out for what many would describe as their most meaningful destination in the land of Egypt, the place where it was written there would be “an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt.”

Al-Muharraq Monastery nestles against the western foothills of Mount Qussqam. The monastery was built on the same grounds where the Holy Family remained for just over six months. Their time was spent mainly in a cave on the site. 

The Church of the Holy Virgin Mary is the oldest church in the monastery and is believed to date to the 1st century AD. The church’s altar stone is said to have been the resting place of the Child Jesus during the months he lived there. 

It is believed that at the Al-Muharraq Monastery 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). 

Al-Muharraq Monastery is sure to be a stirring experience for your Christian heritage clients. The monastery and its surroundings has such a hallowed ambience the Copts of Egypt named the site the Second Bethlehem. A 13th century historian wrote that multitudes of pilgrims made the journey to the monastery during ancient times, and that the site was well known for the healing of many diseases.

Tap on the Video icon to catch a glimpse of this final stop on the journey.

Mount Dronka : The Return

Your clients now retrace the final steps of the Holy Family’s travels through Egypt. As the Holy Family set forth on their return journey, the route they took deviated slightly from the one by which they had come. It took them to Mount Dronka, five miles southwest of the city of Assiut. Their blessing of this location was commemorated in the Christian era by the building of the mountaintop Monastery of Dronka, which dates from the first century. It is said that from time to time, the Virgin Mary appears in luminous form within the monastery’s chapel.

Tap on the Video icon to watch this final clip.

Eventually, the Holy Family arrived at Old Cairo, then Matariyah, and on to Mahamma, more or less retracing their steps on their outward journey across Sinai to Palestine. Subsequent Biblical history declares that at the end of their journey they arrived home, at Joseph’s former house, in the small town of Nazareth, in Galilee, in the land of Palestine.

The whole journey through Egypt, from the initial flight from Bethlehem to the return to Nazareth lasted over three years, and covered approximately 1,240 miles. 
  • The Holy Family’s means of transport was a donkey and the occasional sailboat on the Nile. 
  • For much of the way, they traveled on foot.

Modern day travelers will have an easier time of it. They’ll travel in comfort over excellent highways, while staying in luxurious hotels and enjoying the modern delights of Cairo and other cities.

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